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Planners: Metro growth will stall without more housing, transit

The Regional Plan Association recommends more apartments near LIRR stations, electronic tolls on highways, and possibly even charging drivers per mile driven.

LIRR commmuters flood the platform at the Ronkonkoma

LIRR commmuters flood the platform at the Ronkonkoma station on Monday, July 10, 2017. Photo Credit: James Carbone

Long Island’s high cost of living, traffic congestion and difficulty attracting more high-paying jobs will only get worse unless the region radically remakes itself by investing in mass transit and building more apartments near train stations, a powerful planning group says.

The Regional Plan Association’s new 379-page blueprint for the metropolitan region, to be released Thursday, recommends massive changes that would reshape swaths of Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut as well as New York City.

It is the group’s fourth Regional Plan. Its previous three plans, released in the 1920s, ’60s and ’90s, helped spark the creation of the Second Avenue subway and the still-under-construction East Side Access project connecting the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal. The group’s influential board is chaired by Scott Rechler, chief executive of Uniondale-based RXR Realty.

The RPA’s new recommendations that could have an impact on Long Island include expanding and modernizing the LIRR; engaging in more regional — instead of local — planning; protecting coastal homes and businesses from flooding; and loosening restrictions on the construction of new and affordable housing.

Without those changes, the already cost-burdened metropolitan region could become even less affordable, and its economic growth could be stifled, Tom Wright, the RPA’s president, said at a briefing for reporters.

At the current pace of residential development, he said, “we’re not keeping up with the demand. We have to continue to expand capacity.”

Residents of Long Island, the nation’s first suburb, have a long history of favoring local control, with many expressing a preference for single-family housing over downtown apartments and condominiums.

However, the “positive effects” of new development in Patchogue, Bay Shore and Wyandanch has led to more acceptance of multifamily housing near train stations, said Steve Bellone, the Suffolk County executive.

“The world is changing very rapidly,” Bellone said. Long Island’s tendency to plan at the local level, he said, “makes it more difficult to tackle big regional challenges . . . We cherish our local communities but there are certain things that we can only do together as a region.”

Indeed, change is occurring so quickly that developer RXR is already planning to eventually convert its parking garages into other uses — housing, storage, retail or amenities — once self-driving cars become so common that fewer parking spots are needed, Rechler said.

“You can’t think about what worked in the 20th century,” he said. “You have to think about the 21st century.”

In addition to more housing near train stations, the RPA suggests allowing more apartments within private homes.

The group calls on states to contribute more funding for schools, relieving the property tax burden on homeowners. And it suggests more regional planning for protecting coastlines and a property insurance surcharge to fund coastal protections. It also recommends creating regional school districts.

In a proposal that could provoke heated debate, the group suggests adding electronic tolls to highways such as the Long Island Expressway and eventually charging drivers for each mile they drive.

Glen Cove resident Jack Vilella, 39, an attorney who has spoken out against RXR’s massive Garvies Point development now under construction in Glen Cove, said he favors some of the RPA’s recommendations, such as improved mass transit and more housing near train stations.

But, he said, when it comes to development decisions on Long Island, “there just needs to be more transparency . . . It needs to be a more open process.”

RPA recommendations that could affect Long Island:

- More apartments and condominiums near train stations

- Regional, rather than local, planning

- More protections against floods and storms, funded in part by a property insurance surcharge

- Increased state funding for schools

- Electronic tolls on highways, and charging drivers per mile driven

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