Chicago High-Speed Rail New Orleans

Local Beneficiaries of Obama's Presidency

We’ve had some discussion in the past about the potential implications of an Obama presidency. As we noted on Thursday, California’s High Speed Rail System, now that it has a $10 billion taxpayer-approved bond on its side, may well be the first project to benefit. But there are three other major infrastructure projects that are quite likely to find further funding in the first few months of the Administration: the further reconstruction of New Orleans and the surrounding area post-Katrina; a Midwest High-Speed Rail system initially emanating from Chicago; and the necessary financing of the Chicago 2016 Olympic Games, if the city is selected by the International Olympic Committee as host.

Mr. Obama has made it clear that the Bush Administration’s failure to provide for the functional reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is unacceptable. His campaign platform argues that “as president, Barack Obama will partner with the people of the Gulf Coast to rebuild now, stronger than ever.”

New Orleans’ transit network was devastated by the hurricane. It had recently completed construction on its first new streetcar line in years, along Canal Street, and outfitted that line with brand new cars. But the storm’s rising waters destroyed their machinery. And the city’s older existing line, along St. Charles Avenue, had its catenary system tangled by the hundreds of fallen trees in its path.

While the Federal Transit Administration under Bush has indeed helped the city pay for not only the reconstruction of the damaged cars but also gotten to the St. Charles line going again (a renewal of the catenaries was planned anyway), there has been little federal interest in paying for expansions of the network.

Pre-storm plans for a “Desire Streetcar” that would travel from the city’s core to the Lower Ninth Ward to the East and to the Airport to the West seem to be regaining traction with the city’s recovery. If we are to believe the campaign’s rhetoric about giving this area of the country a second chance, then an investment in improved transit seems likely, and we might indeed see the Desire Streetcar fast-tracked.

In Obama’s native Midwest, perhaps the biggest winner will be the Midwest High-Speed Rail proposal, which would dramatically improve services in that area of the country. Unlike the California High-Speed Rail plan, which involves the construction of a brand-new corridor for trains travelling at up to 220-mph, the Midwest plan would simply improve existing rail corridors to make them able to handle trains running at up to 110-mph.

Indeed, while this would not be most dramatic of improvements, it would allow train travel to be competitive on routes of less than 300 miles with automobile travel. This plan is similar to that proposed by Southeas-High Speed Rail. The first phase of the plan would be involve improving the lines that spread out from Chicago. Since these older lines need dramatic improvement for the sake of the city’s commuter rail anyway, their development for a Midwest High-Speed Rail program makes sense.

Obama’s repeated expressions of excitement about the potential of high-speed rail to improve communication networks in that region implies that he will devote himself to working on funding the service

China proved this year how an Olympics can radically transform a city for the better. Beijing’s renaissance, including the construction of a vast network of subway lines, the huge olympic stadia, and the development of a new Central Business District put the Chinese capital firmly into the small group of world cities and allowed it to host a highly successful Games.

More importantly, though, the improvements that came with the Olympics have made it significantly more livable for its own inhabitants. This is the real potential benefits of hosting the Games: making a dysfunctional city workable again. And herein lies Chicago’s chance with its plan to host the 2016 Games. This great Midwestern city, for all its beauty and fame, is in some ways falling apart at its seams. Its transit system is repeatedly underfunded, its elevated trains still running on uneven tracks and its stations have ancient wooden platforms. Meanwhile, though its reputation and economy have improved far more than many other formerly industrial cities, huge sections of the city’s West and South sides remain impoverished and crime-ridden. The exodus from the urban core that marked the period beginning in the 1960s is still plainly evident, with many neighborhoods half-vacant, the result of arson and neglect.

Chicago’s Olympic Games would provide an impetus for change, especially since the epicenter of the Games would be in the depressed South Side. But only if the Obama Administration commits to a large share of the project’s costs will the benefits be manifest. Indeed, the recent economic downturn and the city’s already shaky finances mean that it would never be able to fund improvements itself.

And it needs improvements. While Chicago has a natural opportunity to win the games, as North America hasn’t hosted the summer event since 1996, transportation is a major problem. Competitors for the opportunity to host Madrid and Tokyo have far more extensive and modern transit networks.

Chicago’s Applicant File assumes the development of two major expansions to the network, both of which provide bypasses around the Central Business District. The Circle Line would be a secondary loop around the city’s core, providing direct access to the United Airlines Center, which would be a major location for Olympic events. The STAR Line, which would be run by the commuter rail system Metra, would be less useful for the purposes of the Games but allow for suburb-to-suburb commutes by public transportation, a service that is currently impossible.

