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.


Alon Levy said...

We'll see what happens with the $16 billion Tappan Zee Bridge...

busplanner said...

Re: Lincoln Tunnel Helix -

1. It is in serious need of repair and the sooner it can be repaired the better.

2. The largest number of users (by head count) is almost definitely people on buses, due to the tremendous impact of the XBL. While there is other use, improvements to the helix will improve bus service. (The PANYNJ has been studying adding a second XBL inbound in the AM or an outbound XBL in the PM. Perhaps, the helix improvements will further this effort.

While we can bemoan the use of transportation dollars for non-public transit uses, we have to realize that some projects will also benefit these non-public uses. The collapse of the helix would most likely do far more damage to bus service and the quality of the ride for bus users than autos will benefit from fixing the helix now.