I've got a whole bunch of ideas for subway and bus expansions in the boroughs, commuter rail and bus expansions in the suburbs, and even intercity rail and bus connections. They all wash up against one big problem: the capacity of crossings into and out of Manhattan is almost maxed out at peak commuting times, the few big expansions in the works are proceeding slowly, and there doesn't seem to be political will to do much more.
Of the subways that cross the East River and the PATH trains that cross the Hudson, almost all the bridges and tunnels are packed with trains at rush hour, and those trains packed with passengers. The one exception is the Williamsburg Bridge, which is constrained by technical challenges, by the depopulation of South Side Williamsburg, Bushwick and East New York, by zoning restrictions on building, and by the fact that the J and Z trains only go to lower Manhattan. Since the MTA rerouted the M train to Midtown, ridership has gone up, and so have rents in Ridgewood, but that is the only line that is not at full capacity.
The only new subway crossing that has been given serious consideration recently, the Subway to Secaucus, has been stuck on a shelf somewhere.
MTA Capital Construction has installed an improved signalling system (CBTC) on the L line, which has allowed them to run more trains through the Fourteenth Street Tunnel. This capacity has been rapidly filled by an increase in ridership. They are rolling out CBTC to other lines, as the Port Authority is doing with the PATH trains, but funding limitations have stretched the rollout over years. As with the L train, the increased capacity is not expected to be enough to handle an additional branch on any line, only to allow neighborhoods near the existing branches to add population and to give some breathing room to passengers.
With commuter rail, the constraints are the platforms at Penn Station and the Park Avenue Tunnel. Alon Levy pointed out years ago that the constraints at Penn Station are not technical, but due to the three government-run commuter rail agencies' insistence on terminating all trains there, and our politicians' inability to force them to implement through-running arrangements.
For years the MTA has been pouring billions of dollars into East Side Access, but that will not be finished until 2023 at the earliest. The ARC Tunnel from New Jersey and its successor, the Gateway Tunnel, are being blocked by Governor Christie, who has used ARC funding to pay for road expansions.
Bus capacity into Manhattan is similarly constrained. Buses crossing from New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel can terminate at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, but that is also full. Proposals to build garages with public funds have faltered, and no private company seems interested in building a garage or terminal. The Port Authority is renovating the George Washington Bridge terminal, but that is too far north, and connects to a downtown A train that is also very crowded.
Any buses that can't fit into the Port Authority use city streets to pick up and drop off, as do buses from the other crossings. A backlash from NIMBYs, mostly drivers and business owners but aided by misguided pedestrian advocates, has put a lid on any expansion of curbside bus access.
As with commuter trains, there is a potential for through-running with buses along 34th or 42nd streets or Church Street that could relieve some of these constraints, but the bus operators have shown little interest, and political leaders have been too busy pandering to the backlash.
One reason bus operators may be uninterested in through-running or building terminals or garages is that there are also capacity constraints for buses on the bridges and tunnels. Anyone who's tried to take the Q32 into Manhattan in the morning knows what happens to bus travel times when a bridge is free for any vehicle. Passengers on the inbound QM5 express bus know that things run a little smoother when there is a toll and a bus lane, and people who have ridden the Red and Tan number 20 know that congestion pricing makes it even better. But even those passengers say that the bus lanes are too short, and those crossings with lanes and tolls are at capacity as well.
So that's the dismal state of getting commuters to Manhattan. What should we do about it? I'll talk about that in future posts.