Monthly Archives: February 2011

Northeast Senators to LaHood: Give us Florida’s Money

The Washington Post reports that, on Friday, ten Senators from the Northeast made their case for the $2.4B in HSR funding rejected by Florida Governor Rick Scott. Although the fate of project is, remarkably, still on life support, the Senators join a growing chorus of politicians demanding a piece of Florida’s dollars.

In a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, nine Democrats and Independent Senator Joe Lieberman (CT-I) requested the funds for improving the Northeast corridor’s existing high-speed service. Five of the Tri-State area’s six senators signed the note (only Schumer, D-NY, sat out).

The Senators argue that the Northeast is ideal for HSR investment:

The region served by the Corridor accounts for roughly one-fifth of the nation’s gross domestic product and twenty percent of our nation’s population. More than 250 million rail passengers use the Corridor annually and the Acela Express has built the foundation for high-speed rail service throughout the country. In a recent report, America 2050 rated the Northeast Corridor as the region with the greatest potential to attract high-speed rail ridership in the United States.

The Senators also complain (fairly) that the Northeast has been given short-shrift in Obama’s first-round, HSR funding:

Although the Northeast Corridor has the only operating high-speed train in the country, the Corridor has received less than two percent of the $10.5 billion provided by Congress for the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program to date. We believe that this is an insufficient investment in the Northeast Corridor, given our region’s position as a population and economic mega-region.

The Senators’ appeal likely will have little significance in the short-term. Democratic politicians across the country have also expressed their interest. Earlier in February, Maryland Governor O’Malley (D) requested the funds for various projects in his state, including the replacement of the century-old tunnel under Baltimore, which is facing many of the same capacity and performance problems as the existing Trans-Hudson rail tunnels.

According to the LA Times, California’s politicians are also eager for a share of the Florida funding. Indeed, the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA)  is the most likely candidate for the largest portion of the money. CHSRA has already benefited from the rash of Republican governors turning down federal funding. After the governors of Ohio and Wisconsin turned down their shares, CHSRA received half of the reallocated funds ($616M).

Unlike California, the Northeast cannot offer a demonstration project for other states exploring HSR. If Obama is seeking to encourage a nation-wide program, investments here will not dispel the myth that HSR can only work in the most densely populated part of the country. Still, with seriously congested airports and rail infrastructure at-capacity, the Northeast would arguably benefit the most from HSR. And, the unified voice of the Northeast’s Democratic Senators bodes well for the long-term prospects of expanding rail capacity in the NY area.

A full copy of the Senators’ letter can be found here.

Is ARC Replacement Just a Dream?

Last night, the Museum of the City of NY hosted a panel on the future of transportation in the New York Metropolitan area. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, but StreetsblogNYC has provided a great summary of last night’s proceedings.

According to Streetsblog reporter Noah Kazis, Jeffrey Zupan had bad news for those dreaming of a replacement of the ARC Tunnel:

“Zupan, who was director of planning at New Jersey Transit for ten years, said that plans to replace ARC were pipe dreams. “We’re not going to see any of that money any time soon for a substitute,” he said. “To think that we’re going to find a substitute for ARC I think is really folly.”

Despite Zupan’s skepticism, Senator Lautenberg’s office continues to advocate for the Gateway Tunnel. On Monday, February 28, Zoe Baldwin (formerly at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and now a Transportation and Environment Project Specialist for  Lautenberg), will be delivering a presentation on Gateway to the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition.

New York’s Pull Makes Trans-Hudson Expansion Essential

Train service to Manhattan remains a powerful economic and political force in the tri-state area.

The Asbury Park Press reports that NJT is planning to provide transfer-free service to riders on the Raritan Valley Line.

Currently, riders from towns in Union, Somerset and Hunterdon Counties must transfer at Newark Penn to continue the journey to Manhattan. Since the line is not electrified, trains are pulled by diesel locomotives that are not allowed in the existing trans-Hudson tunnels. According to NJT Executive Director James Weinstein, the key to the one-seat ride service will be dual-mode locomotives that can use either diesel or the electrified, over-head wires that travel through the tunnels. The dual-mode engines were ordered in 2008 and won’t begin service until 2012 at the very earliest.

The news come on the heels of a recent real estate report by the NY Times that explains that towns with strong economic and transportation ties to Manhattan have outperformed other towns over the past year. According to the report, in 2010, some affluent NJ towns, like Ridgewood, Summit, and Millburn, have seen higher increases in average home prices than other similar, affluent towns. Jeffrey Otteau, a real estate consultant based in New Brunswick, NJ, points to the fact that these towns have “a train station with direct service to Manhattan,” as well as relatively strong growth of Manhattan jobs:

Manhattan regained vigor as an employment center, while New Jersey continued a decade-long decline in the number of new jobs, he said. “This means Manhattan is becoming an increasingly potent force in the New Jersey market,” he added.

