Categories
Commuter Rail New York

A Misunderstanding in New Jersey

Today’s New York Times included an editorial criticizing New Jersey Transit for the way in which it had constructed the Secaucus Transfer Station. Here’s an excerpt from that piece:

“Ever since it opened it 2003, the sprawling Frank R. Lautenberg railroad station next to the northern end of the New Jersey Turnpike in Secaucus has left everyone inclined to use it scratching their heads in bewilderment.

“There is no place for commuters to park their cars within miles of the station, which was intended as a transfer station only.”

The station cost a total of $450 million – an insane number for just one elevated stop on the state’s commuter rail lines. But viewed from some perspectives, it serves an important role in the rail network. Basically, it allows commuters on the Bergen, Main, Port Jervis, and Pascack Valley lines – which currently terminate at Hoboken, rather than Midtown Manhattan – to switch directly to other lines in NJT’s system, which do service New York’s Penn Station directly.

In this way, the Secaucus Transfer does play an important role – albeit only for the small number of people who are inclined to need the connection it provides.

But where the Times has it wrong is in its focus on automobile commuters. The location of the station is in the middle of New Jersey’s Meadowlands – there are few people in the immediate surrounding area, and few people for whom driving to another station is any harder. The development of thousands of parking spaces in the surrounding area is likely to only increase congestion on the Jersey Turnpike. The excuse that the parking is to be provided for new development on the Meadowlands doesn’t make any sense, either: the land is swampy and the environmental consequences will be negative for the wildlife. To make matters worse, people using new buildings there are more likely to be drivers than train-takers. Maybe new development would make more sense in inner-city Newark, which deserperately needs more investment.

But back to New Jersey’s decision to build the station in the first place. The problem with the plan is that it is quite easy for commuters on the rail lines that do not head to Midtown Manhattan to transfer to PATH trains at the Hoboken terminal – and get better access to Manhattan. So perhaps no one needed the station initially…

Categories
Commuter Rail New York

Rethinking Access to the Region’s Core

Rethinking Access to the Region's Core

New Jersey Transit has a major problem. Its commuter rail tunnels heading into New York’s Penn Station, completed one hundred years ago, are mercilessly overcrowded, since they handle all traffic heading into New York on the Northeast Corridor, not only on NJ Transit, but also on Amtrak. NJ Transit’s recent adoption of double-decker trains allow for increased capacity, but Amtrak simply cannot increase the number of trains entering and leaving New York. And the likely future growth of jobs in New York’s Midtown means that the New Jersey commuter service needs a way to increase capacity.

Thus, New Jersey Transit’s Access to the Region’s Core (ARC), a project sometimes also known pitifully as THE tunnel, as in Trans-Hudson Express. Expected to begin construction in 2010, the enormous $9 billion project will mean the doubling of existing New Jersey-New York capacity by completely a new tunnel under the New Jersey Palisades, then under the Hudson River, to a new, very deep station just north of the existing Penn Station. It will also connect the New Jersey transit commuter rail lines that currently feed only to the Hoboken Terminal on the Jersey waterfront to the main line, allowing them direct access to Manhattan. The project, along with New York’s other major commuter rail megaprojects and potential alternatives, is illustrated in the image to the right (or in PDF form).

ARC originally made a lot more sense. Its second pair of tunnels would have allowed for both Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains to experience a significant jump in capacity, since the tunnels were originally intended to connect to Penn Station. As Cap’N Transit has documented, that plan has since fallen apart as funding limitations have set in. This means that the new tunnels will not be used by Amtrak through trains. Second, commuters on trains using the ARC tunnels will be forced into the very deep underground station, which will be convenient to absolutely no one. Third, and perhaps most importantly, this massive tunnel project will never allow New Jersey commuters a direct connection to the East Side of Midtown, since the new station will be located directly in front of Water Tunnel #3, which means it will not be expanded Eastward.

This violates one of our basic rules of transit expansion: that it be designed to offer a new service. If $9 billion rail tunnels take commuters to a more inconvenient destination than they’re currently offered, something is very much wrong with the plan.

New Jersey should look at what the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is doing with its two megaprojects. For the Long Island Railroad, the MTA is building an East Side tunnel, which will allow about one third of LIRR trains to head to a deep new station below Grand Central. While this isn’t exactly the ideal solution, since customers will be so deep underground it will take them five minutes at a minumum to get to the surface, it will mean direct service to Manhattan’s East Midtown for the first time for Long Island suburban commuters, who have thus far always been routed directly to Penn Station on the West Side. This is a major advancement in service, and will mean that Penn Station itself is less crowded as more LIRR trains can be redirected to the Grand Central terminus.

Similarly, the MTA plans to implement Metro-North commuter rail service to Penn Station after East Side Access opens up free capacity in that station. Using the underused Amtrak Hell’s Gate Bridge for New Haven line services and the West Side Empire Services for Hudson line services (including the Freedom Tunnel), Metro-North trains from upstate New York and Connecticut will be granted direct service to Penn Station on the West Side. This will be a major change for these commuters, who have been used to the East Side only.

