Infrastructure Light Rail Strasbourg

Envied the World Over, Strasbourg’s Tram Expands Again

» Europe’s most famous tramway network suggests deficiencies in the ways Americans expand transit.

It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to suggest that almost every major metropolitan area in North America either already has a light rail system in operation or is planning to implement one. Unlike the metro or commuter rail systems that are primarily confined to the most populated regions, light rail is universally appealing because of its relatively cheap construction costs and the degree to which its implementation is credited with spurring the revitalization of dying city centers. More than any other mode of public transportation light rail is assumed (rightly or wrongly) to encourage “choice” riders to choose transit over driving, so it is often the most politically palatable choice when it comes to capital expansion decisions.

Compared to the tramways that have been constructed or expanded across Western Europe over the past two decades, though, U.S. attempts thus far have generally been more expensive, less productive in terms of urban redevelopment, and less effective in increasing ridership. Are U.S. cities building their light rail lines in an inappropriate fashion, or is there something inherently different about American tastes that make similar investments less effective this side of the Atlantic?

It’s worth considering the case of Strasbourg, which on Saturday opened the latest expansion to its tramway network sixteen years after this modern rail system first began operations in eastern France. Now with 34.7 miles of lines, the capital of the Alsace Region carries about 300,000 daily riders on its network. For comparison’s sake, the City of Strasbourg has about 270,000 inhabitants; the metropolitan area that surrounds it has between 470,000 and 650,000 inhabitants, depending on how far out one wants to measure. The region is planning — and has the funds for — the extension of several of the tram lines, the construction of a new downtown link, and even a connection across the Rhine River into the German town of Kehl.

Strasbourg was the first city to implement a fully low-floor tram system; the Eurotram trains (now Bombardier Flexity Outlook) ordered for the first six miles of line that opened in late 1994 were custom-designed, though their descendants have now become the industry standard. The vehicles’ modern appearance features large windows and projecting fronts. When the decision was made to embark on a modern tramway project, Strasbourg was reversing a previous decision: The city’s 1985 transportation plan foresaw the introduction of automated VAL trains on dedicated guideways in tunnels under the city center, similar to the lines then under development in French cities Lille and Toulouse. The presumption was that a subway and elevated network would minimize damage to local business by preserving road space, while a tramway network on downtown streets would put that activity in danger.

The 1989 municipal elections were largely fought over whether to build the VAL system, which the conservatives in power advanced, or a tramway that the opposition socialists promoted. The victory of the latter, founded on the fact that light rail at the street level is simply cheaper than a completely grade-separated network and that more could be constructed as a result, ensured the development of the system as currently in operation.

The mere fact that a local election fought between representatives of the country’s two major parties, one left and one right, was a haggling match over what form of transit technology was most appropriate for this city — rather than whether anything should be built at all — is an indication of where the politics of transportation fit in France. When one political party in the United States is ambivalent about public transportation and the other is downright hostile towards it, comparing any American city to Strasbourg may be unfair. Still, it is the implementation that matters, since many U.S. cities have been able to assemble financing to fund new light rail projects; finding ways to improve their effectiveness can’t hurt.

In many ways, the tramway was a good choice for Strasbourg. Because the trains run along existing streets, they replaced automobile lanes and provided a political rationale for improvements in pedestrian space. Of the initial costs attributed to the tram line’s construction, roughly half were spent on projects indirectly related to the transit line: The planting of 1,700 trees, the improvement of three bridges, the pedestrianization of a major square, and the renovation of the streets along which the tram would run. Park-and-ride lots were built at outlying tram stops, parking was eliminated downtown, and several streets simply had cars removed.

The results are obvious to anyone who has been to Strasbourg. Boulevards that feature tramways, even in the poorer neighborhoods, are great places to be because of the clear effort that has been put into improving them along with the introduction of the train lines. Outside of downtown, trams glide along grass carpets in the medians of roads that have seen their automobile traffic diminish symmetrically with the large increase in transit ridership that has accompanied the introduction of the tram system. Sidewalks, bike paths, trees, and quality street furniture complete the picture.

