Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Transitioning Rockland and Saving a Bundle

As I've written before, the Tappan Zee Bridge is approaching the end of its intended lifespan, and the New York State Department of Transportation has been behaving badly in regards to the proper response. Apparently unilaterally, they decided that all the alternatives under serious consideration will involve increasing the number of car lanes on the bridge from seven to ten - adding one "general purpose" lane and two high-occupancy vehicle/bus lanes.

Since the current bridge has no room for any more lanes, all the "serious" alternatives involve spending $14.5 billion - yes, that's $14,500,000,000, about a billion dollars more than the cost of building the entire Second Avenue Subway from 126th Street to Hanover Square - to replace the bridge, instead of $2 billion to rehabilitate it. And those estimates were made several months ago; if the other mega-projects in the region are any guide, the costs will probably double by the end of the year.

Also, in a move that Hudson Riverkeeper Alex Matthiessen calls a "perversion of environmental due process," the DOT has (again unilaterally) decided to implement a confusing "tiered" system of environmental review, where the decision about highway lanes would be "streamlined" ahead, but the transit portion of the project would be left for later - most likely after the money runs out. Finally, they have not released any decision yet. Clearly, Commissioner Glynn thinks of this as a highway project with some transit lip-service to placate the enviros.

I was all ready to say, "Fuck it! Let the bridge fall into the river and we'll be done with it." But then I read some of the scoping documents, and after I woke up I realized that this would leave thousands of Rockland and Orange County residents without a way to get to their jobs in Westchester. I can't do that to these poor people! I have cousins in Rockland!

But now I don't need to worry about it. The oil crisis is going to take care of this for me, and the people who moved to sprawlville in Rockland will find themselves unable to afford to drive anywhere. They'll have to move to a transit-oriented neighborhood, either in Rockland or somewhere else. This is happening all over the country. In other places, people are even planning transition towns for post-auto-dependency culture. Rockland will too, soon, whether or not they use that Ithaca kind of terminology.

The State DOT, in its infinite wisdom, must have forseen this, right? Shyeah! This chart from one of their documents (PDF) pretty much says it all ... about DOT's methodology:

What goes up must ... keep going up! We're all going to keep moving onward and upward to more and bigger cars! The Alternatives Analysis Report explains the chart:

Traffic crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge has grown from 100,000 daily trips to nearly 150,000 daily trips since 1990, spurred on by the opening of I-287 in New Jersey (Figure 1-3). This growth is projected to continue in the future, based on NYMTC projections of economic growth in Rockland and Orange Counties, in particular.

Okay, let's take a look at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council's socioeconomic and demographic methodology, shall we? It's all nicely laid out on Page 5 of this PDF: historical population, current population, survival rates, birth and death rates, migration rates. And sure enough, if Rockland had 217,000 people in 1970 and 290,000 residents in 2005, then of course it'll have 353,000 residents in 2030 (PDF, appendix, Table 4)! And they'll all be driving humongous SUVs the size of houses!

Of course, no mention of the role that road-building - and bridge-building can have on population. No mention of the role that cheap oil can have on population and land use. No mention of the possibility that adding three new bridge lanes could induce people to move to Rockland and drive across the bridge. No mention of the possibility that oil could get expensive and make it unsustainable to live in Sprawlsville, Rockland County - turning the three shiny lanes on the bridge into a $14.2 billion dollar waste of precious taxpayer money. In other words, a model that works fairly well to drive money into the DOT's coffers, but is wholly inadequate to the task of determining the best use of public funds. I'm surprised that the American Demographic Society's Ethics Committee doesn't have some horrible punishment in store for Juliette Bergman at the next Annual Meeting.

The State should spend $2 billion rehabilitating the bridge, and turn two lanes into exclusive BRT lanes and one into a shared bicycle/pedestrian path. If Westchester and Rockland want some transportation cash, then we can spend an extra billion developing a BRT network. Let's also spend a few billion restoring passenger service on the West Shore, Northern Branch and Putnam railroad lines, and extending passenger service on the Pascack Valley line to Suffern and maybe on to Harriman. Rezone the classic old towns of Suffern, Nyack, Spring Valley, Pearl River and Nanuet to allow for mixed-use development so that people can actually walk to shopping and the train station. If there's anything left over, we can use it for the Second Avenue Subway.

So people won't be able to drive from their sprawly Rockland McMansions to their sprawly Westchester office parks. Well, the jobs won't be in the office parks for too long anyway! Hell, with the money we've saved we can bring some jobs back to the "transition towns," and to the towns down the line like Hackensack, Paterson and Secaucus. Oh wait, they're in another state, aren't they? Did I just advocate regionalism? I'm such a heretic.

In any case, Governor Paterson is going to have a lot to do to preserve his progressive credentials if he doesn't stop this thing in its tracks, take it away from the DOT and the NYMTC and give it to someone who's actually paying attention to trends and understands about induced demand.

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