Though almost all venues are either at current stations or near them, the overcrowded transport infrastructure as it stands today wouldn’t be able to handle the crowds, though the plan calls for events to be scheduled at off-peak hours as possible. As a result, the project will be compact, with most events in and around the Olympic Village on Lake Michigan. In addition, “Olympic Lanes” along the region’s highways would allow for athlete shuttles to move quickly between events.

But the fundamental point is that Chicago will not be an effective host unless its public transport infrastructure is improved. Fortunately, President-Elect Obama, whose adopted home is Chicago, has demonstrated his past interest in supporting the Games. This support will be essential in providing funding to improve transit services adequate for the International Olympic Committee to support Chicago’s bid.

Beijing Chicago Honolulu New York President

Chicago to Benefit from Obama Election; Beijing Commuter Rail; ARC Costs a Lot More

Finally, the end of a long and dramatic week!

The Wall Street Journal had a nice report today about the potential benefits of an Obama Presidency for Chicago, which needs funding for transit as well as for its fledging 2016 Olympics bid. It’s not hard to imagine that Obama will focus on his adopted home town, especially now that his White House Chief of Staff will be Rahm Emanuel, another Chicago native. Also, one of the new co-chairs of his transition team, Valerie Jarrett, who is the chair of the University of Chicago Medical Center’s Board, once was the chair the Chicago Transit Authority and worked in the city planning agency. She will be a strong proponent of transit and smart growth and she’s a good addition to the Obama team.

We will be discussing Obama’s influence on specific local projects, including the Chicago Olympics bid, in a post this weekend.

In Beijing, the government has announced the construction of a 100-kilometer suburban rail line which will provide efficient suburb-to-city centre commutes that are currently only realistically possible on the highways in automobiles. This comes on the heels of the city’s recent announcement that it will built two more subway lines, this in addition to the opening of three lines in July for the Olympic Games. Overall, the city plans 516 km of urban rail by 2015, up from 200 km today.

Note: by 2015, New York City will have (theoretically) completed the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway, a 4 km line. Don’t laugh, cry.

Meanwhile, in the New York Region, the Access to the Region’s Core project, which will provide a second rail tunnel from New Jersey to East Midtown, is now estimated to cost $8.7 billion. That’s $1 billion more than estimated last year. Based on the fact that the states of New York and New Jersey are approaching bankruptcy, either the federal government gets involved to a greater extent or this project isn’t happening.

Anyone think this project doens’t make that much sense, anyway? The new tunnels won’t connect New Jersey riders to the tracks at the existing Penn Station, meaning that through-running Amtrak trains can’t use them, and the terminus is on the West Side, which New Jersey commuters can already get to. Why isn’t the station being built in the vicinity of Grand Central instead? It would make a lot more sense.

Finally, opposition mounts in the Salt Lake area of Honolulu following yesterday’s announcement that the rail line that was approved this week might bypass that area in favor of providing better service to the airport. Expect further controversy before the situation is resolved…

High-Speed Rail Honolulu Light Rail London Los Angeles

CAHSR May Get Federal Funds; Honolulu LRT to be Re-routed; London Transit Plans Shrink

Now that the election’s over, we can start talking about some of the consequences. The most important event Tuesday night was the decision by California voters to approve a $10 billion bond for high-speed rail in that state, and the High-Speed Rail Authority there is already beginning work. Though construction won’t begin until 2010 at the earliest, the Authority has already been allocated $40 million for the completion of the environmental studies. But the main task of the agency will have to be finding the other $22 billion that will be necessary to complete the first link, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, with an extension to Anaheim. This money is expected to come from federal and private sources.

Some of the $1.5 billion recently allocated by Congress for rail projects will probably go to California. But Democrats have previously promised a lot more funding for high-speed rail, so we might see $10 billion from the legislature for this project if the infrastructure bill we discussed previously comes through. California’s line will be the first funded in the nation, especially because the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is from San Francisco, and the head of the Senate’s infrastructure committee is California’s Barbara Boxer. There will be money for this state’s system, probably allocated during the first few months of Obama’s campaign.

Private companies need to be attracted to contribute the other $12 billion necessary, and they’re likely to chip in for land surrounding proposed stations where public-private development will be encouraged. The real question is whether the current real estate downtown will negatively affect this project or whether these sources of money will look at the long-term of high-speed rail.

