Florida High-Speed Rail

How Does Lakeland Fit into Florida’s Strategy for High-Speed Rail?

» Nation’s first true high-speed line, in Central Florida, will serve Lakeland on its way between Tampa and Orlando.

After receiving $1.25 billion from the federal government last month for its planned 84-mile high-speed line, Florida is virtually guaranteed to offer the first true fully high-speed rail service in the United States. The state’s project, which will cost about $2.6 billion to complete, will connect the state’s second and third largest metropolitan areas with frequent service along the I-4 corridor. About three million annual riders are expected by 2030.

Though the focus of the system has been on its Orlando and Tampa terminals, it will also serve Lakeland, which will account for about half of all intercity riders. Florida must focus closely on the specific design of its route and stations to ensure the success of the system. Thus, making the right decisions about where the Lakeland station will be located and how the surrounding area is developed is essential.

The choice to build the new rail system along the Interstate highway corridor will make the system relatively easy to implement; the state is unlikely to face delays caused by NIMBYism, since the route is already used by hundreds of thousands of drivers everyday. In addition, the corridor is already wholly owned by the public and a median will allow the construction of an elevated guideway on the majority of the route between downtown Tampa and Orlando International Airport.

The highway allows a fully independent right-of-way, unaffected by grade crossings and free from the Federal Railroad Administration’s rules restricting the use of fast trains in shared freight and passenger rail corridors. Heavier vehicles (such as the Amtrak Acela) are significantly more expensive and have diminished performance compared to their lighter European peers, which the FRA will only allow to operate in fully separated rights-of-way.

Yet the selection of the Interstate corridor has its own major negative consequences. For one, it means no direct access to downtown Orlando. According to Florida Rail Enterprise’s Chief Operating Officer Nazih Haddad, there is no room in the median of I-4 near Orlando to allow the trains to enter. Meanwhile, the use of existing freight tracks is impossible because it would require removing all freight service from the tracks because of the decision to use non-FRA compliant rolling stock.

Therefore, no connection to Orlando’s center city is planned until the system extends north to Jacksonville in the future. A connection south to Miami is prioritized for now.

Nor is a direct connection to downtown Lakeland planned, despite that city being just off Interstate 4. Florida could improve the existing tracks and run trains directly into the center city, but that solution would engender similar problems as those experienced in downtown Orlando.

As a result, Lakeland will get a stop, but it will be somewhere in the median of I-4. Exactly how it’s implemented will determine whether the network’s projected ridership will play out as expected, and whether trains will be able to induce the kind of spin-off development for which affected cities hope.

Transportation board members in Polk County — whose largest city is Lakeland — weighed in this week on the county’s planned station; it will get only one, at least for now. They agreed unanimously to prioritize a stop at the intersection of Interstate 4 and Polk Parkway, where the University of South Florida Polytechnic is planning a new campus, in the midst of what can only realistically be described as rampant suburban sprawl. The University’s master plan for its new campus won’t help matters much, as academic buildings will be surrounded by parking lots and walkable connections to the future rail station would be tenuous at best.

Commissioners argued in favor of the Polk Parkway stop claiming that it would be better for future development and that it was closer to the county’s other major population center, in Winter Haven.

Yet this approach would do little to leverage the high-speed rail station’s ability to concentrate density, as the area is far from any population centers and the University’s design will eliminate a large parcel of land from development options.

The commissioners’ second choice is a station at Kathleen Road, near downtown Lakeland. This area is already relatively well developed and has transit connections, unlike the other potential site. A high-speed rail station there could serve as a development catalyst, helping to extend the existing downtown, becoming far more than just a place where people catch the train.

But the approach of Lakeland area officials suggests that they wouldn’t take advantage of the ability to densify the neighborhood around that stop either — the board’s members seem secure in assuming that everyone will drive to stations anyway. With that kind of attitude, some of the advantages of the implementation of fast trains simply disappear. It could be a disappointing outcome for one of the major stations on the nation’s first high-speed line.

Florida is moving forward with its high-speed line quickly. According to Operating Officer Haddad, “We hope to be in the ground within an eleven month period,” with service starting in early 2015. But the federal government’s limited commitment thus far isn’t strong enough, and the state isn’t providing any more money; the conservative state’s willingness to endorse a rail program at all is a serious improvement over the anti-rail policies of former governor Jeb Bush.

Yet as Mr. Haddad puts it, “We’re building something from scratch… we can’t do half of it.” He remains confident that the FRA will find the funds over the next few years to guarantee the Florida system’s completion. Here’s to hopes that it can be done right.