So far, few serious plans have proposed expanding suburban rail service to downtown Manhattan, but LIRR and MNR have made their intentions clear: they plan to offer their customers the option to travel to either the West or East Sides. So why isn’t New Jersey Transit doing the same? And if it wanted to, how could it proceed on such a path?

Fortunately, Grand Central Terminal is ideally suited to stop being a terminal. Both the East Side Access project by LIRR and the lower level of Metro-North’s services are designed to allow for the expansion of services south. As illustrated in the image above, New Jersey Transit’s new tunnel could be redesigned to allow trains directly to Grand Central. While the existing plans for a tunnel would not function effectively because of the water tunnel in the way, ARC could be rerouted to provide efficient service to the East Side. This should be the priority for NJ Transit as it would allow tens of thousands of its customers working in East Midtown to avoid the time-consuming crosstown rides to which they’re currently subjected. And because the trains would connect directly either to Metro-North or LIRR tunnels, ARC could be used by Amtrak. The agency could take advantage of the space to expand services, an important possibility considering growing interest in expanding the nationwide rail netowrk. The advantages of through-running service has been well-documented by Auto-Free New York.

We have illustrated two rough routes on the map on this page. The first would provide a slight diversion from the existing plan, mainly intended for the service to proceed under the water tunnel. Another West Side station could be included in this plan, but considering that Penn Station would continue to provide most New Jersey service, we’re not sure whether that’s as necessary as NJ Transit has been arguing. More importantly, it would allow a connection with Grand Central.

More intriguing perhaps is National Corridors’ vision of a Hoboken tunnel. Instead of building a connection from the Hoboken-bound lines to the Northeast Corridor, as is currently planned for ARC to provide direct New York access to all NJ Transit lines, the ARC tunnel would be routed under Hoboken, where an existing commuter rail terminus intersects with light rail and PATH lines. Here are some basic advantages of this proposal:

  • It would mean that the Hoboken station would continue to play an important role; current plans would make the station virtually unnecessary. This would allow for the continued expansion of New Jersey’s waterfront.
  • It would allow for the creation of a new station in Greenwich Village, as well as at Grand Central. More interestingly, it might also mean a connection to Brooklyn via a downtown connection. In the long-term, LIRR trains that currently terminate at Atlantic Terminal could continue to a downtown station and then to New Jersey or up to Grand Central.
  • There would be no need to construct the very expensive connection between Hoboken and Northeast Corridor trains.

While the Hoboken solution would be more expensive, it would also mean the potential for more future services and a possibility for a downtown commuter rail station, a boon to struggling Lower Manhattan.

But obviously either of these solutions would provide an effective addition to services currently provided by New Jersey Transit – getting customers West of the Hudson to the East Side. New Jersey Transit’s current plans for ARC are not worth their enormous cost – and deserve serious reconsideration.

Categories
Commuter Rail Philadelphia

Philly Fans Go Crazy

Philadelphia hasn’t won a baseball World Series in 25 years. So last night, what did the fans do to celebrate their achievement against the Devil Rays? Destroy a SEPTA bus shelter. A video of the moment was duly recorded by Philly.com.

Today, people in Philadelphia are so happy about the event that they have completely overwhelmed SEPTA and PATCO commuter trains into downtown. Philadelphia, which does have a pretty extensive train network, has been truly awful at maintaining and updating its system, so perhaps it is no surprise. Perhaps people knocked down that bus shelter because they were so horrified by the service SEPTA was providing them?

In other news, a summary of the Honolulu transit system EIS has been released. Here is a PDF, courtesy of the Star Bulletin. Current projections show a 20% decrease in traffic downtown and a $200 million increase in price over 2006 estimates, to $3.9 billion for the 20-mile route. Opponents are crying foul on the release of only the short summary, claiming that Mayoral candidate Mufi Hannemann is trying to prevent the people from knowing “the truth” about the project. They want the voters to reject the light rail proposition on Tuesday and vote for Mr. Hannemann’s rival, Ann Kobayashi, instead.

The AP discusses the rise in prominence of rail on the agenda of the U.S. Government.

Categories
Commuter Rail Infrastructure Light Rail Metro Rail

Priority Number 1

As of this year, there are ten cities that provide more than 100,000 rides a day on their rapid transit, light rail, and commuter rail lines. The renewal and strengthening of these lines, which represent the backbone of America’s transit infrastructure, must be the first transportation priority of the next Presidential Administration. Here is the simple rationale: these systems have been chronically underfunded and together represent the vast majority of the nation’s fixed-route transit riders. About half of these systems are crumbling, having been built a century or more ago; the other half, built since the 1960s, need to be renewed and strengthened if they’re going to be able to last another century themselves.

