Gateway – Not Far Thinking Enough ?>

Gateway – Not Far Thinking Enough

Chris Christie was absolutely right to put the kibosh on the ARC Tunnel.  It was a Band-Aid, a small fix to a big problem.  An expensive one at that.

The small problem is that there are only six rail tunnels between Manhattan and New Jersey.  Two tubes, completed in 1910, are near the end of their service life.  Every rail commuter on NJTransit and every Amtrak rider from New York Southbound uses those tubes.  Breakdown of a train in a tube causes a half-day’s worth of delays and ripple effects.  Temporary closure of a tunnel, as occurred in Superstorm Sandy, cut capacity of the two-tube system by 75% for a week.  Failure of tunnel would cripple the economy of the Northeast.  Yes, we need more capacity.  Two more tubes would be about right.  We would have time to overhaul the two remaining tubes.

The big problem is that we have a disjointed system to get people through, in, and out of New York City.  Five rail systems, Amtrak, LIRR, Metro-North, NJTransit, and the MTA subway system serve the city.  Bus service to Port Authority Bus Terminal connects with only one, the subway.  With the exception of the few people that work within walking distance of a terminal, every trip to the city requires a change of modes.

The big problem needs to be framed more broadly.  We don’t just need two more tunnels.  We need a means to get commuters to their destinations in the city in the minimum time.  That includes commuters from up the Hudson, Long Island, and New Jersey.  We need to make the ride from Boston, through New York to Philadelphia faster.  And we need to think about the long-term viability of bus transport vis-à-vis rail.

Fundamentally, it’s a big math problem.  Do a census of commuters, where they live, and where they want to go.  Propose a series of network designs and calculate (a) the cost to build and operate them, and (b) the total amount of time spent travelling.  Set a total limit on what you are willing to spend, and see which proposal works best.  That method requires that the various controlling entities give up their parochial domains.  That will be a challenge.

For historical and political reasons we have division of power and goals that don’t work together to solve the big problem of getting the fastest rides for the most people at the lowest cost.  Our current approach leads to a series of sub-optimal solutions.  The problem is institutional.  The states of New York and New Jersey have different goals than the federal government.  Within the state of New Jersey, we have competing entities: NJ Transit and the Port Authority.  The Port Authority controls the PATH, Hudson vehicular crossings, and the NY bus terminal.  It has no particular interest in promoting more rail service across the Hudson.  Even within NJTransit, conventional commuter rail is run separately from the light rail, which reports to the bus department.  In press briefings, all of these entities talk about cooperation, but at the end of the day, it’s a matter of money and control.  By charter, each of these entities needs to look out for its own domain first.

At the fringe of the discussion but the center of the problem is Amtrak.  Its only successful line of business anywhere in the United States is the Northeast Corridor service (NEC) from Boston to Washington.  By its charter, it’s not interested in commuter service.  It thinks about moving passengers from Providence to New York to Baltimore.  How passengers travle the last fifteen miles home is not their problem.  It loses a billion dollar a year, which it must beg from Congress.  It cannot or won’t think big.  Right now, it wants two new Hudson tunnels and expansion of the NY Penn Station terminal.

There are two types of train stations: terminal and through station.  You will recognize a terminal from the track bumper at the end of the tracks.  A train enters the station, stops, and exits in the direction from which it came.  What is not visible to the passenger is the complex switching it takes to get a train out of a terminal.  A through-station is recognizable to subway riders and country folks both.  The train arrives from the East and departs to the West.  Through-stations are far more efficient.  In the simplest case, there is no switching.  If express trains operate on the same tracks, it takes one switch to get the train to the platform.  Express trains stay on the main line and rumble past the local train stopped at the station.

New York’s Penn Station is a terminal in all directions.  LIRR trains come from the East, terminate, and return to the East.  NJTransit and Amtrak trains come from the West, terminate, and depart to the West.  It’s the worst of all possible worlds.  We shouldn’t be surprised.  NJTransit is not chartered to carry passengers into Queens or the Bronx.  The MTA’s LIRR has no interest in moving through passengers to Secaucus NJ.  Once they’ve deposited their passenger at Penn Station, their job is done.  Then they wash their hands.

The PATH trains that go from New Jersey to lower Manhattan are a model for where we need to be.  PATH trains don’t terminate at the first stop, World Trade Center, but continue to 33rd Street.  A commuter from New Jersey can ride a single seat from Newark to the Empire State Building.  This practice needs to be implemented throughout the modes of transport.

There is a proposal on the table to extend the New York No 7 subway line to Secaucus NJ.  What a great idea!  A single seat from New Jersey, though Manhattan to Flushing, Queens.  Before such a proposal could become reality, the MTA would have to settle a territorial dispute with NJTransit, which has the monopoly on service from Secaucus to New York.  It’s a multi-billion dollar question and won’t be solved without a higher authority setting the rules.  Take for example, the escalator in Penn Station that was out of service for four years because Amtrak and the LIRR couldn’t agree on who should pay for its repair.

Right now, Amtrak wants to demolish a city block next to Penn Station to install an additional seven tracks in Penn Station South.  While this solves Amtrak’s problems, it worsens the overall problem.

We need some big thinkers like ReThinkNYC to go beyond the organizational boundaries that have hobbled our progress.  Moreover, we need leaders to smash down the artificial walls between these governments entities so we can make some real improvements.

2 Railroads Unable to Agree on How to Run an Escalator
2 Railroads Unable to Agree on How to Run an Escalator

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