In Strasbourg’s downtown, trams run along mostly pedestrian-only cobblestone streets where business is clearly doing well, in spite of initial business opposition to the project. The university is well connected to the network, and so is the main train station, which offers high-speed direct intercity rail service to Paris, Frankfurt, and Stuttgart. (Both the university’s main campus and the station had their connections improved because of changes implemented last weekend.) An entire new district called the Étoile is being constructed along formerly industrial port land around several tramway stations.

Transit planners made a conscious decision not to run the trams along highway corridors, partly because few of them enter the center city, but also because doing so increases construction costs, does little to encourage transit use because cars appear to speed by more quickly than trains, and reduces the potential for using the introduction of a new rail system to improve the aesthetics of the public sphere. Far too many American planners, from Denver to Los Angeles to Portland to San Francisco, have agreed to make a deal with the devil by placing rail lines along highway rights-of-way; doing so is often more politically feasible because it can be done in coordination with roadway improvements and does not appear to prioritize transit over car use, despite the fact that the latter is exactly what you want to do to make a transit system functional!

Moreover, Strasbourg’s system, despite running in or in place of the road, is not a streetcar. In the U.S., streetcars are deemed cheaper to build than light rail because they do not operate in their own rights-of-way but rather along roads shared with cars; this is one of the reasons the push for streetcars has exploded over the past few years. But streetcars suffer the sad fate of being stuck in traffic. Thus the cheaper solution, of course, is to build light rail like a streetcar — and then ban the cars from the lanes in which the trains run. It’s not a difficult solution from a financial perspective.

(Costs for highway-running rail are higher than street-running rail as long as the latter replaces road lanes with transit lanes. This explains why streetcars are cheaper than light rail: The right-of-way already exists. In the case of highway-running rail, stations have to include expensive connections to surface streets, bridges and tunnels have to be rebuilt, and rights-of-way need to be expanded, assuming the highway is not shrunk in the process.)*

As Jarrett Walker has written, however, assuming that the implementation of a tramway will automatically result in improved urban conditions or ridership would be foolish. For one, for aforementioned reasons, there are political obstacles to building a new tram line as it should be done because of a fear of reducing the primacy of the automobile on city streets. Second, a place like Strasbourg benefited from incredible density in both residential and commercial distribution even before the tram line was put in, which means that there was an automatic market for the service. In the United States, you can expect similar results only in very dense cities like Chicago or New York, but not necessarily in more sprawling areas where new light rail lines are likely to run. Whereas Strasbourg’s system attracts some 8,600 users per line mile, the best-ridership above ground light rail system in the U.S., in Houston, attracts only about 4,600 per mile — and that’s along a short, dense corridor. The much-praised operations in Charlotte, Phoenix, Portland, and Salt Lake City all attract less than 2,500 per mile. That means less value per dollar spent.

Just as important, the tramway mode choice isn’t necessarily the deal breaker when it comes to increasing transit ridership. Take the example of Rennes, a French city 430 miles west of Strasbourg. These, municipal leaders chose to build an automated VAL metro under the downtown and elevated above outlying streets rather than invest in a tramway. The first line, which opened in 2002, increased overall local transit ridership massively, pushing it from 160,000 daily users to 250,000 between 2001 and 2007. Now the city is building a second, €1 billion line that is expected to double rail ridership and put 73% of the city’s population withing 600 meters of a station.

Rennes’ center city is less remarkable than Strasbourg’s and the streets below or above which the VAL runs have not been substantially improved. Nevertheless, the large increase in transit use that has been experienced there suggests that it isn’t the tramway per se that makes transit in these cities successful. Rather, it can likely be attributed to the focus of both systems on serving only sections of the region that have adequate density to support heavy investments in rail transit. It may be hard to believe, but the furthest station from downtown Strasbourg on the tram system (Illkirch Lixenbuhl) is less than four miles away as a bird flies from the central station downtown (Homme de Fer). In other words, the region has focused its investments on a dense network with multiple, intersecting lines downtown, rather than a series of long, suburban extensions.*

Does this mean that efforts to build new transit lines in the U.S. cannot be successful? Of course not. But it does indicate that if we’re serious about taking the most advantage possible of the investments we make in new transit corridors, we must find ways to concentrate growth in the existing urban cores of our cities and find the political will to limit rail expansions to the areas that would respond most directly to its introduction.

