The Thanksgiving Holiday doesn’t exactly lend itself to transportation news; it’s a sedentary period, with people far more interested in eating and shopping than getting around. We haven’t updated this blog for the past week because there’s been almost nothing happening in our particular realm. But the next three weeks leading to Christmas and New Year’s will be an interesting period. Will the Obama Administration-elect be more specific in its policy proposals? Will Congress consider John Kerry’s High-Speed Rail Bill? Will transit systems nationwide be able to handle the oncoming fiscal crisis?
We’ll be considering all of these issues over the next few weeks here on the transport politic, but in the meantime, today’s news updates, from New York City.
The New York Times has an interesting article on Richard Ravitch’s role in finding new funding sources for the region’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Ravitch is set to release a study on Friday arguing for the implementation of a new commuter tax, an increase in subway and bus fares, and tolls on the East and Harlem River bridges. All of this extra revenue will go towards funding the Authority’s budget and its proposed capital spending, which reaches to $30 billion over the next five years alone.
The question is whether New York State’s leaders will bite. Though Ravitch led a successful push for an increase in transit funding in the 1980s, the budget atmosphere today on the state level may be even more austere than it was then. In a period in which the budget for human and social services as well as that for education is being slashed dramatically, can we expect Governor David Paterson to recommend an increase in spending for the MTA?
Obviously we’d like to see him do just that. But considering last year’s monumental fight over a congestion fee – which Mayor Michael Bloomberg ultimately failed to implement because of the State Assembly’s unwillingness to force car drivers to pay – Ravitch’s commission has a lot of work yet to do.
The Associated Press brings the strange information that the MTA actually writes excuse notes for people who are victims of transit delays. Evidently, if a customer asks for a note, the Authority will compile exact information about the problem on the route and then send a letter out within two weeks.
In Connecticut, there is increasing talk of cutting Metro-North service on the New Haven Line, which serves New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford, and cities in between, with direct trains to Grand Central Terminal. New York State’s eastern neighbor wants to cut four daily off-peak trains in order to close a budget gap. But with Metro-North ridership rising, this seems like a bad move at a bad time. Seems like Connecticut may need its own Ravitch commission.
Finally, the New York Times‘ Charles Delafuente writes today about the excavation of a new subway entrance on Times Square. It’s a good short Sunday read about the perils of digging below the new Eleven Times Square skyscraper.
Direct connections to airports have almost always played a major role in the development of transit systems. For the business and political leaders who typically take the most important roles in deciding how money for new mass transit investments will be used, a one-seat ride between downtown and the airport often takes highest priority.
There is little doubt that the primacy given to rail connections to airports is unjust from the socio-economic perspective. After all, because of the cost of flying, most people needing to get to and from airports are wealthy. Choosing to invest in a mass transit extension to an airport basically means further subsidizing the already rich, since transit systems almost universally charge their riders less than the service costs.
But airport transit extensions remain a priority for municipal leaders exactly because airports tend to attract any city’s most wealthy and powerful. Demonstrating the city’s technological prowess with a speedy and efficient mass transit system to the airport becomes an important tool for economic development. So cities often spend money on improving connections to airports before investing in the needs of more transit-dependent constituencies.
And in fact, all over the country, big mass transit extensions are being considered to get people easily from city downtowns to their respective airports. In the Washington, DC region, the Dulles Metrorail project will create a new Silver Line that ferries passengers from downtown D.C., through Arlington, Virginia, and on to Dulles Airport. This heavy rail extension will also provide service to the popular Tyson’s Corner section of Fairfax, Virginia, so the purpose of the extension is more than to simply serve the airport. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently announced a plan to remake his city’s airport and extend the Green Light Rail Line to the terminals. In Miami, a new Intermodal Center will serve as a connection point between the city’s metro, its commuter rail system, and the people mover from the airport. Recently, Honolulu has been considering altering the path of its proposed rail system to provide better service to the airport than is currently planned.
