Friday, January 30, 2009

False Dichotomies: Capital or Operating?

It's one of the central concepts of transit wonks: every transit agency (in fact, pretty much every government agency, and most corporations as well) has two sections to its budget. Operating budgets pay for short-term expenses like salaries, fuel, electricity and the printing of schedules. Generally, once they're consumed, there's nothing left of any value. Capital budgets pay for large durable items that can sometimes be resold, like train cars, buses, station platforms, signals and railroad ties. On this division depends a significant amount of politicking, such as the neverending bickering about profitability and farebox recovery. A company or agency can sometimes be called "profitable" if its revenues cover all its operating expenses, even while it gets capital subsidies.

On many a blog I've seen transit wonks shake their sympathetic heads at passengers who don't understand why the agency is laying off drivers and building a new rail line at the same time. These poor people don't know that driver salaries and rail construction come from two different budgets, they say. Of course, that's a non-explanation on a par with "the computer won't let me do it."

The fact is that these two neat categories mask a continuum of expenses, from the very durable and valuable (concrete roadbeds) to the completely ephemeral (lobbyist fees, perhaps). There are lots of things in the middle that don't quite fit. One of the biggest is debt service - the interest and principal on the loans that were taken out to pay for the capital budget. And don't get me started on these shady lease-back deals where transit agencies "sold" their assets to financial firms (for capital money) and "rented" them from the same firms (using operating money).

The other big area in the middle is capital maintenance, which covers things like replacement parts for vehicles and new signals. It's in the capital budget, but it affects operations. If agencies "defer maintenance" to cut capital costs, they wind up with more breakdowns and "accidents," and thus an overall lower quality of service.

The current dichotomy between capital and operating costs obscures the issue for many people. You could be forgiven for thinking that the capital budget only covered things like system expansion and service upgrades and concluding, "why not cut it this year, when we're short on cash?" The capital/operating dichotomy doesn't make it clear that cutting a million dollars from capital maintenance can be as disastrous for transit service as cutting a million dollars from the operating budget. It'd be a lot easier if there were a different set of two buckets: one for the budget where cuts would disrupt service, and another where cuts would just defer system expansion.

Maybe I'm cynical, but I think that some people out there like it this way. They can cry "You can't defund the capital budget or else we won't be able to fix the seats on the buses!" and then use the money to dig new tunnels. Well, that's a bait-and-switch, and we don't like it when our friends do it any more than when our enemies do it.

This bait-and-switch is aided by another intermediate category: "modernization." It's true that old parts tend to be harder to maintain and to find parts for, so in the long run it can save money and cut down on service disruptions to replace them with newer models. And these newer models, coincidentally, sometimes come with new features that the agency didn't mention when asking for money to modernize. Are they capital, maintenance or operations?

My apologies to the bait-and-switchers, but I think we should be clearer about these things, and separate system expansion, upgrades, modernization and maintenance in the capital budget, so people know where their money is going.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Strange Doings on the Atlanta Beltline

Thanks to, I came across this blog entry at Creative Loafing. Apparently there's a plan to connect several old train rights-of-way around Atlanta - some idle, some in heavy use - and put in a light-rail line and a multi-use trail. After some real-estate shenanigans, the public-private partnership managing the project has gotten Norfolk Southern to file for abandonment of the Northeast section, but this is currently being blocked by Amtrak and the Georgia DOT.

The Fresh Loaf blog entry and an open letter it quotes from Mayor Franklin are full of outrage, but a few things bother me about this whole deal. First of all, any time I hear the words "file for abandonment" I get suspicious. Second, I always worry about all-or-nothing deals, public-private partnerships and unaccountable authorities. Third, while Amtrak's filing is fairly straightforward and dwells on the merits of the proposal, the response from the Beltline lawyers is smug and rests on legal technicalities. Fourth, tax-increment financing is a risky proposition.

I've never been to Atlanta, unless you count changing planes, so take this with a grain of salt. But after going through the Amtrak filing and perusing some maps, I've figured out what it is they're saying: the current route of the Crescent skirts the northern edge of Atlanta (to the extent it has an edge) and stops at a station four miles from downtown. The current proposal for high-speed rail along the Crescent corridor would instead use the northeast beltline segment to get onto an east-west corridor that goes right through the middle of downtown, stopping at a new "Multimodal Station." If the corridor is abandoned, trains from the northeast to the multimodal station would have to take the "trunk line" around and approach the station from the northwest, then presumably back out to continue on southwest to Alabama.

The beltline people are asking to condemn the northeast segment because they want to run light rail on it. Due to FRA rules, you can't run light and heavy rail on the same tracks at the same time. From Google's satellite pictures, it looks like the right-of-way is wide enough for two tracks and not much else. You might be able to squeeze a trail in there alongside the tracks, but you wouldn't get four tracks plus a trail. The beltline people want light rail and a trail, so no heavy rail.

I can kind of see the beltline reasoning, but overall I think that Amtrak and GDOT have the better position. The bottom line is that it's really hard to get good rail corridors, and high-speed rail is much more important than local light rail. This is an existing heavy rail corridor, which is very valuable. It should only be abandoned if the beltline advocates can come up with an alternative right-of-way for the high-speed rail. Say, converting two of I-85's fourteen lanes to rail?

Teachers Take Over Maria Baez's District

The Bronx district of Councilmember Maria Baez is pretty poor, with 72% of households earning less than $40,000 a year. Most of it is well-served by transit: the number 4 and letter D trains run through it, and it also has the University Heights Metro-North station and the BxM3 and 4 express buses. Not surprising, then, that it's in the green quintile, with 75.8% of all households being car-free and less than 30% of workers commuting in carrs.

What is surprising is that Councilmember Baez is sponsoring a bill to provide parking permits to all teachers employed by the Department of Education. A recent Gotham Gazette article notes that this comes at a time when advocates for fairness and sustainable transportation are succeeding in reducing the number of parking permits issued to government employees. If her bill passes, it's likely that the police, firemen and every other category of government employee will want their entitlements entrenched in law.