Image above: Homme de Fer Station in Strasbourg, from Flickr user Lauri Pitkanen (cc). * These sentences have been added after the post was initially published.

California High-Speed Rail High-Speed Rail

California Planners Recommend Fresno-Hanford for First Phase of State’s High-Speed Line

» Choice of the Central Valley for the initial corridor suggests a serious commitment to full build-out of the California system.

If there were ever a time to question the future of the American high-speed rail project, this may well be it: Republicans in Congress have threatened to reduce transportation spending, several states have backed away from previous commitments to projects that once seemed set in stone, and a couple of already funded projects are likely to be canceled.

And yet California is steaming ahead, its new Governor Jerry Brown a strong supporter of the $45 billion state high-speed rail project and its rail authority endowed with billions of dollars in state and federal funds to advance the scheme. What has always been a long shot is coming to appear increasingly realistic, despite the difficulties that must still be surmounted before the full 520 miles fast train network is in place.

The commitment of both California and the federal government to the project was solidified this week with the announcement by the rail authority that its engineers had selected a 65-mile route in the Central Valley to begin construction roughly between Fresno and Hanford, where two stations will be built. This choice makes clear that the state assumes that the entire line will be constructed, since other sections of the full corridor arguably have more independent utility.

The recommendation will be considered in full by the rail authority on December 2nd when the final decision will be made, but in all likelihood this corridor will be the first constructed. It could be ready for intercity rail service by 2017. To make clear just how much of a service improvement this project will offer, consider this: The current Amtrak San Joaquin service between Fresno and Bakersfield completes the 113 mile run in just over two hours; the fast train link will reduce it to just 37 minutes. (Only about half of that corridor will be completed thanks to the dollars being dispensed here.)

Other corridors under consideration for the first $4.3 billion in expenditures included the routes between San Francisco and San Jose; Fresno and Merced; and Los Angeles and Bakersfield. But in awarding California some $715 million for the project last month, the Federal Railroad Administration made clear that it wanted its dollars spent on the Central Valley. This left the state with virtually no choice but to pick a segment between Bakersfield and Merced.

The advantage of this route is that it confirms that the rail authority’s mission really is to complete the whole project. As CEO Roelof van Ark noted,

“Starting here gives us flexibility to build in either direction – north and west to the Bay Area or south to Los Angeles – as more federal dollars become available. The funding other states are sending back to Washington – if redirected to California – would allow us to extend initial construction all the way to Bakersfield.”

Indeed, by choosing to concentrate in the state’s hinterlands rather than its urban centers, it is emphasizing the fact that high-speed rail is above all about intercity connections. Had the money been used in a place where it could have been used for local commuter rail in the interim before construction of the whole line, there might have been little motivation to move forward with a political push for more money to complete the project. And this route will also feature the highest speeds in the system at 220 mph, not true of other sections. It will be a showpiece.

Of course, the choice of the Fresno-Hanford route comes with a number of risks, mostly related to the potential future lack of funding. If Congress fails to authorize future funds for the project, California will be stuck with a route between a mid-size city and a small one. Links to the economic powerhouses of the state — in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and San Diego — and even to the state capital in Sacramento will not be available. And that may make the project less visible and therefore less of a long-term goal for the state’s political and economic leaders. It may be easier to promote a scheme in a dense urban zone that clearly demands improved transportation than one that some Republicans are surely going to start labeling the “bullet train to nowhere” by the time the holiday break is over.

Nevertheless, the rail authority notes that it expects to have about $150 million left over from the total expenditures to spend on connections to the existing Amtrak route if necessary; this would at least allow the San Joaquin trains to speed through this segment more quickly. Moreover, the state has an additional $5 billion of its own money to eventually be devoted to the rail project; these funds could theoretically be liberated for more construction even without federal dollars in the future (the current law requires them to have a 50-50 match from other sources to be spent).