As the image accompanying this article (PDF here) demonstrates, however, transit planners in the cities mentioned above need to ensure that they’re thinking before they spend billions of dollars plotting to ease the commute between center cities and airports. In case after case, huge amounts of money have been spent, only to provide riders with inconvienient access between transit and terminals. This results too many times in walk times that are simply too long and confusing paths between transit stations and terminals. This limits the attractiveness of the service and increases the number of people who choose to drive to the airport, exactly what airport transit connections are meant to limit.
So what should system designers focus on?
One-seat service from several parts of the city, preferably on well-marked trains.
Limited walking distance between airport stations and check-in counters.
In the future, downtown check-in.
In several existing U.S. services, high-quality one-seat service is provided to airports. Both Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, which began building their metro systems after the airplane age, incorporated airport access in the first phases of their construction programs. In the case of Washington, a connection to National Airport (renamed in 1998 to something grotesque) was relatively simple to envision because the airport lies directly between two must-serve areas of the region – the Pentagon and Alexandria, Virginia – and is just across the Potomac River from the Mall. This is not true for either Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia or Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington Airport in Maryland because they’re both far from the center city and when the system was first conceived, few commuters lived in the areas nearby. Today, Blue and Yellow trains provide all-day and frequent service to the airport from downtown, Rosslyn, Alexandria, the Pentagon, and other sections of the city.
In Atlanta, the Marta station at the airport is at the end of the city’s main North-South Line, which has stations in the city’s burgeoning downtown and midtown areas, as well as in Buckhead. In both cities, the fact that airport service is provided by typical metro lines means two advantages: very frequent service at all times of the day and the potential for boarding towards the airport at many stations throughout the city.
This is not true, for instance, at Newark, New Jersey’s International Airport, which is served by an infrequent commuter rail system. People wanting to take the train to the airport often must wait 30 minutes or one hour for the next train to the airport.
The systems in Atlanta and Washington have another advantage: because metro trains arrive directly at the airport, just in front of the terminals, there is no need for a people-mover system between the metro station and the check-in areas. This means that riders getting off the metro do not need to get onto another train with their bags to check-in – they can simply walk a few hundred feet there.
This is not true, for example, at Chicago’s Midway airport, where the Orange Line El terminates far from the terminal. One questions how this happened – after all, this line extension was finished in 1993 and could have been designed to drop passengers directly in front of check-in counters. Instead, riders must walk through a large parking garage and go up and down several levels to get been the rapid transit station and the airport. Because the parking deck is actually closer to the terminal than the transit station, passengers have a strong incentive to drive to the airport; in both Atlanta and Washington, the station is closer to the terminals than parking decks. Chicago’s was a very poorly conceived design and a huge missed opportunity.
In many airports, people-movers are used to connect rapid transit stations to the terminals and check-in areas. This is true at New York City’s JFK Airport and at San Francisco’s Airport. Though in the case of the latter, BART metro service does go directly to the airport, the station is too far from many of the terminals to allow an easy walk – so commuters must get off one train and on to another, with bags. This situation is even worse in New York, where mass transit stops very far from the airport, and the people-mover rider between stations and the terminals is more than 15 minutes long. Even worse, though the people mover was built specifically to ease commutes, people at some of JFK’s terminals have very long walks between the people mover and check-in counters.
Atlanta and Washington provide good examples for how the interface between transit and airports can be well managed. In the case of Washington, the airport is small enough that one mass transit station close to the terminal is good enough for the vast majority of users. Atlanta’s airport is much bigger, but because it only has one large main check-in area, transit riders arrive very close to the baggage counters and then, after passing through security, take a people-mover to the appropriate terminal. This dramatically improves the experience for users with large bags.
In some cities, a solution to this distance problem is being formulated. In Chicago, for instance, there are plans for a downtown check-in center that would provide direct rides to both of the city’s airports, after people have gotten rid of their bags. This would mean a long walk at the airport itself isn’t nearly as frustrating. But the problem with downtown check-in centers is that they require secure, dedicated trains carrying checked baggage and mini-airports in the city-center. This is an expensive proposition.
We should hope, then, that future transit plans for airport connections consider the positive and convenient cases of Atlanta and Washington and attempt to implement similar ease of use in their systems. To do so would mean that all the money spent on these extension projects would be slightly more worthwhile.