Image above: Florida High-Speed Rail Map, from Florida High-Speed Rail

High-Speed Rail India

Indian Railways Plans $9 billion in Investments for 2010, Advances High-Speed Rail

» Six new passenger lines being considered for service at speeds above 250 km/h.

Revealing her plans for India’s railroads in a speech this week on this year’s budget, Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee committed to the development of high-speed rail corridors throughout the country, even as she reaffirmed her promise to ensure continued investment in India’s conventional train network, which she framed as a social necessity. Her budget includes $9 billion in spending on the maintenance and upgrading of existing rail corridors, up 2.8% from last year’s budget.

With 18 million daily passengers, a staff of 1.4 million employees, and 17,000 trains operating on 64,000 kilometers of track, India maintains one of the world’s largest rail systems, arguably only matched by China’s. Yet it has thus far been unwilling to commit to a major speed-up of any of its corridors, so even the most-used intercity routes operate on decrepit tracks.

Indian Railways runs many of the local commuter rail systems in the nation’s largest cities, including Mumbai, which will get 101 new daily services according to the budget plan.

Most of the nation’s rail network was built by the British colonial government during the period of economic subjugation that concluded with India’s independence in 1947.

Plans for high-speed corridors have been discussed for years, but Minister Banerjee’s budget is the first to include a plan to establish a National High-Speed Rail Authority, which would coordinate planning and eventually construction on selected lines.

Indian Railways’ Vision 2020 proposal, released late last year, selected six priority routes (“Golden Rail Corridors”) designated for trains to operate at speeds above 250 km/h, or 155 mph. These six lines would connect the nation’s largest cities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, and Calcutta. High-speed trains in India would operate in corridors reserved for passenger trains, unlike the mixed routes shared with freight trains that slow down the system today. Most of the running ways would likely be constructed elevated over the surrounding cities and countryside.

But India’s focus remains clearly on the operation of the system that already exists. Ms. Banerjee suggested that her Ministry’s “Objective is inclusive growth for all, and our goal is to unite the country with connectivity.” To the Minister, the rail system is more about “social responsibility” than “economic responsibility.”

It’s a nice mantra for a country so reliant on its trains, and indeed, her budget is designed to begin the effort to spread railroad service to isolated areas of the country with 25,000 kilometers of new track by 2020. Over the next year, the Ministry will add 3,200 passenger coaches to the system and introduce 28 new passenger services. Ms. Banerjee has made this commitment without raising fares, a reflection of her efforts to reduce social inequalities through improved transportation. She is the founder of the Trinamool Congress Party, a democratic socialist member of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, which won reelection in 2009.

Yet one wonders how serious the Minister can be in advancing major social goals through the railway network when she is openly pushing for public-private partnerships that will diminish the degree to which the system can work to reduce economic inequalities.

Similarly, China’s foray into high-speed trains has been spectacular but the fares its customers pay are simply too high to make the service beneficial to a large percentage of the population. The poor continue to be relegated to the slow train.

Will India advance an alternative approach for high-speed rail, perhaps modeled on that of France, where fares on fast trains are low enough that equivalent standard-speed service is simply eliminated? That’s a much more equitable strategy in line with Ms. Banerjee’s ideals.

If built, the high-speed system would interface nicely with public transportation in many of the cities where trains will stop. The Indian national government has provided a 50% funding share to any state that agrees to finance a metro system in a city of more than one million people. This commitment to local transit, based on the success of the Delhi Metro, has made possible the construction of new lines in Mumbai, Bangalore, and Chennai, all of which would receive high-speed service according to plans. Planning for new metrorail lines in several other affected cities is underway.

Finance Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Hopes for Privately Funded Transit Connection to Oakland

» Connection between Pennsylvania’s second and third largest business districts, as well as new people mover in Oakland, would be sponsored by property redevelopment.

Detroit’s use of hundreds of millions of dollars in non-profit funds for the construction of its new Woodward Avenue light rail line is already encouraging cities across the country to think differently about how they raise funds for new transit lines. With limited public money to spend on the expansion of its public transportation system, Pittsburgh hopes to encourage private investors to make an investment in two corridors: one connecting downtown and Oakland, and the other linking Oakland’s primary university and business centers.