I'm sure there are plenty of teachers living in Baez's district, but most of them probably take the excellent public transit to work. On the other hand, I'm guessing that most of the teachers who work in Baez's district are convinced that the streets and subway platforms are crawling with thugs ready to pounce on any unsuspecting middle-class person who dares show their face outside of a school or a car. And it seems that Baez herself is ready to identify with these teachers - she told the Daily News that she drove to the Congestion Pricing hearing in July, even though it's a one-seat, 40-minute ride to City Hall on the 4 train.

Sadly, parking permits for teachers would be a very bad thing for the residents of Baez's district. The streets are already crowded with too many cars, because even though it has one of the lowest car-ownership rates in the country, available parking is also low. It has one of the highest asthma rates, due mostly to its proximity to two of the busiest highways in the country, but the teachers' cars don't help anything. City resources are wasted serving the driving minority while the walking majority puts up with crumbling sidewalks and rat-infested empty lots.

The worst part about Baez's bill is that it would enshrine in law the idea that being middle-class means that you drive everywhere, that it's not safe for teachers to walk the streets of the Bronx, and that some people are too good to take the subway. It would reinforce the separation between teachers and taught instead of breaking it down by having them share the sidewalks and subways.

Maria Baez should be ashamed of herself for sponsoring a bill that would benefit hardly any of her constituents, and penalize the vast majority of them. So should Alan Gerson for being a co-sponsor.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Senator Gillibrand endorses high-speed rail

The Observer reports:

When asked about her meeting with the state leaders, Gillibrand said, "We talked a lot about the economy" and that "one area we all agreed on was that we really want high-speed rail."

She said it was unclear whether they could secure funding for it in the latest economic stimulus package coming out of Washington, but said it was pivotal. "Because if you want to get economic development in this state, and around this state, if you can have a high-speed rail straight up the 87 corridor all the way to Montreal and then straight across to Buffalo and ultimately back down in a triangle, what you’re going to do is create an economic development engine for decades."

Friday, January 23, 2009

Loading Zone Dishonesty Kills Children

You've probably heard about the horrific crash that killed two young children in Chinatown yesterday. Police are currently saying that the driver, Chao Fu, intended to double-park his van in the bike lane while he got out to make a delivery. Instead, he left the van in reverse and the wheels turned, so that after he got out it backed up onto the sidewalk and into a daisy-chain of pre-schoolers.

We already knew that double-parking was inconvenient in many ways. We also knew it was dangerous: it blocks the view of other drivers so that they can't see people and vehicles. It forces bicyclists into the main roadway, where they can be hit by speeding motorists. It can block emergency vehicles from getting down the street. Now we have a new way: double-parked vehicles are less constrained by other cars around them, so if they get out of control they can easily kill.

Last month I discussed vehicle loading zones in the context of the Grand Street cycle track controversy. The fact of the matter is that people need places to load and unload things from cars and trucks, especially in a busy commercial corridor like East Broadway. When the DOT fails to set up dedicated loading zones and underprices curbside parking, all the spots get taken up by residents and shopkeepers who feed the meters. In the past, the DOT didn't want to go up against the residents and shopkeepers, so they let people double-park for loading and unloading, leading us to the current situation where delivery drivers are given the choice between waiting hours for a free spot or breaking the law.

There were clearly other improvements that could prevent future carnage. Bollards could have helped. Increased parking enforcement could have helped - but there's no sense ticketing double-parkers without giving them a workable alternative. What East Broadway - and the rest of the city - needs is well-designed, enforced loading zones. Let's do it before more people get killed.

Subway Commuter and Light Rail Advocate Chosen for Senate

The Times is reporting that Governor Paterson has chosen Representative Kirsten Gillibrand to replace Secretary Clinton in the Senate. I've discussed Gillibrand's record before, but I think it's a good time to go over the most salient points.

Although Gillibrand's house has a Walk Score of 3, she's an hour's walk from downtown Hudson, which has a Walk Score of 86. More importantly, when she's in Washington she takes the Metro to work. She even brought her son to daycare on the train, and then got back on the Metro one stop to her office. That may have changed now that she has two sons - or it may not.

Gillibrand's commitment to transit and rail may not go very deep: the Ethan Allen Express, one of the two trains a day that run through the northern part of her district, is threatened by Vermont budget cuts. Last week over 200 people rallied in Rutland (which by Vermont standards counts as a mass demonstration), but no one from the New York section of the route was to be seen. There is no indication that Gillibrand has even noticed that part of her district could lose half its train service.

As I wrote before, Gillibrand has called for light rail in the Capital District, but deferred to the Governor for action. Did this come up in any of their conversations? It would be a really good thing for that area, but if Gillibrand's transit advocacy is limited to campaign promises with no follow-up, this could be a big disappointment for New York.

It'd be interesting to hear from advocates for transit and livable streets in Gillibrand's district. One well-known critic of "Happy Motoring," James Howard Kunstler, has so far been silent on Gillibrand and any of his elected officials. Incidentally, his house has a Walk Score of 0. WTF JHK?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Austin's Sidewalk Master Plan

The technical aspect of this just really impresses me. We've got pretty good sidewalks within the New York City limits, but I'd like to see one of these plans for Nassau.

Monday, January 19, 2009

I Want a Nice Big Imitation Steak

There are some pretty good meat substitutes out there. Some people like tempeh and veggie burgers; the only one that's really done it for me is seitan. Now I'm aware that seitan and tempeh are foods in their own right, and that if you play to their strengths you can get some pretty tasty, protein-rich meals. But by and large what you wind up with is something that doesn't resemble meat in any meaningful way.

Let's put those aside and focus on the use of vegetable proteins as imitation meats. Since you can find someone who likes to eat just about anything, you can probably find people who prefer them to meat. There are people on a budget who eat imitation meats if they're cheaper than real meats. But most people eat fake meat because they feel that real meat is bad for one reason or another. Maybe they don't feel comfortable being responsible for the death of an animal, or they don't want to contribute to global warming.

Setting aside people who are principled vegetarians, most people who can afford real meat just don't choose imitation meat. Imagine someone (not a vegetarian) who was invited to dinner by their rich uncle (also not a vegetarian) and said, "Let's go get a nice big seitan steak!"