Meanwhile, the Bus Riders’ Union, always defending buses, sees this project as a “luxury train” and is likely to push for its derailment. Fortunately, the BRU, which we’ve discussed in the context of Los Angeles, has little influence statewide.

In Honolulu, the rail system that was approved on Tuesday is likely to be re-routed. Current plans are to have the 20-mile system leave downtown and head west through a section of the city called Salt Lake. This would mean that any airport service would come in another phase as a spur line. But it appears that the vote in favor of rail has changed the minds of some council people (a map showing the two routes is in the Honolulu Advertiser story), who now suggest that a line to the airport would be more valuable than one through Salt Lake.

There are benefits to both routings: whereas the Salt Lake line would serve more locals and a major mall, the Airport route would be better for tourists. Reelected Mayor Mufi Hannemann has in the past expressed his interest in the airport route, so we’ll see in the next few weeks what the council decides.

Meanwhile, in London, which, as we’ve discussed before, has a major transit system improvement plan, new Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson is scrapping a large number of projects meant to improve service in poor East London, which voted for him over former Labour Mayor “Red” Ken Livingstone. Livingstone had a number of projects planned for the east side of the city, including tram extensions and the pedestrianization of several open spaces in the city’s center.

Johnson, however, sees those projects as unnecessary and instead wants to focus on the government’s Crossrail program, a regional rail through link with underground stations in the city center (much like Paris’ RER or Philadelphia’s CCCC). He also wants the continued improvement of London’s Underground with air conditioned trains. This is disappointing news for East London but keep in mind the city has an astonishing 39 Billion Pounds worth of transit projects that will be complted before 2018.

Metro Rail New York

Second Avenue Subway: Rethink 2

Second Avenue Lower East Side Subway

We discussed yesterday the potential advantages of rethinking the construction phases of the Second Avenue Subway. Building a line down 125th Street first, rather than immediately thinking about continuing the subway downtown, would be a good choice. Realistically, however, the MTA is unlikely to change the order in which the line will be built, so we’re likely to see the downtown sections of the line completed before we’re even contemplating a 125th Street Line. But does the downtown extension as currently designed make sense? We think not. Instead, we’ll describe in this post why a detour off Second Avenue and into the Lower East Side makes a lot more sense than the current plans for the route.

Current Plans for the Second Avenue Subway in Downtown Manhattan

The first two phases of the subway as currently designed would act as an extension of the Broadway Q line and serve passengers on Second Avenue from 63rd Street up to 125th Street. The current plans for the third and fourth phases bring the same services down to the tip of Manhattan, with the line running roughly below Second Avenue and Chrystie Street until Chatham Square, where the line diverges east to provide a station near South Street Seaport and then finally at Hanover Square, which is about three blocks away from Battery Park.

The current plan calls for stations at 14th Street, Houston, and Grand before reaching Chatham Square. Each of those stations would be located immediately adjacent to stations serving existing lines (the L; F and V; and B and D, respectively), and two “avenue” blocks away from stations along the Lexington Avenue line. New stations along the Second Avenue Line at these three locations would provide minimal new benefits to existing riders. Here’s why:

14th Street Station: Riders here are just two blocks from the large Union Square complex, which already provides service to both West and East Midtown, Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn on the Lexington Avenue and Broadway Lines. A Second Avenue Subway would allow access to far East Side destinations, but the Lexington Lines are so close that the additional benefit is limited.

Houston Street Station: At Houston, the F and V lines already provide service to Midtown under 6th Avenue, as well as connections to Queens and Brooklyn. Importantly, riders wanting to get to the Upper East Side could easily take F trains to 63rd Street, where they would be able to transfer across the platform to uptown-bound Q trains in the first two phases of the Second Avenue Subway. Also, the Lexington Avenue Lines are very close.

Grand Street Station: Here, the B and D, also running on 6th Avenue, provide good service to Midtown, the Upper West Side, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. Riders wanting to get downtown can walk one or two blocks to the J, M, Z or Lexington Avenue Line stations.

But the most important point is this: since all three stations will be built where subway service already exists, no new areas of the city become more easily transit-accessible. And unlike our proposed 125th Street line, which also only would connect existing subway stations, the currently proposed Lower East Side route for the Second Avenue Subway doesn’t really provide better transfer opportunities, as the descriptions of the stops above demonstrate.

