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Feds Push Forward Projects in New York and Salt Lake; Bay Area Abandons Dumbarton Rail for Warm Springs

Environmental Statement for Access to the Region’s Core is Approved

The Access to the Region’s Core Tunnel, which will provide a new rail connection between New Jersey and New York, is a step closer to reality after federal authorities approved the $9 billion project’s environmental assessment. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and New Jersey, which are planning the project together, hope to receive $3 billion from the federal government in addition to the billions that the Authority and the Garden State have already allocated. The stimulus bill could provide the money to start construction on the project this summer. This would allow for completion in… 2017. The project is expected to create 40,000 to 50,000 jobs over the next eight years.

This is a necessary project for New York and its western suburbs, whose sole commuter rail connection is currently through a two-track 100-year-old tunnel that is woefully overcrowded. Those Hudson River tubes are shared with Amtrak. But, as we wrote two months ago on this blog, the project is fraught with a number of problems. Not only does it fail to provide New Jersey commuters direct access to the East Side of Manhattan and instead will deposit them in an incredibly deep station hundreds of feet below West 34th Street, but it will not connect to the existing Penn Station on the Manhattan side of the tunnel, meaning that through-running Amtrak trains will not be able to use the tracks. This will be a problem in the future when the existing tunnels have to be renovated. But the approval of the environmental statement virtually ensures that the project will be built as-designed, so no more complaining allowed.

Mid-Jordan LRT in Salt Lake City Gets Federal Funding

The Federal Transit Administration has committed to a full-funding grant agreement with the the Utah Transit Authority for the funding of the Mid-Jordan TRAX LRT line. The feds will provide $428.3 million for the project. Construction officially began last year after the FTA announced a Record of Decision and Letter of No Prejudice on behalf of the project, but the 10.6-mile line will not open for service until 2011. The line will serve the municipalities of Murray, Midvale, West Jordan, and South Jordan, running southwest from downtown Salt Lake.

BART Warm Springs Extension is Funded

The Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) has approved the transfer of $91 million in toll funds to the BART Warm Springs extension. This 5.4-mile project will bring BART heavy rail services south from the existing Fremont terminus to Warm Springs, with a possible future station to be constructed at Irvington, about halfway between the two other cities. The project is massively expensive for such a short line in the suburbs, at $890 million, because about a quarter of the route will be in a subway under Fremont Central Park. Because of the line’s high cost and limited likely ridership, it would have failed to receive federal funding under the FTA’s New Start grant process, so the line will not receive any federal money. Construction will begin this year, and service is expected to begin in mid-2014. This extension will be necessary for the ultimate implementation of BART service to Silicon Valley, which will extend from Warm Springs to Santa Clara, via Milpitas and Downtown San Jose.

Lost in the process? Any immediate possibility of having commuter rail built across the Dumbarton Bridge from the Union City BART Station in the East Bay to Millbrae BART in the West Bay. This $600 million project would have taken advantage of the same funds now allocated to this BART extension. The MTC, however, transferred the money to the latter project because its design was more fully developed. The result, however, makes getting across the South Bay by transit a fantasy rather than a future possibility.

Finance High-Speed Rail Light Rail New Jersey United Kingdom

Transit-Bank Deal Update; NJ Transit LRT Expansion; British HSR

Transit/Bank Deals Still Causing Headaches

Over the past few months, we’ve been following the deals made by transit agencies that involved them selling their trains and buses to banks, which then leased them back to the agencies. These deals, which seemed like a good idea at the time, exploded with the collapse of insurer AIG and are likely to cost transit agencies millions of dollars. Last month, Chris Dodd (D-CT) attempted to add transit aid to the proposed auto bailout, but when negotiations failed and the aid was rerouted through the U.S. Treasury, that aid was left by the wayside. As a result, transit agencies are still stuck with millions of dollars of bad deals.

Today, Propublica reports that transit agencies remain generally optimistic about their chances of getting the aid, but there’s no clear route by which that can be done. After all, the stimulus bill, the main potential source of future funding, is supposed to be for capital projects, not for dealing with prior funding commitments.

Transit agencies have been able to negotiate some extensions on these deals, which would allow them to delay payments to banks as they wait for a Congressional bailout. Washington’s Metro has settled three of its sixteen deals and gotten extensions on nine others. Atlanta has also been able to get a variety of extensions.

But there remains no obvious federal government help for the agencies, which are likely to have to cut service in the coming months to pay off the millions owed unless some help is provided.

New Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen Light Rail System Continues to Expand

The Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, whose first link opened in 2000 in Jersey City and Hoboken, continues its march towards expansion along the North Jersey waterfront. So far, the project has been relatively successful, attracting around 40,000 trips a day, though planners hope that this urban route can someday carry 100,000 riders each weekday. reports that a southern extension of the line from 22nd Street to Eighth Street in Bayonne began in April and is on track for completion in 2010.

This is a short, one-station expansion that will place the line’s terminus just across the Kill Van Kull from Staten Island, making a future connection to that section of New York City possible. It is a $58.4 million project.

Meanwhile, legislators in NJ also are pushing for stimulus money to pay for another expansion of the same system, which would be a western extension from West Side Avenue Station to a new redevelopment area on the Hackensack riverfront. Another possible line would run west the Tonnelle Avenue northern terminus in North Bergen to the Meadowlands/Xanadu complex currently under construction.

These two latter extensions will significantly alter the tone of the the Hudson-Bergen line, moving it from a waterfront-based operation to one providing service to the inland sections of Northern Jersey. Working along with New Jersey Transit’s commuter rail operation, this expansion will make using transit in the area far simpler, as well as encourage the future development of the “Gold Coast” in Jersey City and Hoboken as an alternative to Manhattan for high-rise residential and commercial development.

Britain Tip-Toes Closer to a Major High-Speed Rail Investment

The BBC and the Guardian report that the United Kingdom’s transport minister, Lord Andrew Adonis, has come around completely to the idea of a major transit hub at London’s Heathrow Airport, complete with a direct high-speed rail line to London’s St. Pancras Station. This operation, which would cost £4.5 billion, would be the first phase of the future U.K. high-speed main line between London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds, and allow for a large reduction in trips between the country’s major cities, as well as allow travellers in the northern U.K. to get to Heathrow without taking an airplane there. It would also allow easy connections to Eurostar trains at St. Pancras, allowing travel to France and Belguim.

Lord Adonis has been remarkably slow in pushing for this operation, instead first arguing that it was too expensive an investment. But the Conservative party has argued strongly for the new line, pushing the argument that high-speed rail would make the U.K. more competitive. This has stuck with the general public and the media, and Lord Adonis’ turn-around (as well as that of his ruling Labour party in general) bodes well for high-speed rail in England.

Now the question that needs to be resolved is whether Heathrow will get a major expansion, or whether the high-speed rail link will be enough to satisfy future travel demand. Environmentalists have argued that the construction of a proposed third runway is unnecessary with the HSR line, but Labour has so far been supported the project. Whether or not that support continues in the coming months is to be seen.