Now you might get an idea of how I feel to read an article featuring Streetsblog editor Aaron Naparstek. The New York Times asked several New York thought leaders, including Aaron, what they would like soon-to-be President Obama to do for New York. Aaron responded, "The top priority has to be the creation of a citywide bus rapid-transit network, known in transportation circles as B.R.T."

Here we have an imaginary Obama asking Aaron what he wants - for all of us New Yorkers - and does Aaron say, "build new subways," like Jeffrey Zupan and Sam Schwartz? Does he ask for a nice new light rail line like Roxanne Warren? No, he says "BRT." BRT has been shown to be inferior to trolleys in just about every way. It's a seitan steak: the kind of thing you'd normally ask for only if you had some reason you couldn't eat a real steak.

We know that the government is running a huge deficit this year, so maybe this is more like the uncle trying to still pretend to be the big spender even though he got laid off last month. But then our dinner guest would still ask for steak, but they just might ask him to take them to the Argo Diner instead of Peter Luger's. And anyway, over the long run BRT tends to cost almost as much as light rail - if it's well-enough developed to earn its "rapid" name. There are some things you just don't buy at the 99¢ store.

Of course, our hypothetical birthday boy might instead say, "Hey Uncle, let's go to that vegetarian place you took me to last year. I love their stir-fry with tempeh!" This is taking the food on its own terms: expecting it to be nutritious and satisfying instead of thinking of it as a substitute for something else.

Buses are no substitute for light rail, but they do already transport thousands of New Yorkers in relative convenience and comfort. They can be made better: Aaron's Streetsblog has featured stories about the value of busways, and I've discussed potential applications of those ideas for New York. Aaron could have talked about the various possible ways to improve our city's bus system without implying that it would be some kind of substitute for rail.

One thing that Aaron should absolutely be ashamed of himself for is his use of the phrase "surface subway." Subways and elevated trains speed people along because they're grade-separated. You just can't go that fast on the surface, even if you have a dedicated right-of-way and signal priority. A surface subway is nonsense.

Aaron has done a tremendous amount for transportation in this city, and in 2009 I'm looking forward to many intelligent, informative Streetsblog posts on all areas of transportation. I have admired him and respected him for years, and will continue to do so. But in this case, he was given a big soapbox and he chose to use it to push a concept that is dishonest at its core. This post is not intended as an attack, or as punishment for violating some arbitrary principle. It's an honest expression of my disappointment, and my hope that Aaron will present things differently next time. Bus improvements, yes. BRT, no. "Surface subway," hell no!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Failing Railbanks

At this point I think everyone understands the basics of the main mechanism underlying the current financial crisis: financial institutions lent money to people who really didn't have the ability to pay it back. The result was that when people tried to cash in on their investments with places like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, there wasn't enough money. Result: collapse.

A similar crisis is brewing in the railbanking sector. As I've discussed previously, with the intense government investment in competing road infrastructure over the past fifty years, one rail line after another has failed. In 1983 Congress passed a law that allowed the rights-of-way to be used as trails, with the explicit aim of preserving them for future rail use.

Well, the future is now. Across the country, people are thinking about rail travel again, and establishing - or re-establishing - light rail and commuter rail lines. Some, like New Jersey Transit's River Line, reestablish passenger service on active freight lines. Others, like the southern end of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, run on tracks within an active rail right-of-way, next to freight lines. The vast majority of new light rail systems, like the central portion of the Hudson-Bergen line, have at least some new construction along city streets.

Many systems obtain rail lines from existing freight operators: New Jersey Transit took over a section of the former West Shore Line from Conrail for the northern section of the Hudson-Bergen line. Some purchase the line years before any attempt to reestablish passenger service: Dallas and Fort Worth purchased the former Rock Island line between the two cities in 1983 and continued to allow freight trains to use it, but didn't start the Trinity Railway Express service until 1996.

To this day, the only attempt I know of to withdraw any right-of-way from a railbank has been successful - somewhat: according to a report by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (PDF), the Heritage Rail-Trail County Park in south central Pennsylvania allowed a company to reconstruct a single rail line and run a dinner train three times a week. According to a trail review on the Conservancy's website, though, the dinner train hasn't run since 2001. Almost every other rail-with-trail in the Conservancy's report seems to have come about by adding a trail to the rail right-of-way.

Now there are some attempts to reactivate rail lines. The most famous is the Georgetown Branch in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, which was railbanked by Montgomery County in 1988 and developed into the Capital Crescent Trail. There are currently plans to use the right-of-way for the Purple Line, a planned circumferential light-rail line, converting it to a "trail with rail." Opponents of the light rail have argued that it would endanger trail users, cut down old trees and disrupt the trail experience, but since much of their funding comes from the adjacent Columbia Country Club, rail advocates have suggested that their true motives are to avoid the restoration of active rail service through their golf course. The project has taken some steps forward recently, but its success is not guaranteed.

In other places like Bellevue, Washington and Humboldt County, California, there are abandoned rail lines with active groups pushing to see passenger service restored. Meanwhile, there are trail advocates pushing for formal abandonment and railbanking for trail use. They have stated that they believe rail service will not happen for many years, or perhaps never, and that the corridor should be converted to a trail, with the possibility of restoring the railroad at a later date.

Some rail activists have said that they don't want to see the rail lines taken out because it would be politically difficult to remove a trail, or even to restore the rail line, converting the structure to a rail-with-trail. Certainly, the existence of the trail is being used to cause problems for the Purple Line. To the extent that this is true, these railbanks are failing. By law, they were set up to preserve the line for transit service, but they may have the effect of preventing transit service.

Why Sidewalk Parking is Bad

Judging by the number of cars parked on the sidewalk all over Queens, a lot of people just don't get why this is a bad thing to do. The new Streetsblog San Francisco has an excellent explanation. And it's not just bad for the disabled.

My head exploded

Jim Cameron of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council tells Newsday, "I don't know why we're talking about encouraging people to use mass transit when the DOT isn't doing anything to increase parking at the stations."