Most importantly, momentum is on this project’s side. The election of Mr. Brown to the governorship and the state’s strongly pro-high speed rail delegation in the U.S. Senate and House means that there will be continued support for the program over the next several years. On Thanksgiving, that’s something to give thanks for.

Image above: Map of the initial route segment, from California High-Speed Rail Authority

Congress Elections Finance

A New Political Reality Settling in for National Transportation Financing

» Austerity measures that may be introduced in the House could result in significant cutbacks in support for transit. Meanwhile, the decision by Republican legislators to phase out earmarks may reduce support for a future transportation bill.

Tanya Snyder of Streetsblog Capitol Hill broke the news last Friday that House Republicans are planning to push to “stabilize” the Highway Trust Fund by cutting back expenditures to meet revenues without raising any taxes in the process. The result would be a large decrease in overall federal transportation funding — a potential reduction in spending by $7 to 8 billion a year from around $50 billion today. According to Snyder’s sources, transit financing would be hit especially hard, seeing its annual appropriation cut from $8 billion to $5 billion.

This proposal, though it has yet to be announced publicly (and, indeed, it may not represent the eventual thinking of the House Republican leadership) and though it would likely fail to pass through the Senate, nevertheless adds another layer of difficulty to the already almost impossible process of creating a new national transportation bill.

To make matters even more complicated, Republican members in both houses of Congress followed through last week on their commitment to eliminate their demands for earmarks, a move that will reduce the support of individual members for transportation spending in general. 2011 is likely to shape up as a wild ride in the annals of highway and transit funding.

What was never really in question was the fact that a temporary extension of current federal spending on transportation was coming soon, the fault of a Congress that has for two years been unwilling to step forward in support of improved financing mechanisms for transportation. Departing Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Jim Oberstar (D-MN) recently called for a year-long extension; likely new Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has suggested he would support a six-month lengthening of the current law. No one is clamoring for an immediate shut-down in spending on popular road works. The Highway Trust Fund, filled by fuel taxes, has lacked adequate revenues to pay for all of the highway and transit construction the U.S. has undertaken over the last two years — and even that is just half of what some experts argue is necessary for the adequate maintenance of the nation’s mobility infrastructure.

The Republican proposal as suggested by Streetblog’s Snyder would simply limit spending to what the Highway Trust Fund can raise through the existing federal 18.4¢ gas tax, eliminating the possibility of transferring “general,” income tax-sourced revenues to transportation. But the results of that policy would be devastating; not only has the revenue source not been adjusted to inflation since 1993 — meaning that its value has steadily declined — but people are increasingly driving less and replacing their vehicles with more fuel-efficient cars. The overall effect is a loss in infrastructure-building funding.

Democrats, who despite losing control over the House of Representatives remain in power at the Senate, are unlikely to follow through with these efforts to reduce federal spending on transportation, at least considering their collectively pro-investment stance over the past few years. No one, however, seems to have any courage to propose funding transportation by any manner other than through general fund transfers (such as raising the gas tax), and so if Republicans mount opposition to the idea, the whole program could be put into question.*

GOP members have been arguing for months that a huge percentage of spending at the federal level is waste, an argument that is appealing to a frustrated public experiencing the continued negative effects of a long recession. Thus an attempt to keep transportation spending in check may sound reasonable. As does, apparently, the ban on earmarks, which many Republicans and some Democrats argue are equivalent to political advertisements in which an influential congressperson or senator inserts language in a bill benefiting some minor and unimportant project purely because he or she hopes his or her constituents will notice the work being done for their district.

But earmarks have played an important role in producing bipartisan support for transportation bills in the past. As Robert Puentes recently noted, in the last bill passed in 2005 (SAFETEA-LU), there were 6,373 earmarks distributed pretty evenly across the nation thanks to “contributions” from a number of legislators involved in the bill’s writing. The bill was supported by 412 House members, compared to 8 who voted against it; In the Senate, there were only 4 opponents of the bill (mostly opponents of earmarks), compared to 91 proponents. By giving each member of Congress a local reward for the bill, the program becomes virtually universally supported, no matter the specifics of most of the legislation’s language. It may have been coercion, but it resulted in a funded national transportation system. What would happen now?

