Saturday, November 26, 2011

Building on our transit-oriented past

I've been criticizing the Tappan Zee Bridge for weeks now, so it's time to offer an alternative vision. Deactivating the bridge will not make Orange, Bergen and Rockland counties go away. People will still live there. The role of the area in the regional economy would change somewhat, probably for the better. A wise investment in transportation infrastructure could foster prosperity in the area, but rebuilding the bridge ain't it.

Rockland, Orange and Bergen counties did not go straight from farmland to sprawl. There were many years of transit-oriented development, for industry, tourism and commuting.
The old industries are probably not coming back, even if we have an energy shortage. A lot more will be shipped by rail, but it will probably still be done in containers loaded in Newark. You never really know, but I don't see a huge demand for ice again. Quarrying will only pick up if the cost of moving rocks and concrete from further away goes through the roof.

Tourism and farming are the two economic sectors most likely to return. "Eating local" in the future is more likely to mean vegetables from Orange County than from a backyard in Brooklyn. If travel gets more expensive, a weekend in Nyack could become a better value than a weekend in Stockbridge. Bedroom communities may continue to be the main driver of the economies of these three counties, but not in the current sprawling configuration.

The current sprawl will not function with gas costing more than six dollars, but transit-oriented development can. Fortunately Orange, Bergen and Rockland counties have a network of transit-oriented towns that is still almost complete.

The Erie, and Pascack Valley railroads are still carrying passengers through the area, and the West Shore, Northern Branch and Suzy-Q are still carrying freight. The old Erie main line to Piermont is still intact from Suffern to Nanuet, and the right-of-way has been preserved as a rail-trail from Pearl River to Tappan. The only break is a mile or so from the Nanuet station to the Orangetown town line. The spurs to Haverstraw and New City have been abandoned, but the right of way seems mostly intact.

Just as importantly, the walkable town centers that grew up around train stations in all three counties before the highway network are still there. Middletown and Newburgh, Suffern and Nyack, Paterson and Hackensack, are still there with many of their beautiful old buildings still standing. All they need are transit riders and zoning reform to become vibrant towns again.

This is my vision for a Rockland county (and Bergen, and Orange) freed from car dependence. With convenient rail connections to jobs in Manhattan and Jersey City, no one will need to drive to Westchester. With sufficient residential density in the downtowns, businesses can thrive on pedestrian traffic without huge parking lots. When a train station and shopping are within walking distance, cars become unnecessary.


capt subway said...

When the cost of gas goes up to $6 or more a gallon there will certainly be a real impetus to reactivate and/or improve passenger train service in this area. But not before then. I think we transit advocates often underestimate the extent to which people are wedded, indeed enslaved to their motor vehicles.

And of course the who issue of rail construction cost has to be addressed. Why it should cost two to four times as much per mile to construct rail or metro lines here in the USA than it costs in Western Europe still makes one's head spin. Nothing much is going to happen, especially in this funding environment, if it comes with a price tag of tens of billions of dollars

And let's not forget the NIMBYs.

George K said...

I think there will still be people who will commute to jobs in Westchester even when the price of gas goes up to $6. The difference is that they'll be doing it by transit rather than driving. As of now, there is the Tappan Zee Express bus, which goes to Tarrytown and White Plains and sees decent ridership. Since people tend to prefer rail to buses, a rail line in place of the Tappan Zee Bridge should also see decent ridership.

Not to mention that, as you said, there will still be a demand for weekend getaways and things like that. I'm sure a lot of Westchester residents would be willing to take a train out to "the country".

John G said...

I was one who advocated for restoration of West Shore passenger service in the late 90's. Unfortunately CSX which owns the tracks is not willing to give up its freight capacity to passenger service. This is a large obstacle to overcome.

The other transit option which could be a factor is passenger ferry service which could link the river communities of Rockland to Manhattan and Westchester, and reviving the economies in these places that grew from river commerce.

Interesting article, though not realistic- the links between Orange, Rockland & Westchester and Fairfield counties run very deep- I don't believe we have any leaders who have the cohones to stand up for your plan.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for your comments, all. Capt., I think it's the opposite: people overestimate the degree to which people are dedicated to cars, especially in the New York area where alternatives are plentiful.

Rail construction isn't expensive when you already have the rights-of-way. In Vermont, it cost them $2 million to lower the floor - which is what we need in Haverstraw, John.

George, a rail line in place of the Tappan Zee would be nice, but a new bridge isn't really necessary when we can just use the Poughkeepsie Bridge.

John, it's hard to make ferries work when there are competing bridges or tunnels. A ferry from Nyack or Haverstraw might work in place of the bridge, but not in competition with it.

Finally, how deep can the links between Orange, Rockland, Westchester and Fairfield have gotten in sixty years? No deeper than the old rail links between Orange, Rockland, Bergen, Passaic and Hudson counties.

Alon said...

As I said on my blog, a transit city is a centralized city. In particular, a world in which driving is harder is a world in which the importance of travel to Manhattan grows relative to that of travel to Westchester.

But even today, more people who live in Rockland and Orange Counties work in New York than in Westchester: 41,000 vs. 17,000 as of 2000, and of the 41,000, 27,000 work in Manhattan. Even Bergen County, with 20,000, is a bigger draw than Westchester.

That said, the existing job density in White Plains means that it makes a lot of sense to redevelop it as a transit-oriented secondary center, with rail extending east and west and not just north and south. It's less important than running commuter rail better and making already-walkable centers like Newark and Jamaica more accessible, but it's still in the middle of the priority list.

If the Tappan Zee replacement could be done on a reasonable budget - say, $2 billion for 6-8 road lanes and 2 mainline tracks - then it would make all the sense in the world to build it. Since we're assuming the inner system has already been built, there is no longer any capacity constraint making it impossible for Erie trains to serve Manhattan through Jersey, but it'd then be useful to build a Suffern-Tarrytown-White Plains-Stamford line.

jarod213 said...

Did you happen to read my blog post on a similar subject? I write for There is a successful ferry service from Haverstraw right now. It competes well with the TZB, as it reduces crossing times (to MetroNorth) by at least 20 minutes. Check out the post on the NJ&NY Railroad: Your blog rocks btw.