Friday, January 16, 2009

Who Will Save the Z?

Our friends at the Empire State Transportation Alliance have conducted another action protesting the planned MTA cuts: a mock funeral for the Z train. I think we can safely assume that similar actions are in store for the W, and probably for the truncated M and G lines and the bus lines that are also targeted.

I'm puzzled as to why the Alliance, Gene Russianoff in particular, agreed to share a lectern with Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who has publicly opposed the idea of tolling the East River bridges. Markowitz's suggested alternatives may have merit, but unless he can persuade someone to implement them, his opposition to bridge tolls is working against any solution to the budget cuts, and anything he says in support of the J train is just hot air.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer hasn't opposed the toll proposal, and last year supported congestion pricing, but he's still shown a disappointing lack of leadership on this issue, preferring to criticize the MTA for where they chose to place the cuts instead of taking a strong stand in favor of bridge tolls and thereby heading off the need for any cuts.

No sign of Queens Borough President Helen Marshall at the event. She was quick to condemn the Ravitch Commission proposals. Maybe she doesn't care about Z train riders.

Tuesday we saw one of Assembly Speaker Silver's famous maddening moments: after stalling and ultimately killing congestion pricing last summer, he blithely told NY1's Bobby Cuza that the city could transfer the bridges to the MTA with "no legislation required." Well, why didn't he say that in July? Sadly, there are probably lots of people out there who would just assume that these are completely unrelated issues. In any case, this statement from Silver is a big deal (as noted by Second Avenue Sagas), and it seems to have been completely forgotten since then.

So if Silver is right and "the city" can just go ahead and sell or lease the bridges to the MTA, is this something the Mayor can do, or does the City Council have to act? It'd be nice if someone (like Cuza) had asked a lawyer about it. Whether or not it requires Council approval, certainly a little pressure from various city council members would help to push it along.

Getting back to the Z train, it's nice that the two borough presidents showed up, but it'd be nice if some of the city council members whose districts the line goes through were there too, and it'd be nicer if the ESTA were willing to put them on the line for this. As far as I can tell, none of them were at the event. Some have decried the MTA cuts in general and particular bus lines, but not so much the Z train. None of them have taken a public position on the Ravitch Commission recommendations. Here, for your reading pleasure, are the City Council members in order by number of Z train stops in or near their districts.
Addabbo2Addabbo is now in State Senate; seat vacant
Gennaro1May be elected to State Senate
Barron1This firebrand has been conspicuously silent on the whole issue.

Finally, third track, anyone?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Six Things for Obama

Via the Sustainable Cities Blog, via, here's a list (PDF) of "51 specific recommendations for what the federal government could do to help New York City" from the Center for an Urban Future.

5. Dramatically increase the share of federal transportation spending
that goes to mass transit.
6. Reform Washington’s anti-urban funding formula for infrastructure
7. Fund Amtrak at a level that enables vast improvement to inter-city
rail service.
8. Accelerate plans to develop and implement a more advanced air
traffic control system that would reduce flight delays.
9. Include more ferry projects in future federal transportation infrastructure
10. Expand dredging of New York City’s waterways.

I'm honestly a little skeptical about some of these. I'm in contact with a bunch of transportation people - and admittedly, not so many marine transportation people - but I honestly don't hear anyone saying, "gee, if only our waterways were more dredged!" The air traffic control problems have already gone down with the economy, and they're going to go away pretty much for good when the price of jet fuel finally gets rationalized. And I've already made it clear what I think of ferry system investments. So there's three wasted.

So here's some things to replace those three.

First, fund the cross-harbor rail freight tunnel.

Second, (and this might fit under their #5 and #6, but why not make it explicit?) abandon the "cost effectiveness index" used by the Federal DOT to judge transit projects - or else apply it to road projects as well.

Third is a simple change that will hardly cost anything, but could make a huge difference: Reform the Federal Railroad Administration's regulations to allow European-style "light" diesel multiple unit trains to share tracks with freight trains. From what I've read, Colorado Railcar went under because it was run by greedy incompetents, but the reason no one's rushed to fill that void - and the reason it had no competition - is because the FRA regulations make it almost impossible to build a DMU cheaply enough to make a profit, despite a very high demand. It's also why the Acela and Talgo sorta-high-speed (sHSR) trains used in this country are so much more expensive than the high-speed trains used in Europe and Asia.

From everything I've heard, the European DMUs are just as safe as commuter trains. The only reason that these FRA regulations are still in effect is bureaucratic inertia. Getting them back in line with reasonable expectations would be change I could believe in.

Getting Something Together

In my last blog post, I reprinted a press release from the Empire State Transportation Alliance, one of the few groups holding actions directed at the State Legislature, but tweaked them a little for not having a website. Today I got a new press release about their action pointing me to a website,, where you can fill out a postcard to Governor Paterson.

It seems a little odd to send a note to the Governor when he's pretty much on board. In his State of the State address he seemed pretty satisfied with the Ravitch commission's recommendations. I guess if you send it to him, he can then turn to the Legislature and say "I got this many petitions in favor of the Ravitch plan." Still, you might want to look up your State Senator and Assemblymember by zip code and let them know directly how you feel.

In any case, this web page was set up in December (if not earlier) by the Campaign for New York's Future. It's just a single page on their website, but hopefully it'll be enough. Here's the press release:


For Immediate Release Contact:

Tuesday, January 13, 2009 Gene Russianoff, (917) 575-9434, ;

Neysa Pranger at (917) 532-0567, ;

Bennett Kleinberg, (212) 576-2700,

Groups to Legislature: Rescue Transit System

Unless Albany Acts by March, Downstate Fares Will Soar, Service Will be Slashed, and Rebuilding Work Faces Grim Future

Coalition Urges Governor, Legislators to “Keep New York Moving”; Launches New Campaign to Benefit Commuters, New York City and State Economies

ALBANY Two broad coalitions of civic, business, labor and environmental groups gathered here today to urge Governor Paterson and the state legislature to rescue the downstate transportation system or face a deeper and far more serious economic crisis.