Allegheny County Executive Director Dan Onorato, who leads Pittsburgh and much of its suburban area, has worked for the creation of a task force that has asked developers to submit expressions of interest in the proposed transit program by the end of April. In exchange for the construction of the new transit lines, local agencies including the Urban Redevelopment Authority will offer private entities the right to redevelop parcels along the routes. The system would likely not be operated by the region’s financially strapped Port Authority, which runs the area’s light rail and bus lines.

The primary new corridor would extend from downtown Pittsburgh’s job hub at Steel Plaza, through the Bluff neighborhood to Oakland, along Centre Avenue, Second Avenue, or a combination of Colwell Street and Fifth Avenues. This roughly 3-mile project, probably light rail, could also be built as a people mover or bus corridor. In Oakland, the city’s second downtown and home to a number of universities, a 2-mile people mover line would extend from the Pittsburgh Tech Center on the Monongahela River to Carnegie Mellon University, past the University of Pittsburgh. Future phases could extend across the river to the South Shore and north to Upper Campus of the University of Pittsburgh at Shadyside.

According to preliminary estimates, the fully developed intra-Oakland network would serve more than 100,000 riders a day by 2030.

Though developers have yet to respond to the offer, the city could benefit from this public-private partnership both by increasing its local transportation offerings and provoking infill reconstruction of some of the rather degraded neighborhoods between downtown and Oakland. The city and the Urban Redevelopment Authority own an extraordinary percentage of the land in the Hill District and Bluff neighborhoods, and they have a number of new housing projects underway. With better transit and the reuse of the vacant parcels by private developers, these forgotten zones could see a veritable renaissance.

The specifics of the route have yet to be worked out, but the intentions behind the project are clear: to increase transit use among people who work in Oakland from 30% today to 50%, the same as in downtown; regenerate the neighborhoods east of downtown; and provide a stimulus for increased construction in Oakland, which already has the region’s highest population densities.

For a region that has invested millions of dollars in some rather extravagant transit projects, including the North Shore Connector (currently under construction) and the Pittsburgh Maglev project (perennially being considered), the downtown-Oakland project seems quite reasonable since there is no rapid transit between the two today. That said, a rapid bus service is planned and a busway serves the northern section of the corridor.

Executive Onorato’s project’s primary aim, which is basically to densify the urban core, is unquestionably a good one, since the city as a whole has lost more than half its population since its peak in 1950.

But the project as currently outlined has a number of potential weaknesses. For one, it seems to encourage the use of different technologies for the downtown-Oakland and intra-Oakland corridors. This will result in a problem that will reduce ridership tremendously: the light rail line heading from downtown won’t provide access to the primary Oakland destinations, meaning most riders will have to transfer to the people mover line to finish their trips.

The city is uninterested in promoting the extension of light rail along the intra-Oakland line because it’s unwilling to sacrifice the necessary street space, which is why it is suggesting the construction of an elevated people mover above the corridor. Pittsburgh planners aren’t suggesting some sort of light guideway personal rapid transit line: this system will have to accommodate vehicles carrying 150 people at a time every three minutes. This design would do serious harm to the walkability of the neighborhood by inserting imposing structures above many primary pedestrian corridors.

Another option is to extend the people mover system all the way from Oakland to downtown, allowing people in downtown direct, non-stop service to Oakland destinations. This has some major advantages: it would allow drivers to park at planned park-and-rides in Oakland and get to jobs downtown via transit, alleviating road congestion. It would also reduce operations costs because the people mover, unlike a light rail line, would be conducted automatically.

This strategy, however, has its own issues: not only would it extend the street-deadening condition caused by overhead-running rapid transit, but it would also prevent through-running of light rail trains from South Hills and Library to Oakland, via downtown’s Steel Plaza, one of the primary advantages of using that vehicular mode. Requiring riders to make a connection between light rail and people mover downtown would cut down the number of potential users significantly.

One possibility not fully considered by the task force is operating the system as a light rail line in an independent right-of-way from downtown to Oakland and then operate as a streetcar using vehicular lanes within Oakland. This would slow commutes but allow direct service between places throughout the region. There is an inherent advantage in sticking to the transit mode you already have.

Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how private companies respond to Pittsburgh’s land-for-transit offer. It will be their dollars, after all, that determine how the system is constructed. What mode of transit will they promote as the most appropriate to spur infill development?

If the project succeeds, cities throughout the American Rust Belt will rush to emulate its strategy, hoping to bring to life their many vacant and disinherited neighborhoods similar to those in Pittsburgh and expand the transportation options of their citizens.