One solution, suggested by the generally deluded Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN), is to allow earmarks that are related to transportation, since those are, according to her, not wasteful. This in spite of the fact that much of the issue over earmarks was spurred on by the absurdities of the Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere.” And despite the fact that earmarks make up a very small proportion of overall federal spending on transportation, so bringing them back into the equation wouldn’t help matters much.

A long-term solution to these political disagreements is for now not clear. An extension in federal spending for transportation over the next month is likely, but thereafter, all bets are off.

* A spokesman for Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) contacted me after first publishing this article. He made the very good point that the Senator and Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) proposed a plan three weeks ago to increase the gas tax by 25¢ over the next three years, and that the deficit commission appointed by President Obama had itself suggested a 15¢ rise earlier this month. I should note, however, that neither of these proposals have widespread support from the Congress as a whole.

Charlotte Commuter Rail Finance Light Rail

Charlotte’s Once Ambitious Rapid Transit Plan Faces Budget Ax

» A significant decline in local sales tax revenue means that long-term plans for transit expansion have had to be reevaluated with an eye towards fiscal reality.

Ridership on Charlotte’s transit system has grown substantially over the past ten years, increasing from an average of 39,100 daily users in 2000 to 103,500 in 2010. This successful ramp-up in public transportation use in one of the nation’s most sprawling regions can be traced to the 1998 passage by voters of a 1/2-cent sales tax for transportation funding; this measure allowed the local transit authority CATS to significantly expand the number and frequency of bus services offered, and construct North Carolina’s first light rail line, which opened in 2007.

That Blue Line was supposed to be joined by a network of six other corridors — light rail, commuter rail, streetcar, or bus rapid transit — radiating from Center City Charlotte. The Metropolitan Transit Commission’s 2030 plan estimated that tax receipts would provide enough funding to complete most of the projects by 2020, with everything in operation by the end of the time period.

The recession, however, has hit Charlotte hard. Most significantly, its biggest employer, Wachovia Bank, was threatened with bankruptcy and eventually bought up by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo. Consumer spending, like in many cities, declined massively. In 2008, revenues collected using the transit sales tax amounted to $71 million; two years later, the total had fallen to $57.4 million. This fall-off, which is expected to produce a total revenue shortfall of up to $1 billion by 2030, has forced the region to reconsider its plans for transit expansion.

In the process, the Charlotte metropolitan area is threatening to derail the positive momentum it has created for transit ridership. And its strategy to connect the whole region via radial lines from downtown is on the skids at least for the next decade, since no one seems prepared to raise taxes to complete the project. This reality is likely to encourage the sentiment that the transit system is only designed to serve some parts of the region, not everywhere.

This week, the Metropolitan Transit Commission, which oversees CATS at a countywide level, made the decision to effectively put two projects on hold indefinitely, including the Silver Line bus rapid transit corridor from Center City to Matthews and the Green Line streetcar from Eastland Mall to Rosa Parks Place and the Airport, via downtown. The two remaining projects — an 11-mile extension of the Blue Line light rail corridor to UNC-Charlotte and the 25-mile Red Line commuter rail from Center City to Mt. Mourne — remain on the books, albeit in underfunded forms. Plans for local bus service expansion will be canceled.

CATS is looking to cut $200 million from the $1.1 billion budget of the Blue Line extension, which is expected to see significant aid from Washington in the form of a New Start grant. If it does, the project could be under construction next year, with an opening in 2016. But the transit agency will have to reduce construction costs for that to happen: In the process, the line’s length may be cut, the number of stations may be reduced, and amenities along the line will have to be minimized.

For the $456 million Red Line, no such federal help is expected because of the limited ridership projected for the corridor. But the region only has 57% of the costs accounted for, so it is now hoping to develop a public-private partnership to ensure completion by 2018. That may be a futile approach, but the corridor remains in the discussion because it would serve several cities outside of Charlotte on its way north; because the Metropolitan Transit Commission’s board is constituted of mayoral representatives of many towns, not just the much-larger City of Charlotte, it has an incentive to promote a project that would serve them as well. Thus its relatively low projected ridership is the price to be paid for regional compromise.