The two coalitions -- led by the Empire State Transportation Alliance (ESTA) and the Campaign for New York’s Future -- launched the “Keep New York Moving” campaign and vowed a ‘full-court press’ until state legislature agrees to take action. Campaign partners will aggressively reach out to the public and elected officials through an on-the-ground and advertising effort. The groups already have set up a website,, and they have distributed leaflets to transit riders urging they take action at the site. Thousands of people already have signed the online petition and postcards in support, which were on display during the news conference. Coalition partners also will hold community events, such as funerals for the “death of transit services,” and will visit Albany regularly.

“Riders are looking to Governor Paterson and the legislature to come to our rescue,” said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney for the Straphangers Campaign. “We urge them to agree on new revenue sources to make sure the costs and benefits of transit are shared fairly.”

The potential impact on riders on the pending MTA “doomsday” budget is staggering. Transit officials say they will vote by late March to raise the base subway and bus fare from $2.00 to $2.50; charge $103 for a 30-day MetroCard (up from the current $81); and make major service cuts, including eliminating two lines (W and Z), shortening three others (G, M and N) – increasing subway wait times and crowding – and eliminating or shortening dozens of bus routes.

Not only would commuters suffer, but the economies of both the city and state would be at serious risk. The current MTA 2005-2009 Capital Plan already has resulted in $29.2 billion dollars in statewide economic activity and sales in municipalities as far north as Plattsburg and west as Buffalo and Rochester. The effect on the downstate economy would also have wide ranging impacts for all New Yorkers. Every $1 billion in MTA capital spending generates 8,700 jobs, $454 million in total wages and $1.5 billion in economic activity in the NYC metropolitan region. Under the MTA “doomsday” budget, almost 30,000 construction jobs would be stripped from the city’s workforce by 2010, which would lower construction spending by 22 percent, putting industry employment at its lowest level in a decade and the effect on state revenues will be disastrous.

“We have a transit crisis on our hands with major service cuts, fare increases and no capital funding available. If not averted, it’s a crisis that will affect every community in the state,” said Kevin S. Corbett, co-chair of the Empire State Transportation Alliance. “The state is going to have to make tough choices for saving the transit system. It is in every New Yorker’s interest to keep transit, and revenues, flowing. We’re looking to Albany for the leadership New York State needs.”

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is projecting a $1.2 billion deficit in its $10 billion operating budget for 2009 and having no money available for its next $25 billion-plus five-year rebuilding program. The MTA has set a deadline of March 25 for the state legislature to act before the “doomsday” budget goes into effect.

“Even with the investments of the last several years, the transit system still is relying on portions of infrastructure that have been in place for eight decades. We need to ask where we would be today had previous generations of leaders not had the foresight to invest in the transit system, and we must recognize we are still are paying the price for those generations of leaders who did not maintain that investment,” said Denise Richardson, managing director of the General Contractor’s Association of New York. “We are faced with a clear choice: are we the leaders that will make the investment to maintain jobs and create a 21st century transit system or are we the leaders that will skirt responsibility and put New York City’s future as an economic powerhouse at risk?”

“Adequate support for operating, maintaining, and expanding New York's transit system is essential for not only the New York City metropolitan region but also for the economic well being of New York State,” said Jim Melius, President of the New York State Laborers’. “We have procrastinated for too long. We need to provide a solid base of support for the MTA now and for the future.”

“In these tough economic times, fully funding and expanding transit is the key to keeping New York open for business,” said Mary Barber, campaign director for Living Cities at Environmental Defense Fund. “It’s not just essential for the economy; it’s also a green solution that improves the downstate quality of live and residents’ health. It is time to expand the transit lifeline to more people.”

New York City’s transit system keeps virtually all New Yorkers moving since 94% of all commuting within the city use mass transit,” said xx, of the Transit Workers Union. “Transit workers know just how important the system is to the city and state, and we know that the way to keep that commitment is through improving and expanding service, not through cuts that cripple mobility and the economy.”

Recognizing the transit’s system critical role in the health of the downstate region’s economy, last June, Governor Paterson appointed former MTA chairman Richard Ravitch and a panel of experts to examine how the state could meet the MTA’s financial needs,. In December, the Commission released its plan, which recommended bridge tolls on the Harlem and East River bridges, a modest fare increase and a regional payroll tax.

Members of the Keep New York Moving campaign added that they believed that city and state leaders now had the chance to hammer some combination of the proposals into a stable funding program to keep commuter rails, buses and the subways running and growing to meet riders’ needs.

“We will need strong leadership to turn the ideas into reality,” said Kate Slevin, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a regional policy watchdog group. “There will be tough choices, but we must share the transit system’s cost. Everyone benefits from our robust public transportation network, so everyone – including businesses, riders, and drivers – should share the burden of paying for it.”

“Riders already bear an extremely high percentage of the cost of transit service and are now threatened with an even higher burden,” said William Henderson, Executive Director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “It is time for our elected officials to back up their statements of support for transit with decisive action to ensure all who benefit from the MTA system will make an appropriate contribution to meeting its operating and capital needs.”

“Full, fair funding for a high-quality transit system is vital to keep New York moving toward a greener, healthier, more prosperous future, especially as we confront climate change, continued population growth and global economic turmoil,” said Michael O’Loughlin, director for the Campaign for New York’s Future. “The Commission’s recommendations should jumpstart action from our elected leaders on a plan that stems the draconian cuts certain in the next few months, while also making the long-term investments that are so essential to New York’s long-term environmental and economic sustainability.”

“With the MTA facing its worst crisis in a generation, business-as-usual will not cut it this time. Unless legislators act now, the riding public will face skyrocketing fares and crippling service cuts,” says Peter Goldwasser, General Counsel and Special Projects Director for Transportation Alternatives.

