Sunday, October 28, 2007

Smith/9th Streets: What If?

Metro reports that the MTA's project to reconstruct the Culver Viaduct in Carroll Gardens will require them to close the Smith-9th Street station for up to a year, starting in 2010. The Daily News reports that people who use that station regularly aren't happy. The Brooklyn Eagle says that many Red Hook residents take the B77 bus to Smith/9th and transfer for the F to Manhattan. Curbed, the Gowanus Lounge, SubChat, Second Avenue Sagas, TransitBlogger and the Rider Diaries point out that this is a Bad Thing in the short term.

I don't know what the ridership figures are, but it's fair to say that this will inconvenience a lot of people. Nobody seems to have any ideas about how to mitigate this. Some of the reports say that the MTA will run a free shuttle bus to connect with the F and G at Carroll Street. Shuttle buses for a year One SubChat commenter suggests extending the B77 to 15th Street and adding service on the B75. Mostly, people seem pretty resigned to being inconvenienced. Craig Hammerman gives the usual Community Board whine about not being consulted sooner. Paul Fleuranges points out that there's no way to avoid closing the station - thanks, Paul! Sometimes I think transit advocates have been beaten down so much that they've sacrificed some of their imagination.

When I read something like this, I like to play a game of "what if?" As in, "What if I had an unlimited budget and supreme power?" Sometimes I get into wacky territory, but then I can pull back a bit and get something useful.

Okay, let's start with the wacky: if I really had unlimited budget, I'd dig a tunnel. The Culver Viaduct is said to have one of the best el views in the city, but it still slows down the trains a lot. And you can dig a tunnel first and then tear down the viaduct. I'm sure it would cost an arm and a leg, but they're talking about doing the same thing with the Gowanus Expressway viaduct. If it's worth a cost-benefit analysis for the cars, it's worth one for the trains, too.

Here's another possibility: what's the big problem with bustitution? Buses get stuck in traffic, a lot. This slows them down and makes them unreliable. There's no guarantee that the bus schedule will match up with the train schedule, meaning that people may have to wait for the bus and the train. This could add a lot to people's commute time.

This is not an impossible problem, just a very difficult one. The main thing that makes buses go slow is that they get stuck in traffic. So what if we got rid of the traffic? (Remember, we're still playing "what if?".) Let's take Smith Street and make it into a two-way dedicated busway, with only local car traffic allowed, like Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn. Ideally it would go all the way up to Borough Hall since many people transfer from the F or G to one of the other lines in Downtown Brooklyn, but just having it on the eight blocks from Ninth Street to Carroll Street would be a big help. Sure it would inconvenience a lot of drivers, but I'd like to see numbers: how many drivers would be inconvenienced by being barred from Smith Street versus how many subway riders would be inconvenienced by bustitution. If there was a problem with Smith Street, you could put it on Court, Columbia or Hicks.

My last idea would be the easiest to implement. Where are all these F train riders going? If they're staying on the F train, probably somewhere in Midtown. Plenty of them probably switch at Jay Street for the A train to downtown, though. Just six blocks west of the Smith/9th Station is the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, but even though the Red Hook and Carroll Gardens residents have to deal with the pollutants it brings to the air, if they have a car they can't use it without going to Staten Island or Canarsie.

Using the tunnel, a shuttle bus could probably get to the A train station at Broadway/Nassau in not much more time than it would take to get to the Carroll Street Station. And of course people would be able to transfer to all the subways that run through Lower Manhattan - or just walk to their jobs down there. If they really want to go to Midtown, the bus could be extended along Church Street or the FDR Drive to meet up with the F/V at West Fourth, or even all the way up to 57th Street. They should probably have something like that already, considering how badly served Red Hook is by transit.

I'm sure it would cost a lot of money to run the buses and pay the drivers, but come on: we're closing an entire station, and a busy one at that. I'd like to see a cost estimate. If it turns out that it's just too costly to run buses through the tunnel 24/7, how about just during rush hours? You wouldn't even need to set up an extra route: the x29 bus (PDF) from Coney Island goes right past the Smith/9th Street station and makes eleven runs every rush hour in peak directions. All it would have to do is pull off the expressway, pick up passengers and get in the tunnel.

So we've gone from the fabulously expensive to the pretty reasonable. I think some combination of these things with a shuttle to the Carroll Street Station would help. Considering some of these things is a lot better than just saying, "Gee, I guess we'll have to close the station. Sucks to be you!"

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Access Denied: ARC Nibbled to Death

In 1955 Paris had six major train stations, all with commuter rail components, and three commuter rail lines that terminated in small stub stations. All of these lines stopped short of the heart of the capital, requiring passengers to transfer to the metro if they were going to central locations or to the other side of the city. The metro system had only two-track local lines, which meant a frustrating trip for anyone who wanted to go any distance within the city.