Image above: Downtown Pittsburgh-Oakland Transit Alternatives Map, from Allegheny County Economic Development

Automobile Infrastructure Light Rail Portland

Controversial Portland Columbia River Crossing Under Pressure to Move Forward, Despite Flaws

» Bridge connecting Oregon and Washington planned for construction start in 2012, with light rail link included. But its new road capacity isn’t needed.

In most cities, this debate would have ended years ago, and the results would have been far less pretty. The governors of both states involved are highly supportive of the freeway project, and they’ve unearthed enough financing to pay for it. With state departments of transportation pledging their involvement and money, there wouldn’t been much of margin for substantial change.

Yet the Interstate 5 Columbia River Crossing has been plagued by delays primarily because Portland prides itself on being one of the most ecologically aware North American cities, and therefore one of the least inclined support increased freeway capacity. Something had to be done — the existing bridge is structurally unsound and congested at rush hours — but in this region, the only way to garner support was to ensure the inclusion of a public transit component and reduce the number of traffic lanes.

So the $3.6 billion bridge currently being advocated by both governors and the local trade unions will include ten lanes of traffic (rather than 12) and a new light rail line (rather than buses, as originally suggested) when it opens for service in 2018. It would be a trade-off transit activists in most cities would accept as a grand compromise.

The Columbia River Crossing replacement project has been in planning for decades as an essential reinforcement of the primary road link between Portland and Vancouver. The $829 million light rail project is part of Portland’s planned large transit network expansion and recently received a “medium” rating from the Federal Transit Administration, allowing it to move ahead with federal funding. There has recently been a dramatic change of heart in favor of rail on the part of Vancouver’s leadership, who represent a population that defeated a transit extension from Portland in a referendum fifteen years ago.

But much of the Portland region’s citizenry remains concerned about the construction and future effects of the new bridge, and rightly so. Does the I-5 corridor need more road capacity? How can the cities be sure that the project will reduce congestion, rather than induce more demand?

Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt sent a letter last month to their respective governors asking for the project to be run by local authorities, rather than by the state highway department. Each has asked for fundamental changes to the project, which may include reducing the number of traffic lanes and eliminating planned toll lanes to be used to pay back the cost of the bridge over the long term. They want to prevent the project from becoming a financial nightmare — a possibility considering the debt each state will take on to pay for the scheme.

On the other hand, neither municipal leader is a full-on bridge opponent, nor is either interested in restarting the project entirely.

But grassroots opposition continues unabated. A number of local groups have demonstrated some of the principal flaws of the proposal: It will increase sprawl by encouraging faster and longer commutes into downtown Portland; it will reduce congestion for a period of just 12 years, after which traffic will slow down again because more people will choose to drive at rush hours because of increased capacity; it will enable a 34% increase in automobile traffic, exactly the opposite of what a self-proclaimed environmentally friendly region would want; and, if it’s tolled, as planned, it will simply encourage the greater use and eventual congestion of I-205, which runs parallel to I-5 just up down the river.

The Crossing’s environmental impact study claims that overall traffic on the corridor would actually fall with the completion of the bigger bridge — a bizarre outcome predicted by an evidently skewed traffic forecasting model. Experience across the United States over a period of decades has demonstrated concretely that more highways almost universally produce more roadway use.

The expansion of the Columbia River Crossing also fails to address traffic choke points elsewhere along I-5, meaning that congestion will simply move to other parts of the roadway, not actually solving many existing problems with the highway’s capacity.

A series of excellent videos produced several months ago by Nick Falbo promote a series of alternatives to the multi-billion dollar project. By ramping up transit options and enforcing congestion pricing on the existing bridge, the states could limit traffic while also encouraging a modal split to transit. A bigger, faster-flowing highway as currently envisioned would actually be a disincentive to the use of transit, no matter how nice the light rail line is. The bridge, though currently structurally deficient, could be reinforced and last decades more without a problem — at a far cheaper price.

What no one seems to be taking seriously enough is the potential for transit to take a higher modal share of existing traffic using the bridge.

The planners at the Columbia River Crossing project conducted a study of the origins and destinations of drivers using the corridor last year, and the results are compelling — if anyone chose to take advantage of them.

Based on my understanding of the data, of the 70% of drivers using the bridge for local purposes (30% of trips are through-trips, according to the environmental impact study), a full 25% of southbound automobilists are headed downtown, where there is already excellent transit available, and to which light rail from Vancouver would run directly. Meanwhile, 27% of driver destinations are within the zip code covered by the Yellow Line light rail, the same corridor that would head into Washington state. A full 15% more are headed to destinations just east of downtown, where the Red and Blue Lines light rail corridors provide easy access.