Those signing on to today’s call for action and joining the “Keep New York Moving” campaign include prominent members of the business, civic and labor community, including the Regional Plan Association, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, New York League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Defense Fund, General Contractor’s Association of New York, Campaign for New York’s Future, New York Building Congress, Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, Long Island Contractor’s Association of New York State, Natural Resources Defense Council, Construction Industry Council, Associated General Contractors of NYS, Transportation Alternatives, Vision Long Island, American Council of Engineering Companies, New York Roadway Improvement Coalition, New York State Laborers’ Unions, Building Trades Employers’ Association, NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and Partnership for Sustainable Ports, Inc. (*list subject to revision)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Press Release: Empire State Transportation Alliance (ESTA) To Rally

The whole deal with the MTA budget cuts and the Ravitch plan is very simple: transit riders have to make the State Legislature fear their wrath as much as they fear the wrath of drivers faced with the prospect of paying for the bridges they use. So far, the riders and their advocates have been doing an absolutely shitty job of it, letting themselves be led around by the nose and distracted by every dog-and-pony show in town.

Second Avenue Sagas has a rundown of some campaigns to stop individual MTA service cuts. Sadly, the only ones who seem to be pointing the blame where it belongs - at the state legislature - are the MTA board and Lee Sander's fifteen-year-old daughter. The "Save the M8" coalition is not targeting Deborah Glick, the "Save Local Bus Service in Gerritsen Beach and Marine Park" petition does not address Alan Meisel, and Councilmember Gentile isn't inviting his constituents to complain to Alec Brook-Krasny.

The only non-MTA-related people who are doing something to target the Legislature are the Empire State Transportation Alliance. They just sent me a wonderful press release about a rally they're holding tomorrow, and I was going to post a link to it on their websites. Sadly, their PR folks at Goodman Media haven't set up a web site, and the first Google result for "Empire State Transportation Alliance" leads to a 404 page at the Regional Plan association. I don't know whether the ESTA didn't pay Goodman Media enough to put up a website or Goodman Media hasn't gotten around to it, but seriously, doesn't anyone have their shit together?

In any case, if you've got time tomorrow and actually want to accomplish something instead of whining to the MTA board who can't do squat to raise more money, I suggest you call one of these people and see if you can get on the bus to Albany tomorrow. Here is the press release.

* *Media Advisory for January 13, 2009* *


News Conference And Advocacy Day With Legislators In Albany

WHO: Members of the Empire State Transportation Alliance (ESTA) along with a coalition of officials, union leaders and mass transit advocates including:

· Kevin Corbett, vice president, AECOM and co-chair, ESTA

· Gene Russianoff, senior attorney, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign

· Jim Melius, president, New York State Laborers’

· Denise Richardson, managing director, General Contractors Association of New York

· Vernon Thorpe, Transport Workers Union, Local 100

WHAT: ESTA will be hosting an Advocacy Day and News Conference urging additional funding for Metropolitan Transportation Authority and specific components of the Ravitch Commission plan

WHEN: Tuesday, January 13 at 11:30 am

WHERE: Legislative Correspondents Association (LCA), Press Room 130, to the right of large staircase in the lower level of the Legislative Office Building

WHY: The MTA’s proposed cuts threaten to propel the New York City region and New York State into an economic, social and environmental tailspin. The Ravitch Commission plan offers fundamentally more equitable transportation opportunities for all New Yorkers. Other attendees expected to attend the news conference include:

· Mary Barber, campaign director for Living Cities, Environmental Defense Fund

· Bill Henderson, Executive Director, Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA

· Neysa Pranger, public affairs director, Regional Plan Association

· Cate Contino, campaign coordinator, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign

· Jason Chin-Fatt, field organizer, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign

· Peter Goldwasser, general counsel, Transportation Alternatives

· Wiley Norvell, communication director, Transportation Alternatives

· Lindsey Lusher Shute, director, environmental campaigns, Transportation Alternatives

· Felice Farber, external affairs director, General Contractors Association of New York

· Pat McCandless, research associate, Regional Plan Association

· Kate Slevin, executive director, Tri-State Transportation Campaign

· Marc Herbst, executive director, Long Island Contractors’ Association

· Salvatore Rinaldi, Jr., Deputy Executive Director of LICA.

CONTACT: John Bianchi, Goodman Media, (212) 576-2700 or (917) 693-4290

Bennett Kleinberg, Goodman Media, (212)576-2700 or (917) 416-4012


(Please note our new address, effective Jan. 26, 2009)

Havelock Nelson

Senior Account Executive

Goodman Media International, Inc.

750 Seventh Avenue (between 49th and 50th)

28th floor

New York, NY 10019-6829


212.576.2701 FAX

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Suffern from the Thruway

Planetizen links to a New York Times article about the Rockland County village of Suffern, which has seen a large increase in its fortunes over the past twenty years. The article doesn't mention how much Suffern has suffered from its location as two major highways were built around it. It also doesn't acknowledge how the town has benefited from public investments in transit service, particularly over the past 10-15 years.

Suffern sits at the southern end of the Ramapo Pass, a narrow gorge that's the only inland route between New York City and the Hudson Valley. That's why the three New Jersey branches of the Erie Railroad converged to one in Suffern, and why so many roads have been built through here. In the 1920s the States of New York and New Jersey built Route 17 just west of Suffern. In 1955 the New York State Thruway was constructed through the northern end of the town, and in 1994 Interstate 287 was extended to the southwest. These highway bypasses contributed enormously to the use of cars in the town and the decline of the downtown area.

To get to Manhattan by train, the only option used to be to go all the way to Hoboken and take the PATH or ferry. The trains made all stops, and train and ferry service were infrequent. But even then, bus service was convenient and well-patronized - and produced a nice profit for the private Short Line operator - because of the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane (established in 1970) and the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

In the 1990s, yuppies from Manhattan began to discover Hoboken, leading to an increase in ferry service. In 2003 New Jersey Transit opened a $415 million transfer station at Secaucus that allowed passengers to switch to Penn Station-bound trains, cutting 20-30 minutes off of some trips. The resulting increase in ridership allowed NJ Transit to run more trains. Now, between 5:00 and 9:00 AM there are three or four (PDF) trains an hour from Suffern to Hoboken, some of them making only one stop between Suffern and Secaucus. There is service at least hourly between 6:00 AM and 11 PM seven days a week.