So, a revision is in order. The Second Avenue Subway’s downtown route should be significantly revised to provide two significant improvements: one, increasing subway access to currently transit-deprived areas of the city; and two, improving transfer opportunities for passengers who currently have trouble moving between lines.

Proposed Changes in the Subway’s Routing

As illustrated in the image above (here’s the PDF), the Second Avenue Subway would be more effective if its route were pushed down Avenues B or C in the East Village rather than if it were built as planned on Second Avenue in the Lower East Side. We propose a routing where the line diverges onto 14th Street, parallel to the existing L, before it turns off down one of the two East Village avenues. The line would then include a stop near Tompkins Park, another at Delancey Street, and a connection at East Broadway with the F line that currently stops there. It would then rejoin the existing downtown routing at Chatham Square.

Regional Plan Association has developed a similar plan in its recent report, but does not provide adequate evidence for why it is important, as we intend to do here. Second, RPA refers to the Lower East Side line as a spur, not the Second Avenue Subway’s main line.

But the MTA does not have the resources – and never will – to build a spur line. But because the stations that we propose eliminating – at Houston and Grand Street – do not serve significant employment bases, there’s little reason that the line down Second Avenue in this section of the city is absolutely necessary. In other words, people travelling from the Upper East Side will be going to workplaces downtown, not in the Lower East Side, so changing the route of the subway here will not alter their commutes. This new routing through the East Village should be the main and only line of the subway.

This proposal fulfills both criteria we set out for what would make an effective line by both serving transit-deprived areas and improving transfer opportunities for passengers attempting to move between lines.

For one, but moving the tracks two to three “avenue” blocks east, the subway serves the large, often poor and minority populations of the far east side whose apartments are simply too far from existing stations. This would be to the benefit especially of the Delancey Street Station, which would be located adjacent to the Williamsburg Bridge approach; many of the public housing units in this area are fundamentally isolated from the rest of the city and deserve greater connectivity. These people would benefit from greatly improved mobility and significantly reduced commuting time for travel up and downtown. The increasingly densely populated East Village, too, could benefit dramatically from the construction of a station at its heart, in Tompkins Square.

Why connect the line at East Broadway with the F train? Because it would allow commuters from Brooklyn travelling on the F to reach East Midtown far more easily than today. Currently, commuters on the F wishing to get to the Grand Central/United Nations area must either make the very long transfer at Bryant Park or walk from that 6th Avenue Station all the way East. There is no transfer at Broadway-Lafayette Street to the  6 train, a situation which is planned to be repaired, but which will only crowd the Lexington Lines even further. By allowing the Second Avenue Line to connect at East Broadway, commuters coming in from Brooklyn would have easy access to both the Lower East Side and East Midtown.

Along with the 125th Street Line, the Lower East Side diversion discussed here would have a positive role in improving transit for the city’s population. The currently proposed route, which does not provide any commute time improvements for inhabitants of the East Village, and which does not significantly improve transfer opportunities, simply is not an adequate choice. The MTA should seriously consider reworking its plan.

Metro Rail New York

Second Avenue Subway: Rethink 1

125 Street Second Avenue Subway

The Second Avenue Subway is New York City’s biggest mass transit project, and its second biggest infrastructure project, just a little less expensive than the massive Water Tunnel Number 3, which has been under construction since 1970 and will not be completed until 2020. The subway has a long history, dating back for almost a century, since the IND Second Subway Plan of 1929. has an excellent overview of the plan and its components, as well as a description of what parts of the project were begun in the 1970s. So we’re not going to repeat what’s already been written here; instead, in two posts, today and tomorrow, we’ll be discussing the current plan for the subway and what changes should be made to make it a more efficient and popular line.

The current plan for the line argues that it be constructed in four phases, as follows:

  1. Phase I: An extension of the Broadway Q from 63rd Street to 96th Street, with new stations at 72nd, 86th, and 96th Street; the Q would continue to be a Broadway Express train below the 72nd Street Station (this is currently under construction and expected to be completed in 2015);
  2. Phase II: An extension of the Q line to 125th Street, with new stations at 106th, 116th, and 125th Street (connection to 4, 5, 6, and Metro-North); this phase would include tracks that would allow the line to continue along 125th Street and/or into the Bronx;
  3. Phase III: An extension of the Second Avenue line down to Houston Street, with new stations at 55th (connection to E, V F, and 6), 42nd (connection to 4, 5, 6, 7, S, and Metro-North), 34th, 23rd, 14th (connection to L), and Houston Streets (connection to F); the opening of Phase III would mean the creation of a new T line that would travel the full length of Second Avenue and along with the Q in the Upper East Side (this would also allow for a future U line running from Queens in the 63rd Street tunnel, down Second Avenue);
  4. Phase IV: An extension of the T line downtown, with new stations at Grand St (connection to D and B), Chatham Sq, South Street Seaport, and Hanover Square.