These are the two groups of transit systems:

1. Systems built in the first decades of the 20th century:

  • New York’s MTA, PATH, and NJT (metro and CR) – 9.2 million weekday rides
  • Chicago’s L and Metra (metro and CR) – 1 million weekday rides
  • Boston’s MBTA (metro, LRT, and CR) – 900,000 weekday rides
  • Philadelphia’s SEPTA (metro, LRT, and CR) – 500,000 weekday rides
  • San Francisco’s Muni (LRT) – 150,000 weekday rides

2. Systems built starting during the Great Society:

  • Washington’s Metro (metro) – 1 million weekday rides
  • San Francisco’s BART (metro) – 400,000 weekday rides
  • Los Angeles’ Metro (metro and LRT) – 300,000 weekday rides
  • Atlanta’s MARTA (metro) – 300,000 weekday rides
  • Portland’s MAX (LRT) – 100,000 weekday rides
  • San Diego’s Trolley (LRT) – 100,000 weekday rides

All five systems in the first list have been provided billions of dollars in upgrades in the past few decades. Chicago’s L, which until last year lacked enough funding to provide even basic service, has been working feverishly to reduce its number of “slow zones,” which hamper train speeds. The federal government has provided enough money to make the goal achievable. Philadelphia is in the process of upgrading its Market Street Elevated. New York City invests more than $2 billion a year to spruce up its gigantic system of tunnels, elevateds, and commuter rails.

But these systems are hardly in states of good repair. Any visitor to subway stations in each of the five cities will see huge maintenance problems. In New York City, the program to renew the system that began in the mid-80s has a long way to go; Lee Sander, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s CEO, recently admitted that only about 100 of the city’s more than 400 stations are in acceptable condition. Earlier this year, a teenager in Brooklyn fell onto the tracks when the ancient wooden edge of the platform literally fell apart at his feet; these are not acceptable conditions. Because of new funding shortfalls, however, even New York’s slow transformation team will be significantly slowed in coming years. Both Chicago and Philadelphia’s metro systems are relatively lightly used compared to those cities’ overall populations and densities (both are larger than Washington, D.C. but achieve far lower ridership), arguably because the service they provide is of such poor quality. Chicago’s Bid for the 2016 Olympics will likely have trouble competing with other world cities because of the failures of the L.

Why has this happened? Why are early-20th century mass transit systems in the United States in so desperate need of repair? Because they simply have not been provided adequate funding to produce the massive transformation that is required for them to provide the quality of service and livability that we should expect of modern transportation systems.

These systems are old, of course, but their age does not have to doom them to permanent obsolescence. In fact, by looking abroad at what other old systems have done, we can learn a thing or two. Take Paris’ one-hundred-year-old Metro, for example. Beginning in 1999, the subway authority began a comprehensive remaking of the system, with the goal of renovating more than 200 stations; by 2002, one hundred stations were done. The work continues today, with stations being renovated on three-month timetables in which they’re taken out of service to complete the work quickly and effectively. Today, there are six stations closed and undergoing renovation. The results are spectacular: ancient stations look virtually brand new. Across the Channel in London (a 2.5 hour ride away on the HSR Eurostar), Transport for London is in the process of renovating all of its stations in a ten-year plan, a process that will also include significantly increasing capacity in heavily used stations. A look at London’s Transforming the Tube plan (pdf) is worthwhile.

So the age of our oldest and most-used systems is no excuse. We have the ability to reverse course and rebuild the stations and infrastructure of our subways, and the millions of riders in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco deserve higher levels of service. Productive and efficient cities demand good public transportation, and we would never accept the degrading and embarrassing conditions we see in these systems in our households – or even in our airports. We must develop a multi-billion-dollar funding plan for government investment that recognizes the value of these systems and acts quickly to ensure their continued usefulness. This should be the first transportation priority of the incoming President. If not, these networks will fall further into disrepair, reaching a point where descending into the subways means loosing all self-respect.

The second group of high-ridership transit networks has understandably far fewer problems than the first because of their relative youth – the first segment of San Francisco’s BART opened in 1972; Washington’s Metro began operation in 1976. But these systems, now more than thirty years old, are starting to show their age. As a 2005 Washington Post article pointed out, Metro has been attempting to upgrade its escalators, trains, and tracks for the 21st century (albeit with some mismanagement) as ridership climbs. As these train systems get older and more frequented, they will need significant upgrades. Those improvements should begin now to prevent the kind of systematic decline that has occurred along the lines of the first set of transit networks mentioned here.

Other cities – notably Miami, Baltimore, Denver, Dallas, and Salt Lake City – have made significant investments in their transit infrastructure in recent years. The federal government should continue to invest in the expansion of their networks, and the transport politic will invest plenty of time in the future discussing how that might be done. But their current demand is significantly lower than that of the nation’s largest transit systems: our primary focus must be improving the conditions in the nation’s largest and oldest train networks.

This initial push for increased infrastructure investment has been pushed by groups such as Transportation for America and Building America’s Future, both of which recognize the importance of upgrading our existing systems. In the context of the current economic recession, likely lower tax returns will result in a decrease in transit funding nationwide based on current spending priorities. Yet transit investment – a long-term, sustainable project – can provide a needed increase in jobs and would act as a Keynesian response to the financial crisis. We must put out a strong appeal for a massive investment in existing transit networks – that’s what we desperately need to push our cities and their transportation networks into the future.