The fortunes of Suffern were established with the building of the first roads and railroads through the Ramapo Pass, but they then fell with the building of bypasses. What has brought Suffern up again is the construction of transit improvements.

In Praise of Long Walks

In many parts of the world it's common for people to walk a lot. Sometimes they'll walk long distances - hours, days - to get where they need to go. It used to be pretty universal.

When I was younger I thought this just happened, that you could get up and start walking and just spend the night wherever you wound up. I was disappointed to discover that there are large sections of the country that are really very inhospitable to people on foot. To a large extent, it's because major roads have been built for cars with almost no thought to pedestrians. Outside of towns and cities, sidewalks are scarce, shoulders are narrow, and speeds are high. In some places, pedestrians are harassed, particularly outsiders.

My first reaction was to praise long-distance trail projects, like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Coast Trail. Certainly, people do take long walks on these trails, and they're great for spending time in nature, getting exercise and seeing pretty mountains. But if you've ever hiked on them, you'll know that they're not very practical for actually getting anywhere. They usually don't go through population centers: Harper's Ferry, West Virginia is one of the few towns that are actually on the Appalachian Trail.

The first reason for that is that land in towns is expensive, and walking trails didn't provide a good return on investment for either private companies or governments to spend the money to develop them. The second is that they piggyback on existing trails, many of which were made for visiting mountaintops. While it's great for hikers to climb Bear Mountain on their way through the Hudson Valley, it's not really the most convenient route to get from, say, Peekskill to Middletown.

I developed an interest in stories about people walking long distances, and looked for older ones that went back before all those roads were built and filled with cars. It turns out that in a lot of circumstances it wasn't much easier to get around on foot. There were weather problems, brigands, lack of food and difficulty finding or affording places to stay. There were also difficulties such as not having a good path to travel or losing the path.

One thing that's very striking about these narratives, particularly the more recent ones, is how many times the walkers get into cars, buses and trains. Especially cars. Five hundred years ago, if someone walked from Paris to Brussels they'd have had to walk from inn to inn, and once they left home they wouldn't see their families until they came back. Today, Appalachian trail hikers regularly hitch rides to grocery stores, or get visits from family members in cars. Just about every trail journal has an entry about getting a ride to a campsite further down the trail and then hitching another ride back to complete the skipped section.

What I learned from these stories is that walking too requires infrastructure. The paths and maps need to be created and maintained. There need to be bridges or boats to cross rivers and other obstacles. There need to be places to obtain food and places to stay, and they need to be affordable to walkers. This is a lot of work, and down through the ages it's something that people have spent years setting up. This infrastructure doesn't just happen.

The reason I've been talking about this stuff is that I feel it's very important to be able to walk just about anywhere we want to go. Not that the government should immediately go out and build straight, level walking paths for every city pair, with subsidized travelers' inns every five miles - although that would be a better use of the stimulus money than half the projects that are currently begging for it - but that we should aim ourselves in the general direction of making it easy to get places on foot, between towns as well as within them.

It's actually quite a tragedy that country roads used to be places where people could walk, and they still are to some extent, but with the number and speed of cars these days I wouldn't want to spend a month walking along them. When I was a kid I once visited coastal villages in Italy and Greece, and one thing that impressed me so much - impresses me to this day - is how they had well-maintained footpaths to other villages. I'm talking paths paved with stone, but too steep and narrow for cars. They were much more direct than the roads, because they didn't require all the hairpin turns. They weren't hiking trails or rail-trails or carriage roads. They were footpaths, built for people to get around.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Not for the weak-stomached

... is the prose describing BRT in this Tappan Zee PDF. Apparently the source of this stuff is the Bus Rapid Transit Practitioner's Guide.

Not a Horrible Senator for Transit

After recommending Jerry Nadler as the transit candidate to be New York's next Senator, I was encouraged by Niccolo Machiavelli (himself!) to examine some of the other candidates.

Many upstaters are disgruntled at the prospect of having two senators from the New York metropolitan area. (Maybe they're also upset at the idea of being represented by two Jews, but they don't come out and say that.) It's a funny thing, though: we really haven't had too many senators who weren't from downstate. There were John Foster Dulles and Charles Goodell, but they were both appointed to fill vacancies and then lost the next election (hmm). Kenneth Keating (1959-1965) is the most recent senator to be elected from upstate; he served one term and then lost to Bobby Kennedy.

Still and all, maybe upstaters deserve a senator every now and then. I was worried that we might get some awful highway-builder like David Gantt appointed, but it turns out that there's at least one promising name: Representative Kirsten Gillibrand (D-Hudson).

Your Cap'n disagrees with Gillibrand on a lot of issues, like tax cuts for the wealthy and the farm bill. But this is a blog about transit, so how is she on these issues?

Unfortunately, I don't have time right now to look into her record in detail. At a glance, I see that she voted for a bill to give grants for public transit, but she also voted for a Rangel-sponsored bill to pump money into the highway trust fund, and for the automaker bailout. Generally she seems to vote with the House majority, which is not surprising for a freshman in Congress.

In terms of statements she's made, she supports light rail for the Capital District. The Times Union reported in August:

“The investment I’m really interested in is a commuting light rail system between Albany and Saratoga,” said U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-Greenport.

Gillibrand’s ideal system would grow branches to the airport, Schenectady, Troy and other communities. She estimates such a project could cost around $1 billion and would require sustained investment over at least a decade.

Gillibrand even has a champion in mind: Gov. David Paterson.

“Because it’s a significant investment, it would have to be an investment from the state and it would have to be a vision of the governor,” she said.

Or she could even reach across the aisle to Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, whose district covers most of the proposed trunk route. It'd be nice if she developed that idea as much as she did her gas price pandering.

In terms of transit, Gillibrand practices what she preaches. The Main St. USA blog reposts a Times Union piece from last year that describes her riding the D.C. Metro every day from her Arlington apartment to the Capital, dropping her son Theo (then three years old) off on the way at the congressional daycare center.