The 1965 infrastructure master plan laid forth a grand vision for access to the city, which has gradually been put into practice. Four new tunnels were bored deep below the surface, connecting the stub stations with the commuter rail networks of four of the major stations. Two gigantic new stations (Ch√Ętelet-Les Halles and Saint-Michel-Notre-Dame) were created in the center of the city to allow transfers between the lines, and a series of stations were created along the lines allowing transfers to the metro. A zone payment system was implemented, allowing people to use the new Regional Express Network (RER) for intra-city trips at the same price as the metro, and with the same tickets. The result is that people from the suburbs can now be almost anywhere in the city in a short period of time, and people can cross the city quickly.

In New York in 1955, there was a similar situation. There were two major stations in Midtown Manhattan, four major terminals just across the river (Weehawken, Hoboken, Exchange Place, Communipaw Terminal and Long Island City) and two stub terminals (Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx). Four other stub terminals (Bay Ridge and Bushwick Terminals in Brooklyn, 180th Street in the Bronx and Saint George in Staten Island) had lost passenger service earlier in the century, but still had the tracks in place. Two subway lines, the Flushing and Canarsie Lines, also stub-ended under 41st and 14th Streets.

Instead of a visionary plan like in Paris, New York's leaders chose to retrofit the city for the automobile. Between 1955 and 1965 they opened the Tappan Zee Bridge, the Newark Bay Bridge, a third tube for the Lincoln Tunnel, a lower level for the George Washington Bridge, the Throgs Neck Bridge and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Long Island Expressway, the Garden State Parkway, the New England Thruway and Interstate routes 78, 80 and 84 and a section of the FDR Drive were built during this time.

In the meantime, rail infrastructure in the New York area languished. The Independent Subway Second System plans collected dust on the shelves. The New York, Westchester and Boston Railroad had already been cut back to the city line and turned into a branch of the IRT. The Putnam Line, which terminated at Sedgwick Avenue, was torn up and is now a recreational trail. Bushwick Terminal was closed and the tracks removed. The Central Railroad of New Jersey bridge across Newark Bay was torn down, and the Communipaw Terminal at Jersey City turned into a museum. The Pennsylvania Railroad's Exchange Place terminal and the West Shore Line's Weehawken Terminal were abandoned along with their tunnels through the Palisades. Staten Island's North Shore Line and the Arthur Kill Lift Bridge were also taken out of use. Traffic to Hoboken and Long Island City was gradually reduced. In a symbolic attack on the rail system, Penn Station's celebrated above-ground structure was demolished and replaced with a new Madison Square Garden arena.

While Paris built several expressways as well, during the economic crisis of the 1970s they chose to abandon their expressway plans and focus on the RER, while New York abandoned its subway plans and focused on roads. The single major rail project that was completed during that time was the 63rd Street tunnel, but its lower-level tubes, intended for commuter rail use, have still not been connected to anything, and have been called "the tunnel to nowhere." A few minor connections made slight improvements in the system, but there were still obvious deficiencies. Most of the trains terminated at Penn Station, but a large number of jobs are in East Midtown or Downtown, requiring a subway transfer. Travelling between Queens and New Jersey, or Brooklyn and Westchester County, requires a series of complicated transfers.

In the 1990s transportation planners, perhaps motivated by the success of Paris's RER, proposed a series of upgrades to connect portions of the transit system. A few of these have been put in place, mostly by New Jersey Transit. The Kearny Connection allowed Morris and Essex Line trains to enter Penn Station, the Montclair Connection allowed Boonton Line trains to use the Kearny tracks and the Secaucus Transfer allowed passengers from the ex-Erie and Pascack Valley lines to transfer to Penn Station-bound trains. The Weehawken tunnel was converted to light rail use, allowing residents of that area to reach jobs, trains and ferries along the waterfront. In addition, there are plans to extend the Long Island Rail Road Flatbush branch to Lower Manhattan, and to revive service on Staten Island's North Shore and West Shore lines, probably with light rail.

More exciting was a grand vision for connecting job sites in Midtown Manhattan. The #7 subway tunnel would be extended west to the planned Hudson Yards development and the Javits Center. The Long Island Rail Road would use the 63rd Street Tunnel to connect to Grand Central, freeing up space for Metro-North trains to terminate in Penn Station via the Empire Connection and Hell Gate Bridge. In the "Acces to the Region's Core" plan, a new tunnel under the Hudson would allow more New Jersey trains to reach Midtown; a 2002 bulletin from the Regional Plan Association shows them making a loop through Penn Station, Grand Central, Rockefeller Center and the planned Hudson Yards development. Finally, to the symbolic wound from the destruction of Penn Station, the old Farley Post Office one block to the west would be converted to a new Moynihan Station.

This grand plan had its faults, but it would have been a big improvement. Now, ten years later, it's in tatters. The MTA has forsaken any attempt to connect Long Island Railroad trains with the actual Grand Central structure, preferring to dig a tiny terminal deep underground, with a single exit to 42nd Street and difficult subway transfers. New Jersey Transit's loop has shrunk to a single six-track station under 34th Street, which is also deep below the ground and unconnected to any other tracks. Worse, both of these plans leave no opportunity for expansion: the NJ Transit station terminates in front of Water Tunnel #1. The #7 train extension will only be a single stop, possibly even without the shell of an intermediate station. The Moynihan Station will not allow rail passengers to connect to any new subways, and it is unclear what use it will be, except as a waiting area and a symbol.