But the 13.5-mile Silver Line has been less lucky, despite the fact that it would terminate in the suburban town of Matthews. Part of the reason is that it has for years been a source of controversy for inhabitants of the southeast sections of the region, who fail to understand why they will receive a bus rapid transit line while the rest of the area gets rail. Yet they will now have to wait much longer for any transit improvement at all.

Meanwhile, the Green Line — a priority of Charlotte proper but relatively unpopular at the regional level because of its lack of connections outside of the core city — is in a peculiar place because its first segment is currently under construction, with service expected to start in the next two years. A $47 million, 1.5-mile stretch between the Blue Line stop at the Charlotte Transportation Center bus terminal and the Presbyterian Hospital southeast of downtown was partially funded by the federal government’s Urban Circulator program earlier this year. But its 10-mile total length, not including the long-off airport link, would cost $500 million, too much for the region to afford. This means that a rail transit link downtown between the Red and Blue Lines simply will not be built.

The end result: The expansion plan, developed just four years ago, now seems more like fantasy than reality. Nothing other than the Blue Line extension is likely to be built unless there is political will to push for a tax increase for the program or a private partner is willing to drop hundreds of millions of dollars on a project, and neither of these seem like particularly realistic prospects.

The question is whether this situation will disrupt the delicate regional structure that Charlotte relies upon to fund its transportation program. The Blue Line extension and the under-construction segment of the Green Line will serve the city exclusively. If financing for the Red and Silver Lines cannot be obtained, will the towns at their proposed termini fight to remove themselves from having to pay the transit sales tax, citing lack of a return on their investment? Will the citizens of the cities involved, who reaffirmed the tax in 2007, claim that they were sold a bigger bill of goods than could ever be expected to be completed? These prospects, which would reduce funds even further, should encourage the region to work like mad to develop alternative financing systems to complete the entire 2030 plan.

Metro Rail New Jersey New York

To Replace the ARC Tunnel, a Subway Extension to New Jersey?

» A more than $5 billion extension of the 7 Subway could ease congestion into the city center and offer New Jerseyans a relatively painless path to the East Side of Manhattan.

Out with one transit mega-project, in with another.

Faced with the decision last month by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to eliminate state funding for the ARC tunnel — effectively ending the project — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg silently instructed municipal staff to begin studying the possibility of stretching the city’s subway system into the state across the Hudson River. Now preliminary news on the proposal has surfaced. A roughly four-mile extension of the 7 Subway Train from the West Side of Manhattan to Secaucus Junction would cost $5.3 billion and provide the extra trans-Hudson rail link the New York region has been demanding for years.

The 7 Train is currently being extended 1.3 miles from Times Square to 11th Avenue and 34th Street at a cost of more than $2 billion.

The plan is in the earliest stages of development — no assumptions can be made about the exact route trains would take on their way to Secaucus. The MTA, which runs the subway, has not been consulted on project documents. Engineering efforts and the construction period would require ten years before opening, at least. No funding is secure.

Yet the construction of a subway connection to New Jersey would be unique in the history of the city: Thus far, no MTA-controlled lines have made it past city borders. And though the cost of the project is and will remain by far the biggest obstacle, the potential of a subway line to transform the relationship between the two states involved could be big enough of a vision to inspire radical new thinking about financing.

The important question, though, is whether this is the project the New York metropolitan region needs or even wants.

Put in the context of the ARC Tunnel, an extension of the 7 Train would have as its primary purpose relieving the congestion of commuter and intercity trains traveling along the existing pair of tracks connecting Penn Station to the mainland. Of course, unlike ARC, this proposal would offer metro-type services and would be incapable of hosting mainline trains. This would have two primary consequences: One, it would require commuters to transfer from New Jersey Transit trains to the subway at Secaucus, a connection that would not have been necessary had ARC been built; and two, it would require the 7 Train to absorb all new growth in new commuting across the Hudson, because the existing rail infrastructure is over capacity at rush hours.