If you were to assume that the new bridge was not built and that instead congestion pricing and the light rail extension were implemented on their own, the current 3,300 weekday transit trips over the bridge could expand exponentially. Many of the current congestion woes could be alleviated simply by transferring downtown and near-downtown-bound drivers to a different mode of transportation. If the transit component of the bridge is a given, shouldn’t it be designed to work well? How can it attract the maximum number of riders when the highway bridge just adjacent has been expanded massively?

Building a new light rail line even as you’re expanding the highway next door is no rarity in the U.S., where the road and public transportation lobbies are mutually dependent. Sadly, policies that encourage transit even as road construction continues apace do little to affect commuting habits, as has been demonstrated by Portland over the years. The city has seen little increase in transit mode share despite huge investments in new light rail lines.

Nonetheless, even if the existing plan were implemented, Portland would still be getting a far more generous project than typically results from road expansion. The degree to which a pro-transit mentality in the city has encouraged the inclusion of light rail in the project should be replicated elsewhere — road projects like this should be required to incorporate a major transit component, and that’s exactly what Oregon and Washington’s highway planners have agreed to do here. When compared to state department of transportation elsewhere, that’s something to celebrate.

Image above: Potential look of bridge, from Columbia River Crossing

Commuter Rail Metro Rail New York

Expanding Transit Access to Southeast Queens

» The city’s largest borough currently suffers from a large gap in service, but relatively inexpensive improvements could address those problems well.

Though New Yorkers overall are used to some of the longest commute times in the country, residents of southeast Queens are particularly affected. The inhabitants of this large segment of the borough between JFK Airport and Jamaica, from Brooklyn to the city line, have average travel times to work of more than 50 minutes. That’s each way.

It’s a terrible situation, especially since so many people in the pretty dense neighborhood rely on public transportation to get around — and so many are headed to Midtown and downtown Manhattan, areas with high levels of train and bus service already. Transit planners have a moral obligation to find ways to improve their commutes, even in face of the mounting budget deficit currently pounding New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Commute times in Queens Transit share in Queens

Fortunately, there are several cheap investments the city could make that would substantially reduce the trip times of those living in this part of the borough, starting with a change in fare policy. Leveraging existing transit corridors to a fuller extent by constructing more stations in southeast Queens is also a serious and relatively inexpensive option.

New York offers a standard ticket price for its subway and bus services; the same fare is paid for trips consisting of just a few blocks or twenty miles. The same applies for the city’s unlimited passes, which allow rides anywhere in the city on buses and subways for a set price over a period of time.

There are positives and negatives associated with this system — one thing it certainly does is instill the idea that the whole city is accessible to every citizen, of any class — but it certainly preferences people who live far from their jobs. Yet New York City is structured in a way that makes further densification of the central city core very difficult, even as most jobs continue to be located in Manhattan; people from the outskirts of the city, like it or not, need to be able to get to the center in a reasonably short period of time.

That single-fare policy has not been extended to the MTA’s commuter rail systems, Metro-North and the Long Island Railroad, both of which provide quick access from the outer boroughs to parts of the Manhattan office districts, at a higher price. From Jamaica, at the northwest tip of Queens’ southeast quadrant, a ride to Penn Station on the LIRR takes 19 minutes and costs $7.60 at peak times (or $5.46 during off-peak times); on the E Express Subway (faster than most), the trip requires 34 minutes, for $2.25 (or about $1.50 using an unlimited pass).

For many commuters, there’s a difficult choice to make: pay more than twice as much and get a 45% faster ride, or save money and squeeze into buses and subways. Most choose the latter option because it’s cheaper — which explains the high average commute times for people from Southeast Queens in spite of the large number of transit lines that criss-cross the area.

It also explains the under-use of some of the existing branches of the LIRR in southeast Queens, including the Far Rockaway Branch, which stops at Locust Manor and Laurelton Stations; the Hempstead branch, which includes stations at Queens Village and Hollis; and the West Hempstead branch, with its stop at St. Albans.

Thus an easy fix for this problem would be to make in-city trips on the commuter railroads the same price as those on the subway and buses, and allow commuters to make free transfers between the two. This would instantly reduce typical travel times for people in this section of Queens (and areas of the northern Bronx) and increase the use of the existing commuter rail capacity on the three LIRR corridors mentioned above.

