March/April 2000, p.9


Regional Rail
The Swift Turtle Derailed?

Anyone who has ever ridden fast, comfortable European trains can not help wondering when the United States would see similar service. Amtrak generated excitement with its promise of faster trains on its Boston-Washington Northeast corridor service in 1999. Amtrak plans promise to reduce Boston to New York travel times from five to three hours, and the New York and Washington journey from three to two and one quarter hours. "Acela," a fusion of the words acceleration and excellence, became the much deliberated name of the train, with a logo inspired by a sea turtle's fin. Amtrak hopes that this train will live up to its name, while transforming the negative public perceptions plaguing its service.

Early 2000 brings both good and bad news for Acela. Having failed safety tests last year, the high speed trains remain unusable. Until the trains are delivered in working order, the slated travel times linger beyond reach. On the positive side, Amtrak has succeeded in electrifying the track between New Haven and Boston, making the change between electric and diesel locomotives in New Haven obsolete. Amtrak can now begin running "Acela Regional" service, moving passengers between New York and Boston in four hours. Once the faster trains are delivered, Amtrak hopes that rail travel will appeal to passengers who now fly between Northeastern cities. Amtrak now carries 30% of all rail and air passengers between Boston and New York, compared to 70% between New York and Washington. Increasing both percentages would help wean Amtrak from the federal subsidies frowned upon by members of Congress. Of course, congressional criticism levied against Amtrak's inability to cover all of its costs conveniently overlooks the massive federal subsidies received by other forms of transportation.

Will Transit Win Big?

Governor George Pataki's proposed 2000-2001 budget includes an unprecedented allocation of more money for transit construction than roads. Under the executive budget, The DOT's five-year capital budget for road construction and repair would receive $14.3 billion in state funding compared to $16.5 billion for the MTA's five-year capital plan. The MTA had previously proposed this same sum, which was vetoed by the State Senate in December.

The idea of transit capital spending exceeding capital spending on roads prompted the Senate's veto last year and may yet prove an obstacle in getting the Governor's budget approved by the state legislature. Some senators regard the transit/highway spending calculus as a battle between downstate transit users and upstate drivers. To eliminate the imbalance, certain senators have suggested floating bonds to pay for greater spending on highways.

However, an increase in transit resources makes sense for all New Yorkers. Upstate, new or expanded highways translate to sprawl, lost land, and generation of additional traffic. Across the state, more transit equals less pollution, less noise and fewer lives lost to traffic accidents. Furthermore, while roads in New York have grown in the last fifty years, public transit has seen no significant expansion in decades. Pataki's proposed budget allocation to DOT provides plenty of funding for road and bridge maintenance; additional money would only be funneled into road widening and new road construction- just what New York doesn't need.

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New Jersey
The Battle of 92

Despite steady opposition, NJ DOT continues to push for construction of Route 92, a new road to connect the NJ Turnpike and US Route 1. Mayors and other leaders from nearby towns, as well as Regional Administrator Jeanne Fox, have written to the US Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for project approval, expressing their concern that the road would worsen truck traffic in their area. They maintain that the route would allow trucks to use local roads on their way north to I-287, and argue that the state should instead emphasize its ban on through truck traffic. The Corps responded by granting the EPA's request for a full environmental impact study. The EPA has twice rejected the wetlands permit required for construction. The study will take between 18 months and two years to complete, and is yet another formidable obstacle wedged between the NJ DOT and the necessary wetlands filing permit. The NJ DOT says it plans to pursue the project regardless of this most recent hurdle.

Hudson Valley
Tappan Zee II Troubles

In January, the I-287 Task Force handling issues relating to the Tappan Zee bridge, which connects Westchester and Rockland counties, issued its conclusions. As feared, the group favors tearing down the present bridge and replacing it with a wider, eight-lane version. Advocates suspect that construction of a new bridge, rather than repair of the current structure, is being proposed to help justify future expansion of the New York State Thruway and the Cross-Westchester Expressway to eight lanes.

The Task Force proposal does include a transit element. Commuter tracks would run on either side of the bridge, part of two new train lines from Suffern to Port Chester, and a Metro North connection to Stewart International Airport. However, this project's $2-3 billion price tag (compared to new bridge's $1.1 billion cost), discourages any serious consideration. Were the tracks proposed in good faith or as a sop to environmentalists? A more realistic plan, unsupported by the Task Force, would return railroad service to the West Shore RR line, which could be achieved at a cost of only $150 million.

As construction on the bridge would take ten years to complete, the Task Force made some short-term recommendations to alleviate traffic congestion. These include the potentially effective introduction of variable tolls depending on the time of day. The group wisely proposed "aggressive travel demand management,' including connecting vans to express bus service across the bridge. Sadly, the Task Force rejected dedicated lanes for vans and buses, thereby trapping transit users in the very same car congestion.