There are excellent reasons to begin with what is called Phase I because it takes advantage of an easy extension of the Q line, giving people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan a direct route to the Times Square business district, as well as the core of the 34th Street retail corridor. It also relieves the busiest sections of the overcrowded Lexington Avenue lines by providing a second route downtown. The same basic argument could be made for Phase II, since it too would be an extension of the Q, providing West Side access and relief to currently overcrowded stations.

As we’ve discussed, in today’s economic conditions, the completion of even the portion of the line under construction today is in doubt; the MTA simply does not have enough money. But major federal and state grants may come in the form of stimulus packages, and New York City’s real estate market will likely rebound in the near-enough future and provide adequate financing to continue the subway’s expansion. So what should follow Phase II? Do the MTA’s current plans for a longer Second Avenue Subway make sense?

We would like to posit here that a more worthwhile use of limited funds could be made in extending the new line west down 125th Street, rather than further downtown. The idea of a 125th Street line is implicit in the design of Phase II, which will include track sections designed specifically so that they can be extended west (there will also be a turn off for the Bronx). And 125th Street is the focus of most transit planners’ ideas about what streets deserve crosstown subway services. (Regional Plan Association’s recent Tomorrow’s Transit report (PDF) includes the idea, for instance.)

But we advance this idea specifically: Phase III of the Second Avenue Subway should be 125th Street, not the downtown line.

Why is it less important for people below 63rd Street to get a new subway line than for those above? Any line serving the East Side of Manhattan would play an important role in relieving stress on the Lexington Avenue lines. The fundamental difference is that the line serving the Upper East Side in Phases I and II will operate as a Broadway Q train and therefore provide access to the West Side business district, a service not currently provided directly for East Siders. This would reduce passenger loads on the Times Square-Grand Central Shuttle as well as decrease the number of people transferring from the Lexington Avenue 6 to the E and F at 53rd Street, the most crushed of all subway stations.

On the other hand, the T line below 63rd Street would parallel the Lexington Avenue lines and therefore not provide a new service, since it would simply allow a slightly shorter walk to the subway for those who live on the far East Side. And because the Second Avenue Subway’s route in Lower Manhattan is peripheral, further away from the core business district, the Lexington Avenue lines will continue to provide superior access to jobs for those who have the option to choose between the two lines.

On the other hand, a 125th Street route would provide superior connectivity throughout the subway system and dramatically improve service between the East and West Sides. The image above provides descriptions of which areas of the city would benefit directly from a 125th Street expansion (download the PDF here). The principal advantage of the system is that it would allow riders to go crosstown without going downtown. Who benefits? Riders in Harlem, Upper Manhattan, and the Bronx on the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, A, B, C, and D lines north of 110th Street. Riders on the 6th (B and D), 7th (1, 2, and 3), and 8th (A and C) Avenue Lines are currently shuttled to the West Side – even if their jobs are located on the East Side – and would for the first time get the chance to ride to the Upper East Side without going downtown, and also get the chance to transfer to the Lexington Avenue lines without using the overcrowded midtown crosstown routes. Riders on the Lexington Avenue (4, 5, and 6) lines in the Bronx would be able to transfer to West Side trains, again, without going downtown. Finally, a 125th Street line would mean far easier movement between the Upper East Side and Upper West Side, currently a difficult proposition not helped by the extremely slow bus service across Central Park.

So a 125th Street extension would provide dramatically enhanced subway mobility for the large number of inhabitants of Upper Manhattan, Harlem, and the Bronx; this cannot be said for people to be served under the currently planned Phases III and IV. Therefore, the 125th Street, again acting as an extension of the Broadway Q train, should be prioritized.

All this is not to ignore the importance of the rest of the Second Avenue Subway; in no way should the section south of 63rd Street be cancelled, especially if a connection from Queens is provided (on the future U train). It would dramatically decrease crowding in the southern Manhattan sections of the Lexington Avenue lines and increase the number of trains that could be sent in from Queens. But the MTA should seriously consider whether or not these improvements are worth more than the significant advances made possible with a line under 125th Street.