If the city subsidized this fare reduction, the state-financed MTA could continue charging current fares on trips coming from outside of the city without encouraging debate over differences in transit provisions for the city and its suburbs, a discussion already at the heart of many of the agency’s financial problems.

Creating fare equity between the commuter railroads and the subways would produce significant time savings for the residents of southeast Queens. But the introduction of more people onto the LIRR system would require some substantial changes in commuter rail operations in order for the services to remain reliable. For one, in-city stations benefiting from reduced fares would have to have turnstiles installed so that free transfers could be enforced. Or, the MTA could wait for the universal contactless farecard it is already developing, a ticket designed to allow conductors on the commuter trains to make pass inspections using the same system as installed at subway faregates.

The introduction of thousands of new daily riders on LIRR trains would likely cause some capacity problems, since many of the system’s trains are already overcrowded at rush hour. Some of the difficulties would be solved with the opening of East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal in 2016, which will allow a larger number of trains to enter Manhattan. Moreover, with increasing ridership likely to occur anyway, the railroad will have to buy more trains over the next decade; if these vehicles were configured more like rapid transit, with more doors and more standing room (unlike existing LIRR trains, which prioritize comfortable seating), the larger number of riders could be handled easily.

And of course, there’s another easy way to relieve capacity issues at Penn Station: simply run trains through from New Jersey to Long Island, reducing track use in the central segments of the system. It can be done.

Though the MTA would lose revenue by significantly reducing the cost of inner-city commuter rail trips, it would likely also increase transit ridership on trips coming from areas at the edges of the metropolis. Meanwhile, the changes I’ve suggested would require limited investment above and beyond what was already planned — the new contactless farecard is being designed already; new trains are to be ordered within a few years anyway, and a change in their design won’t affect their pricetag.

But there are other, more costly investments that would focus on the commuting problems of this particularly isolated neighborhood. By adding stations to the three branches of the LIRR that pass through the community, a far larger slice of the population would suddenly find itself within half a mile of a rail station. Though adding a stop or two for each line would slightly increase the commute times of people coming from further away, they would significantly reduce the trip times of people in this neighborhood by providing quick, direct access to Midtown Manhattan and connections further down the line to subway routes heading throughout the city.

Building a new station is not exactly a cheap proposition, but taking advantage of an existing rail line, rather than, say, extending a subway (something that’s been proposed for Southeast Queens in the past), is a much less expensive alternative.

And then there’s AirTrain JFK.

Since it opened in December 2003, the line has become an important tool for commuters getting to and from JFK Airport; it connects each of the airport’s terminals directly to LIRR and subway services (E, J, and Z trains) at Jamaica, and to A Subway services at Howard Beach. Elevated above the median of the Van Wyck Expressway, its route passes directly adjacent to some of the neighborhoods that suffer from exactly the long commutes that irritate so many people who live in southeast Queens.

Unfortunately, because the AirTrain was built with funds from the federal government’s Aviation Trust Fund and airport Passenger Facility Charge revenues, it could not include local stations — the only stops on the line are at airport terminals, passenger facilities, and at the transit drop-offs at Howard Beach and Jamaica. Federal regulations state that those revenue sources can only be used for a project that “must exclusively serve airport traffic.” This results in a number of peculiar situations that ultimately reduce the effectiveness of transit that serves airports in the United States, since through-running and local (non-airport) stops are basically banned by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Theoretically, several new stations could be added to AirTrain along the Van Wyck corridor without reducing existing capacity by creating side-platform stations and building access tracks separate from the express tracks used by JFK-Jamaica trains. This would be a pricey investment, since it would require the creation of a new track connection between Howard Beach and Jamaica trains (to avoid interrupting airport express and inter-terminal service) and it would require the construction of a series of elevated platforms above a freeway and connected to an in-use transit line. Faregates would also have to be installed at JFK terminals to ensure that passengers pay the correct charge, since those riding on the new Howard Beach-Jamaica train would pay standard subway fares, while those heading for the airport would continue to pay the $5 airport fee.

These improvements would provide direct operations from a number of isolated neighborhoods to Jamaica and Howard Beach, from which there would be easy transfers to Midtown and Downtown Manhattan-bound trains.

It would have been more convenient to make these changes when the project was first being built, to say the least. But these changes wouldn’t affect the quality of the original investment and therefore would not pose an affront to FAA regulations.

Sadly, the MTA has done very little to address the excessive commute times of southeast Queens residents, who deserve improved transportation access, and there has been no coordinated planning for better transit service for the neighborhood. Its denizens are likely to see long trip times for decades to come.