China New York Ottawa

Chinese Rail Expansion; Ottawa Prioritizes Transit

I’m sorry I haven’t updated in a few days – for unclear reasons, I ended up in Stuttgart and have been having trouble finding internet other than at the local Starbucks, which is charging 8 Euros an hour, completely unacceptable. So I find myself at Coffee Fellows.

Thanks to the Overhead Wire, more information on China’s enormous rail expansion in Business Week. Looks like the overall $546 billion ($190 billion of which for railways) economic stimulus plan will include, as expected, thousands of miles of new railways serving the entire country. China Daily reports that inner city subway lines will also benefit, though costs are increasing tremendously; for example, subways in Beijing now cost 800 million yuan (about $110 million) a km to build, up from only 100 million a few years back. As a result, the government’s stimulus plan couldn’t come at a better time, seeing as how it will enable cities to invest now, rather than later as costs continue to mount.

Overall, this will allow cities in China to ramp up their urban rail mileage from 550 km today to about 3500 km by 2020. Quite an expansion.

The head of New Jersey’s Department of Transportation, Kris Kolluri, sees China’s path towards increased rail funding as excellent news. He argues that $1.2 billion worth of transportation projects in his state alone could be started in 90 days were Congress to approve its expected infrastructure-funding program in the next few weeks. This would, he estimates, create about 10,000 jobs immediately and act effectively to stem the increase in unemployment rolls the United States is currently experiencing as the economic crisis deepens.

Kolluri also announced that the ARC project, which will produce another rail tunnel from New Jersey into East Midtown, will be under construction next year, as the Federal Transit Administration has granted approval to the project’s environmental impact statement and will begin to release funds. A deficit of funds, importantly, still exists, and the federal and state governments will have to find a way to make up the gap.

Ottawa, the capital of Canada, is moving ahead on a large transit plan of its own. Prioritizing transit over roads, the city’s transportation staff has encouraged the city council to create a “compact, transit city” out of what exists there now. The first phase of the project envisions a $1.7 billion light rail line that will traverse the city east-west along the city’s existing bus transit way. This has been a plan for years, and caused considerable opposition. We’ll see if the city’s council agrees. Second and third phases will include a southern link for the same light rail line. Interestingly, the city is considering selling the line to a private operator. Considering that virtually all transit is unprofitable, we’re not sure that will come through…

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…

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.

Finance Infrastructure New York

Will the Second Avenue Subway be Cancelled Once Again?

The Second Avenue Subway has been planned and replanned in New York City at least four times. Each time, the city’s subway planners announced that they would be able to commence construction, but ultimately were forced to delay and then cancel the project because of a lack of money and economic recessions. In the 1970s, the Transit Authority built a number of track sections for the line, tunnelling from 99th to 105th streets and from 110th to 119th streets. But then the city came incredibly close to declaring bankruptcy, President Gerald Ford metaphorically told the city to “Drop Dead,” and the Municipal Assistance Corporation, taking control of the city’s budget and run by the banks, cut off all spending on non-essential services, and some essential ones too (like funding for hospitals and police). Suffice it to say construction stopped.

But expanding subway ridership in the 1990s and 2000s, which now makes subway ridership the highest it’s been since WWII, forced the city to once again consider a second line on the East Side of Manhattan. The Lexington Avenue Line (the 4, 5, and 6 green lines for you novices) is hopelessly overcrowded, with far more ridership than the entire Washington, D.C. Metro system. And much of the eastern edges of the island are simply not well served considering their extreme densities. So the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) began construction in 2007 on the new line, the first phase of which will run as an extension of the Broadway Q Line from 63rd to 96th street, with intermediary stations at 72nd and 86th streets. This tiny 1.7-mile line, to open in 2015, will carry 200,000 people a day – more than just about any rapid transit line in the U.S. outside of New York.

Here’s the important point: though 1.7 miles is nothing for a transportation project, there’s enough work to be done in the next seven years that any significant delay in funding will not only push the project back (this has already happened; the line was supposed to be finished in 2012 originally), but it will eventually force the project to go into hibernation; in other words, it will be cancelled. The other sections of the line, which is supposed to extend up to 125th street and down to Whitehall street in lower Manhattan, might as well be cancelled today.

I don’t want to start digging the grave for the line yet because it has received billions of dollars of funding from the U.S. FTA and will be the recipient of $500 million from a New York State transportation bond that one approval from voters back in 2005. After all, earlier this year, the CEO of the MTA, Lee Sander, announced that the MTA would be pursuing a massive expansion – including new extensions in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, as well as a Triboro line that would avoid Manhattan altogether. Shouldn’t the Second Avenue Subway just be the beginning of great new services for the city?

If only the answer could be yes. But the MTA’s funding is provided by three sources: fares, a .375% sales tax, and a real estate transfer tax (thanks Transit Blogger). Fare revenue is unlikely to go down because ridership seems to be increasing or at least staying steady, according to Second Avenue Sagas – New Yorkers seem positively giddy about their subway system, even during an economic crisis. But the failure of the economy in the last month – especially its financial sector – is going to hurt New York more than any other city (other than perhaps Charlotte). The real estate market, which has remade New York in past decade, is going way down, and the revenues dedicated to the MTA will follow. The state expects housing prices to decline every month for the next 15. Sales tax revenues will likely follow the same path, considering the growing shortage of bonus-laden investment bankers.

The MTA is now revising its budget estimates and envisioning not a $900 million deficit, but something three or four times larger instead. Times are tough for the agency, and unless suddenly there’s a huge infusion of cash from some foreign investor, service is going to have to be cut. But service can’t be cut, because ridership is at record levels. Trains are already crowded on almost every line in the system. So what can the agency do? I suggest to you that there may be no choice but to cut the Second Avenue Subway from the budget. There will be no massive expansion during a period of economic downfall.

The irony of this situation – one that is being duplicated in cities across the country – escapes no one. We have high transit ridership, and yet we can’t fund the services. And decreased transit services – espcially in dependent cities like New York – are likely to only make the economy worse off. Putting the city’s eight million inhabitants in a bind everytime they want to get around is going to discourage them from getting around. An economic crisis that is already tearing the city apart will be extended.

Of course, there are alternatives; the MTA could be provided more money from the city, state, or federal governments. The city can’t give away anything, though: though Mayor Michael Bloomberg may be exaggerating current problems, there’s little doubt that future budgets will see massive, multi-billion-dollar deficits. Meanwhile, the state’s projected budget deficit for the next three and a half years is now projected at an astonishing $47 billion. The idea that the state of New York would give more, not less money to the MTA considering this problem is laughable. So what is the MTA to do?

New York Governor David Paterson, along with New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, are doing the right thing in pleading their case to Washington. New York is certainly not alone in facing budget problems – California, it might be argued, is worse off. There is absolutely no excuse for the federal government to give away $700 billion to failing financial companies just as states and cities across the country face cuts that will doom the provision of absolutely necessary services like transportation. The U.S. Government has far greater capacity to take on debts than states or cities do.

As I argued a few posts ago, the federal government has a very important role to play in funding the renovation and expansion of existing transit systems. If financial services corporations can expect a massive bailout, transit agencies, which, unlike those corporations, haven’t done anything wrong or been motivated by profit, certainly should expect the same. It’s time for a change in priorities in Washington. If not, we can expect, once again, that the Second Avenue Subway will be a figment of our imaginations.