Gillibrand's record is pretty scanty - again, what you'd expect for someone who's only served one term in Congress. It certainly doesn't compare to Nadler's strong record of support for transit and rail freight. But if Governor Paterson did wind up appointing Gillibrand, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for transit. Hey, maybe we'd wind up with a light rail system in the Capital District.

Photo: Theo and Kirsten Gillibrand by Andrew C. White/Flickr.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Transit Candidate

When I recommended Representative Jerry Nadler for the Senate seat that Hillary Clinton will be vacating in a few weeks, I was totally serious. I didn't think he had much of a chance, since I hadn't heard anyone else mention his name, but now it looks like other people are thinking of him. The Times reported today that he's one of six people they know of who received a 28-page disclosure form from the Governor. He's been discussed on various Democratic blogs like MyDD and Matt Yglesias's, after he told Democracy Now! that he was "certainly" interested in the Senate seat.

Now it still might be the case that the best thing for transit and livable streets would be for that seat to go to Shelly Silver or Anthony Weiner, but there's no question that of all the candidates that have been mentioned, the one who's cared the most and done the most is Nadler. As he told Amy Goodman, "I think my record on economic development in New York, in terms of port development and transportation, has been a very far-seeing record."

To listen to our current senators talk, they seem to relate to transit in an abstract way, as one of the many kinds of pork that northeastern senators are expected to fight for, as well as possibly something that will earn them points with people who care about the environment. They don't seem to get that millions of people in the state rely on trains to get where they want to go. When they think about their constituents going places, it's usually by SUV or plane.

Nadler seems to be different. He's been one of Amtrak's most consistent supporters in the House. He's got a long record of supporting not just passenger rail, but rail freight, notably the Cross-Harbor Tunnel. He does occasionally support car things, like this bizarre rally in support of Manhattan car dealers. But he's willing to criticize a "really stupid project" like the Downtown-JFK rail link in order to defend projects that matter, like the Second Avenue Subway and the Fulton Street transfer station. And he's got a healthy skepticism about privatization.

It's certainly possible that CBK - or Gillibrand, Israel, Maloney or Suozzi - could turn out to be great for transit and livable streets, but Nadler's record beats the others' hands down. The financial disclosure forms are due back Thursday, so the Governor probably won't make a decision before then. That means there's still time to contact him and let you know how important it is to have a senator who cares about transit.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Financing trouble? Oh noes!

The Times reports that infrastructure projects around the country are coming to a standstill because states are having trouble borrowing money.

Call me naive, but I honestly didn't realize that so much was done with borrowed money. It's not like I have no debt, but I thought that projects were done by, you know, saving until you had enough to pay for them. Doesn't anyone pay cash anymore?

Gioia Calls for Midtown Tunnel Bus

A tipster pointed me to an email from City Council Member Eric Gioia, who represents western Queens, including Long Island City. Gioia called a rally today to protest the planned closure of the #7 train for the next nine weeks between Queensboro Plaza and Times Square. Residents and businesses in southern Long Island City, which are normally just 10-15 minutes from Midtown, will have no direct subway service, instead being forced to take a shuttle bus to Queensboro Plaza and transfer to the N or Q trains. Gioia proposes several steps to mitigate the closure, similar to what the MTA did a year ago when they replaced switches in Woodside. But here's the most interesting part:

The MTA should have shuttle bus service from Grand Central
Station through the Midtown Tunnel to key #7 train stops in Queens.

It's a big deal to have a political leader talk about tunnel buses. Back in December 2007, there was talk of a Red Hook bus through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Last March, in her testimony to the City Council, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said that if congestion pricing passed, the MTA would run a new bus route "from Jackson Heights to Penn Station." She didn't give any further details, and congestion pricing was never passed, so there was no bus.

In May I discussed possible Bus Rapid Transit through the tunnel, feeding into the new 34th Street Transitway (PDF). I know that Gioia is suggesting that the tunnel bus go to Grand Central, and only while #7 service is suspended. But if we had buses running through the tunnel all the time, then suspending the #7 train wouldn't be such a big deal. We'd have an alternative that everyone would know about.

It's called redundancy, and it's practiced by smart businesses all over. And in other neighborhoods there is redundancy: in Sunnyside the #7 is complemented by the Q32 and Q60 buses, in Woodside by the Long Island Railroad, and in Jackson Heights by the Queens Boulevard subway. In Hunters Point there used to be fairly decent ferry service, but nowadays it's very infrequent and doesn't come at all in the wintertime.

Running buses through the tunnel is really a no-brainer. Especially with the 34th Street transitway to speed the buses across Manhattan, and on the weekend when congestion is light, you could really get people to Penn Station pretty quickly, not to mention the other subway stops along 34th Street.

I put together the following map (based on maps from to show possible bus routes to places that Google Maps indicates are ten minutes from Penn Station.

Clockwise from the top, they are: Broadway and 21st Street in Astoria, the 39th Avenue N/W station in Dutch Kills, 46th and Greenpoint in Sunnyside, and Greenpoint and Manhattan Avenues in Greenpoint. Google Maps says that it could take up to 30 minutes with traffic, but again this is on the weekend and along the transitway. Obviously, if the buses make several stops it will slow things down, but I'd venture to say that you could still get from one end to the other in half an hour.

You could have other routes that don't go as far, like a bus up Fifth Street or Center Boulevard in Hunters Point to serve all the new development, and another up Vernon Boulevard to serve the commercial strip - or even a loop serving both.

If you wanted to go farther afield, here are destinations that Google Maps says will take fifteen minutes, or up to 40 minutes with traffic:

They are Astoria Park, Junction Boulevard in Elmhurst, 69th and Metropolitan in Middle Village, Bushwick Terminal, and Bedford and Metropolitan in Williamsburg.

These bus routes would provide robust redundancy during subway outages, add more travel options, and potentially serve areas that don't have very good transit right now. Following Gioia's request, the MTA should at least implement a Hunters Point loop that would connect Vernon and Center boulevards to 34th Street, and another one connecting Greenpoint with Penn Station.

Long term, the MTA should look into implementing some of these as new routes on a daily basis. They may not have the money, in which case I say: look to the Ravitch plan!