Saturday, December 18, 2010

Westchester-Rockland Pick-a-Mix

In browsing the Tappan Zee study documents, I occasionally come across a really useful nugget, and the latest one is on Page 7-3 of Chapter 7 of the Transit Mode Selection Report (PDF). It's a cute little pair of tables supporting a pair of charts. Don't look at the charts, they're just there to argue that commuter rail on the full corridor is too expensive.

The value of these charts is that they provide a breakdown of the cost estimates of individual components of the bridge, and taken with the figures on Page 3 of the Preliminary Financial Assessment (PDF), we get a fairly complete picture. This information is hard to come by, either as a deliberate plan to favor road construction, or out of general obtuseness, depending on how much you want to use Hanlon's razor.

CodeComponentCost in millions
BHB1Bridge with HO/T lanes $ 5,180
BR1Commuter rail capacity on bridge 1,220
RWH1Highway "improvements" (widening) 1,800
RB1Rockland HO/T lanes 263
RB1Rockland busway800
WB1Westchester bus lanes 560
WB2Westchester busway 2,210
RR1Rockland commuter rail 4,410
WR1Rail connection to Hudson Line 1,500
WR2Westchester light rail 2,295
WR3Westchester commuter rail 7,080
WR3Westchester commuter rail 7,080

The $16 billion figure (estimated to be $23 billion after inflation and debt service) you often hear bandied about comes from the current Alternative 4D: in Tier 1, BHB1 + RWH1 = $6,980,000; in Tier 2, RB1 + RR1 + WB1 + WR1 = $8,383,000. However, as I've written before, the organization into tiers was completely arbitrary and decided behind closed doors, subject to none of the rigorous and intensive public participation requirements of the rest of the project.

You can kinda sorta see why they would want to build the bridge before putting in the "BRT" lanes (they're actually High Occupancy/Toll lanes and don't qualify for federal transit funding), but there's absolutely no reason why the $1.9 billion in "Highway Improvements" (reconstructing the Thruway interchange with the Westchester Expressway at Exit 8 and widening the Thruway from the bridge west to Exit 12) need to be done before anything else. So I'm going to do my own Pick-A-Mix, and I suggest you try yours.

Phase 1: WB2 + RB1 = only $823 million, but I would make the Rockland "BRT" a real exclusive bus lane connecting to a reversible bus lane in the middle of the existing bridge. The total cost would be well below $4 billion dollars, and it might just take enough cars off the bridge so that there would no longer be any justification for replacing the bridge.

If the demand is there, Phase 2 would be BBH1 + BR1 + RR1 + WR1, for a total of $12,310,000. The total is slightly more than the current DOT proposal, but you could probably shave a few million off that by only building six general-traffic lanes on the bridge instead of eight. What's your mix?

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Helix and the XBL

My post last Wednesday on Chris Christie's plans to use the Port Authority's $3 billion ARC tunnel contribution on a bus garage, reconstructing the Lincoln Tunnel helix, and replacing the cables on the George Washington Bridge got some interesting comments, both here and when Angie Schmitt featured it on the Streetsblog Network. Some of the comments pointed out that since buses use roads, this doesn't have to be all for cars. Sean, Kate and Alon on Streetsblog, and Busplanner here, all argued that the helix reconstruction could help speed buses.

For those of you just tuning in, the Lincoln Tunnel exclusive bus lane is a counterflow lane. One of the lanes that is normally reserved for outbound traffic is allocated for inbound buses during the weekday morning rush, but then it's over, and there is no outbound XBL. It carries thousands of people every morning, in an impressive feat of bus service, and is quite likely possible for the continued viability of most of the country's private bus lines. Several transit advocates have argued for making the XBL two-way round-the-clock, and for doubling it in the morning rush. The Port Authority has studied this, but there hasn't been much movement on it. One of the items in the Strategic Plan was $800 million to expand the XBL, but the helix reconstruction and the GWB cables seem to have jumped ahead of this.

I agree that since the Lincoln Tunnel exclusive bus lane goes on the helix, it would be negatively impacted if the helix were to fall down. But rebuilding the helix by itself would not actually increase capacity. The current helix is three lanes inbound and four outbound, and we could conceivably press to increase that to four inbound and five outbound, with one in each direction reserved for buses.

The problem is that the helix still connects to a six-lane road cut through the bedrock of the Palisades, and we can't add any lanes to that without some serious blasting. Increasing the capacity of the helix would just move the backups a mile further out of the city, to the point where the lanes merge down to three in each direction again. This is the reason why most of the serious plans to increase the XBL capacity involve taking another car lane.

However, we've got some pretty clear indications that Christie understands that this is about subsidies for drivers versus subsidies for transit, and we know where he comes down on that issue. I wouldn't expect him to say, "Okay guys, sure, let's take a general traffic lane and give it to bus riders!" Unless it's some vicious sarcasm like his mom dished out with her bit about the money tree.

That's not to say that savvy politicians couldn't get an expansion of the XBL folded into the helix reconstruction. Maybe if everyone plays their cards right, Cuomo could threaten to block the helix reconstruction as a car project unless XBL expansion is included in it. But that's not going to happen if everyone says, "Well, the helix benefits buses too!"

Friday, December 10, 2010

The 2009 farebox numbers

The 2009 National Transit Database is out. As usual, everything from 74% up is inclined planes and the ferries and buses of northern New Jersey; 39-71% is college towns and urban rail; 30-39% is big city bus and light rail systems, and below 30% is small and medium-size towns and assorted boondoggles.

