Transportation funds imperative to keeping real estate projects on the road, experts say

By Amy Tennery | October 23, 2009 02:58PM

Mass transit dollars need to keep rolling in to keep real estate development in New York City, and the country, moving, according to industry experts.

The correlation between the health of mass transit and the long-term condition of surrounding real estate on a local level as well as nationwide was the focus at this morning’s Baruch College panel, “Transformative Infrastructure: Key Decisions on Transportation.”

“Transit is a bellwether for urban decay,” said Christopher Boylan, deputy executive director of community affairs at the Metropolitan Transit Authority, pointing to the parallel improvements in transportation and quality of life in New York City since the 1970s. Much like crime and poverty have improved in the city over the decades, Boylan said that the transit system has shown marked progress. “The fact that you can get on the Lexington line and understand the announcement was a wonder eight or nine years ago,” Boylan said. “It’s not anymore.”

But, unlike garbled subway announcements, some hallmarks of New York City transit have an all too uncanny ability to hold on over the decades, according to Vishaan Chakrabarti, president of the Moynihan Station Venture, a joint venture of Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust.

Although progress has been made toward a redeveloped Penn Station, he said, the pace hasn’t exactly been lighting-fast.

The Moynihan Station project, which Speaker Christine Quinn has previously urged developers to scale down in size, would transform what is considered by many, an aesthetically-unpleasing Penn Station to include a new Madison Square Garden. Early estimates have shown that the project, which would involve moving Amtrak facilities to an annex at 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue while rebuilding other structures where the facilities are now, could cost between $1.1 billion and $1.5 billion.

Chakrabarti, who said that the Far West Side of Manhattan has “become [his] life’s work,” said that he envisions a new Penn Station that would serve a high-density population.

He said that if the East Side is the Himalayas to developers, “the Far West Side should be our Everest,” a goal that he said was only achievable with an improved transit infrastructure.

Funds are so tight that transit planners need to think strategically about the kind of improvements they make, according to Christopher Ward, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Ward said that transit planners need to adapt to low funding by installing low-cost crowd pleasers, like train arrival indicators, into transit facilities.

“We have to begin to focus on what people see as advancements, as value for the dollar,” Ward said. “We have to be very strategic because we lack the money to do everything.”

On a national level, Chakrabarti said that stimulus money isn’t “flowing” to infrastructure projects the way it is in other countries, and it needs to be.

Andrew Herrmann, chair of the Infrastructure Report Card Committee of the American Society of Civil Engineers, also said that the lack of funding for transit infrastructure is a national problem. By his count, poor infrastructure only gets attention when major accidents like bridge collapses occur, while U.S. school buildings haven’t seen a major structural review in a decade.