Even these plans, though, did not allow for through-running of trains between the three major commuter rail systems. They did nothing to unify the three incompatible electrification systems currently in use, create connections between the various lines, or revive dormant lines like the Bergen Arches, the Bushwick Branch and the Putnam Line. The light rail line proposed for Staten Island's North Shore Branch would not connect take advantage of the recently rebuilt Arthur Kill bridge to connect the island with the mainland.

The New Jersey Association of Rail Passengers has been a persistent critic of the awfully-named "THE Tunnel" project. The Regional Rail Working Group has been a critic of the LIRR East Side Access project and a big supporter of through-running.

Every year the components of this plan become less useful and more symbolic. I think it's time to pause and reconsider. With the money we have, do we really want to wind up with three "tunnels to nowhere" and a glorious station structure that adds no functionality whatsoever? If we're spending the money to dig deep, why not dig tunnels that could eventually connect to each other, or to existing tunnels? Let's see what we have and what we can afford. Let's try to overcome the archaic territorial divisions between the various counties of New York and New Jersey, and the Byzantine boundaries between New Jersey Transit, the Port Authority and the various MTA fiefdoms. Let's stop worrying about offending Senator Moynihan's friends and family, who probably don't take the train anyway. Let's do something real.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Geography of Saratoga

Streetsblog linked today to an interesting blog post by James Howard Kunstler. I have to confess from the beginning that I haven't read any of Kunstler's books, only a few articles.

In general, however, I agree with his positions that suburban sprawl is unsustainable (and generally feh), subsidizing car infrastructure is a waste of money, and we should be improving our trains and pedestrian facilities. I also agree, in general, with his critique of the transportation politics of his own hometown of Saratoga Springs. It's a critique that applies around the country, including in my own neck of the woods.

Given all that, I was surprised to discover that I know more than Kunstler about rail service to Saratoga. He claims that there is one train a day in each direction, that they're "invariably late, and not just a little late, but hours late," and that there is "no awareness among the public here, or our leaders, that we would benefit from improving the passenger railroad service, and around the state of New York generally there is no conversation about fixing the railroads."

I visited Saratoga four years ago by train, and in some ways the picture is worse than Kunstler paints it. Back when most people arrived at Saratoga by train, the train station was a block from Main Street. They tore up those tracks years ago, and now the trains stop a mile and a half out of town. It's not a particularly nice walk, and neither is the walk to the spa or to Yaddo. Bus service is infrequent, indirect and not tourist-oriented. The Convention and Tourism Bureau and Chamber of Commerce websites give extensive driving directions, but don't mention bus or train service.

In many ways, though, Kunstler's view of train service is inaccurate. There are two trains a day passing through Saratoga in either direction: one from New York City to Montreal and one to Rutland, Vermont, with relatively convenient schedules for tourists. Lateness is a problem on Amtrak, but the trains through Saratoga aren't as late as often as he suggests. Once you get downtown, it's very walkable. When we were there, the city was just building a new station, which subsequently opened with fanfare. There is a conversation about fixing the railroads in New York State; just read the back issues of the ESPA newsletter to find out about it. Based on this, it seems clear that Kunstler rarely, if ever, takes the train.

Okay, so big whoop. Two trains a day! And they're not as late as you think they are! People are talking about railroads, just not enough! I know, I know. There's no question that more could be done to improve transit service and pedestrian infrastructure in Saratoga. The number one thing would be for the city to run a free shuttle bus - with room for luggage - from the train station to downtown every day. There are only four trains; how hard can it be to meet each of them?

The second would be for the state to finally double-track the rail line between Albany and Schenectady. The third would be to extend the double-tracking to Saratoga, and replace the jointed track with continuous welded rail as is used south of Albany.

The City of Saratoga Springs should make a list of the top tourist destinations (ours were the spa, the racetrack/museum and Yaddo; SPAC is right near the spa) and try walking to them (and the train station) from downtown. Most of the walks were fine, but in each case there were a few blocks that were extremely unpleasant. It wouldn't take much to add a few blocks of sidewalks and/or trails.

Finally, I have to add: why no love for the springs themselves? We tasted all the waters, and it was fun! As far as I know, we were the only ones doing that. And the spa was about as elegant and relaxing as taking a hot bath in your high school locker room. Compare that to Karlovy Vary, or even Truth or Consequences, New Mexico!

With all that said, I'd still go back to Saratoga, and I think you should too. If you're not big on horses, go when the races are over for cheaper rates. Stay in one of the awesome Victorian hotels. Drink the waters. Admire the architecture. Shop at the Price Chopper supermarket where the train station used to be. And go by train - it's not that difficult!

Here's a list of bus routes in Saratoga with links to schedules; Routes 471 and 472 connect the train station with Downtown. They leave on the hour and at five minutes after the hour - never mind that the trains don't get there anywhere near that time.

Here are Amtrak timetables in PDF format for the Adirondack and the Ethan Allen Express.