The top farebox earner, as last year, is the Chattanooga inclined plane, and it earned even more this year, almost a million dollars, for a farebox recovery ratio of 214.9%. This is a silly thing to count as a transit system, since it costs $14 per person, and the directions webpage only gives driving directions. The Pittsburgh inclines, which are well-connected to the bus and light rail networks, earned $110,000 for a ratio of 119.1%.

The two largest New Jersey ferry systems, Port Imperial and BillyBey, which both do business as New York Waterway, earned six million and almost a million dollars last year, respectively, for recovery ratios of 130% and 114%. One newcomer to the 70%-plus club was the University of Georgia, but that's just because the University pays for 98% of operating costs. I'm kind of baffled by the Pee Dee Regional Transportation Authority (PDF), serving the area around Florence, South Carolina. They claim to get 71% of their funding from fares, yet operating expenses were $16 per unlinked passenger trip, but fares were only $1.50. It seems like they must have gotten some big contract, but I don't see what it is. It's not a university town like Athens.

The other big story is the Stagecoach Group. This multinational transit firm from Perth, Scotland controls Coachusa, the company that owns the seven Lincoln Tunnel bus lines highlighted in blue in the table below. Some of their lines are profitable: Trans-Hudson Express, better known as Red and Tan in Hudson County, cost only $1.42 per trip to operate on average, and charges $1.45 for local routes and $4 for the New York-bound Route 99S. Orange-Newark-Elizabeth and Community Transit have also run an operating surplus for the past three years. The others bring them down, though, particularly Suburban Transit and Short Line. In 2007 their operations required a $7 million subsidy, in 2008 it was $11 million, and in 2009 it was back down to $5.6 million. I don't know how they keep those afloat, or if there will be some changes in the future.

NameFare Revenues per Total Operating Expense (Recovery Ratio)
Trans-Hudson Express177.0
Trans-Bridge Lines, Inc.128.8
Orange-Newark-Elizabeth, Inc. (Coach USA)125.8
Bonanza (BZ)119.3
Community Transit, Inc. (Community Transit)101.3
New Jersey Transit Corporation-45 (NJTC-45)101.3
Hudson Transit Lines, Inc. (Short Line)96.0
Martz Group, National Coach Works of Virginia (NCW)88.5
Rockland Coaches, Inc.84.0
Academy Lines, Inc.83.6
Monroe Bus Corporation80.5
DeCamp Bus Lines79.2
Suburban Transit Corporation (Coach USA)79.2
Lakeland Bus Lines, Inc.77.5
Monsey New Square Trails Corporation77.3
Adirondack Transit Lines, Inc. (Adirondack Trailways)77.1
Olympia Trails Bus Company, Inc. (Coach USA)74.4
Pee Dee Regional Transportation Authority (PDRTA)71.8

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sucked down the helix

The sad fate of the money that was to be dedicated to the ARC tunnel is a clear illustration of how easy it is for governments to spend money on car travel, and how hard it is for them to spend it on transit. The money was going to come from the Federal government, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and the Port Authority. The Federal money will probably go to some transit project, assuming the President doesn't cave into some Republican "cancel the stimulus" nastiness. The Turnpike Authority will widen the two toll roads it controls, and Christie wants it to turn some of the money over to the State Transportation Trust Fund.

The latest news is what will probably happen to the three billion dollars the Port Authority was going to contribute to the project, $595 million of which was going to be spent next year. Andrew Grossman at the Wall Street Journal lists three projects that are at the top of the Authority's wish list: reconstruction of the Helix ramps leading to the Lincoln Tunnel, replacement of the cables holding up the George Washington Bridge, and a new bus garage at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. In case you suffer from transportation myopia, Ben at Second Avenue Sagas points out that only one of these projects is exclusively transit-related. As you may remember, most of the goals we have for transit (cleaner air, reducing carnage, less waste of energy) depend on getting people to shift from cars to transit. For that, in general, shifting money from transit to cars is bad.

I can't find an estimate anywhere for the cost of the Lincoln Tunnel helix or the George Washington Bridge cables, but on Page 16 of the Authority's 2008-2015 Strategic Plan, it says that the total cost for the new bus garage would be $500 million, of which $400 million was expected to come from the Port Authority. If that price hasn't gone up, that leaves $2.6 billion for the other two projects, and I can imagine that they'd be pretty expensive.

But what if the Port Authority were committed to using this money for transit? It turns out that in this Strategic Plan there are a number of other things on the wish list. Some are expansions of the transit system, some are equipment maintenance, and some are subsidies for transit-oriented development.

ProjectEstimated cost in millions of dollars
Expansion of the Lincoln Tunnel exclusive bus lane800
Lengthen the Grove Street and Harrison stations on the PATH to ten cars230
Signal replacement on the PATH253
Transit-oriented development: Newark Airport station on Northeast Corridor line155
Transit-oriented development: George Washington Bridge bus station150
Transit-oriented development: Jamaica AirTrain Station425
Transit-oriented development: Lower Manhattan-Kennedy Airport link right of way350
Total$2,863 million

How about that? It comes out to a little over $2.6 billion.  And according to DNAinfo's Julie Shapiro, the PATH signal replacement is funded from other revenue streams, which brings us under $3 billion total.

So here we have $3 billion in transit funds that is currently unallocated, and $3 billion in transit-related needs listed in the Strategic Plan. And yet, Executive Director Chris Ward completely disregards the Strategic Plan and picks two road-related projects that aren't even listed in it. What could that be about? Ward hints at it in the DNAinfo article: "Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo will work with Christie to decide what those projects will be, but Christie 'will take the lead,' Ward said." And there you have it: Christie overriding the Strategic Plan and diverting more than half the ARC Tunnel money to roads. I never thought I'd miss the days of Jon Corzine.