The not-yet-in-power Obama Administration is showing that it has a strong interest in averting the increasing problems for the nation’s transportation funding. Today on the Change.gov blog (the official website of the Administration-in-waiting), there was a further emphasis on the President-elect’s committment to taking advantage of the economic crisis to sponsor vast increases in infrastructure funding. The blog specifically quotes three individuals who have ideas for how to use the economic stimulus money, and all three point to infrastructure spending as being a necessary and major component. Most importantly, the blog post includes the comments of a man from Staten Island who mentions the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s plan to increase fares by 23% even as it decreases services on New York City’s buses and trains.
Though this is simply a blog post, the fact that the administration was willing to include this specific mention of one city’s economic problems points to the fact that there is an interest in propping up transit agencies that are facing extreme financial problems because of dramatically decreasing tax revenues. This is a good pointer from the next administration and indicates it will be prioritizing transit.
This comes on the same day that the Washington Post reports that the Obama stimulus plan may reach up to $700 billion – far higher than we expected, and again, good news for those of us who think it’s time to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure.
Biggest news of the weekend is Barack Obama’s new economic stimulus plan, which proposes creating 2.5 million jobs in infrastructure and alternative energy solutions. Though the specifics have not yet been worked out, the plan would, in the current plan, be passed almost as soon as he entered office – he would hand it over to Congress before he moved into the White House. Look for the bill to be in the $300 billion range, and look for it to provide specific funds for mass transit – and perhaps high-speed rail.
Meanwhile, the plans for high-speed rail links in the United Kingdom continue to advance. A new line would run from London, through Glasgow, to Edinburgh, decreasing total travel time from 4h30 today to 2h15. The total cost of the project would run up to 31 billion pounds, a not-insignificant sum, especially considering that Conservative leaders are plotting another plan for a high-speed rail line from London to Manchester and Birmingham.
In California’s Santa Clara County, the BART extension plan has passed, now with 66.78% approval rating, “well” above the 66.67% needed to pass. This extension, though it would be paid for by a 1/2 cent sales tax in the county, would require additional federal funding for it actually to be built.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, there is an increasing push to convert the very-popular Orange Line busway to light rail operations. This would save about 15 minutes of travel time, but one wonders whether the city would continue to invest when there are so many other corridors in the County that also need significant improvements in transit service.
It’s official: to stave off the giant declines in tax revenues for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency will be doing the following:
Raising fares and tolls systemwide by 23% (probably means increasing base fare from $2.00 to $2.50 and a monthly pass to $100.00)
Firing 2700 people who work for New York City Transit, 173 for Long Island Rail Road, and 88 for Metro-North
Eliminating the W and Z Subway Lines (which would not involve closing any stops)
Shortening the route of the M and G Subway Lines
Lowering the frequency of letter-line trains from 8 minutes to 10 minutes on weekends
Lowering the frequency of all trains from 20 minutes to 30 minutes from 2 to 5 am
The overall consequence of these draconian cuts will be dramatically less productive service from the nation’s largest transit provider in a city that relies completely on transit.
These are incredibly scary cuts, especially in light of the fact that the system is unable at the moment to fund its next 5-year plan. Something must be done.
MTA leaders are suggesting that the only way to avert the proposed cuts is to demand more money from the city and state. But the fact is that both of those levels of government are also facing dramatic cuts – and they don’t have the ability to increase funding. So the only real place to turn is Washington. The federal government must take a position and increase funding.
This is especially true for a very simple reason: New York City’s farebox recovery ratio is higher than that of any other transit system in the country. What does this mean? More of the system is paid for directly through fares – 67% – than anywhere else in the United States, and the proposed changes would increase this ratio to an astounding and inappropriate 83%. BART’s ratio is 45%; L.A’s is 31%; Washington’s is 62%.
New York City should not be forced to rely so much more on fares than these other systems, especially when the subways have been attracting more and more riders every year. It would be simply unreasonable for the federal government to allow the city’s transit system to sink into an abyss because of a lack of funds from external sources.