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.
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.
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.