While the required transfer at Secaucus would have its major downsides, the ability to jump onto the subway would have some huge advantages, namely allowing New Jerseyans to travel directly to Grand Central Terminal, the East Midtown business district, and the rapidly expanding Long Island City in Queens. Access at Secaucus is ideal because the station already serves as the hub for all of the agency’s Manhattan and Hoboken-bound commuter trains. In addition, the existing Manhattan stations that would be used by 7 Train commuters are far closer to the surface than ARC’s deep-cavern Penn Station terminus would have been, and connections to other subway lines throughout the city would be more convenient.

The project is projected to cost roughly half as much as the ARC tunnel because it would require no significant new tunneling under Manhattan and would not need a major interlocking to connect with the existing rail system. Mayor Bloomberg has suggested that the 7 Train could use the ARC tunnel’s route, but I have yet to see any evidence that the extension currently under construction would fit in with those plans, since its tail tracks would extend south to 26th Street, far below the 34th Street route of ARC.

Nevertheless, this change of route would open up the welcome possibility of improving rapid transit service to the very dense New Jersey “riviera” just across the Hudson from Manhattan, north of where PATH rapid transit services already run. If the 7 Train extension were designed to include a station under the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail at 9th Street in Hoboken or at Lincoln Harbor, for instance, commuters from this relatively isolated — yet central — section of the region would have far easier access to the metropolitan core. A direct east-west subway connection into Manhattan would mean a large increase in ridership along the light rail line’s north-south route.

Neither the states of New Jersey nor New York are particularly well-off from a budgetary perspective; significantly, the Garden State’s Transportation Trust Fund is virtually broke. Plans for a station at 41st Street and 10th Avenue along the currently under construction extension of the 7 Train have been put off due to a lack of funds at the municipal level. How would any local government be able to finance the construction of another massive new transit project?

The Port Authority and the Federal Transit Administration each agreed to contribute $3 billion to the ARC tunnel; in theory, this sum would be enough to complete this new 7 Train project. But Washington’s dollars are likely to be redistributed to schemes elsewhere that could be under construction within the next year or two, not ten.

Yet the direct link between the construction of the 7 Train and the build-up of the Hudson Yards on the west side of Manhattan should not be ignored. This massive redevelopment area is poised to become New York City’s fourth major business district, with dozens of skyscrapers planned, representing a total investment of $15 billion or more. The arrival of the subway to the area and a better link into New Jersey would improve the prospects for this zone. The subway system could be financed through a neighborhood tax increment financing district.

The fact that this project can be envisioned in a realistic fashion, however, does not prove that it would be the most reasonable use of the public purse. Further studies must be conducted to evaluate whether it is even possible from an engineering perspective. Mayor Bloomberg’s imagination today could be forgotten tomorrow.

An increase in the rail travel capacity between New York and New Jersey is one of the region’s top transportation needs. But moving more commuters does not require the construction of a new tunnel: Cheap changes to rail cars could be simple to implement and eventually a re-orientation of the metropolitan commuter rail system so that it operates more in the mode of regional rail could significantly improve convenience and carrying capacity along existing lines.

Moreover, it is an open question whether an investment in a 7 Train extension to New Jersey should be enough of a priority for the region that it bypasses other long-planned proposals. While the Second Avenue Subway’s first phase is under construction between 63rd and 96th Streets, other extensions of the line — north to 125th Street and south to the Battery — are essential to improve access to Manhattan’s East Side. Direct rail access to JFK Airport from Lower Manhattan has been pondered for decades. And streetcars on the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts were promoted by Mayor Bloomberg in his last reelection campaign. Whither these ideas? Should they be condemned to the scrap heap as a 7 Train extension moves forward?

Update: In a press conference this morning, MTA Chairman Jay Walder discussed the potential 7 Train extension to New Jersey. He argued that the agency needs to focus on the system’s existing mega-projects, including the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access, and the current (shorter) 7 Train extension. The MTA, he noted, has no funds for this project. Any funding for this project would have to come from another source.