The powerful effect of Manhattan-bound train service on NJ property values is  well documented. In 2004, Juliette Michaelson completed an analysis on the impact of the introduction of Midtown-Direct service on the Morris & Essex Lines on property values, as her Master’s Thesis at Columbia University. According to her analysis, from 1993-2003, homes withing a half-mile of stations increased by 113% and properties a half-mile to two-miles away increased by 82%. (Houses more than two miles away increased by 65%.)

The Regional Plan Association (RPA) has also demonstrated the relationship between transit and housing values. In July 2010, the RPA released a report titled The ARC Effect, which estimated that the ARC Tunnel would raise home values by a collective $18 billion. With ARC, home values were expected to increase by an average of $19,000; and the number of NJ residents within a 50-minute train commute would have doubled.

Looking ahead, the Gateway Tunnel would not have so dramatic of an effect as ARC. First, Gateway will not provide a one-seat ride to riders on the Bergen County, Main, Pascack Valley and Port-Jervis (Metro North) Lines — at least not at first. Second, Gateway offers NJT only 13 additional trains per hour (compared to ARC’s 25), providing limited capacity for delivering commuters a quick ride to Manhattan. For its part, the 7-Train extension would require all NJ Transit passengers to transfer at Secaucus, diminishing some of the benefits of expanded rail service.

The real estate market and NJT’s expansion plans reflect the strong demand for Manhattan-bound service. All future trans-Hudson projects must take this demand into account, particularly in order to build a strong base of support among suburban constituents in NJ and NY State.

In the Wake of Delays, NJT Promises Better Performance Measures

This morning, the Star Ledger released an extensive profile on NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein. The report gives a fairly positive review of Weinstein’s performance in a year of many challenges, from an employee fired for burning a copy of the Quran to the cancelation of the ARC Tunnel.

The report gives special attention to NJT’s delays over the past year. In the summer of 2010, NJT experienced a truly epic series of delays reportedly caused by an unusual mix of high temperatures, sagging over-head wires and deaths on the tracks.  This winter, NJT’s performance has gotten mixed reviews. The Star Ledger reported in February that the severe winter weather had caused NJT’s worst delays in six years.  And, yet, local blogs reported that NJT had weathered the storms surprisingly well, thanks to equipment preparations and smart changes to the schedule ahead of each storm. Indeed, NJT has not suffered from any of the debilitating schedule changes that Metro North has been forced to implement on the New Haven Line.

The mixed reviews this winter highlight an obvious reality for many commuter rail customers. The company line on delays often falls short of the pain experienced by riders. For some evidence, the Clever Commute service enables riders to share system delays as they happen with others customers on the same line – circumventing NJT’s service announcements. It is not unusual, for example, to see a delay on Clever Commute that is not posted on NJT’s website.

In the Star Ledger report, Weinstein has indicated that NJT is planning to overhaul its performance rating system. The agency will be creating a new “balanced scorecard,” looking at metrics like “on-time performance, employee safety, financial stability and customer service.”  According to Weinstein, the move to transparency is essential to serving tax-payers:

“Frankly, our warts are going to show with this,” Weinstein says. “Why do it? Because we’ve got a responsibility to our customers and a responsibility to the taxpayers. … I want to get to a position where our customers believe they’re getting value for the money that they’re paying for the ticket and believe that they’re getting value for the money they’re paying in taxes.”

The agency plans to release on-time performance monthly on the NJT website. The truth of the matter is, however, that transparency will not fix the precarious state of the existing rail infrastructure between NY and NJ. First, NJT does not have operational control over the existing trans-hudson tunnels. If Amtrak has a delay, NJ commuters will inevitably feel the pain. Second, the system has no redundancy. If one train gets stuck in the tunnel, all trains going in and out must share one tunnel.

So, while increased transparency is essential, the only thing that will surely improve NJT’s on-time performance is expanded trans-Hudson capacity.

Regional Advocates Propose Phased Approach to Gateway

MyCentralJersey.com reports that the Regional Rail Working Group (RRWG) has offered a Two-Phased Proposal for the Gateway Tunnel.

According to their website, the RRWG is a consortium of transit advocacy groups that cover the Tri-State area. The group’s primary goal is to convert the tri-state’s separate commuter rail systems into a single, integrated regional system. Back in the days of the ARC Tunnel, RRWG joined other advocacy groups in arguing that the trans-Hudson tunnel serve Moynihan/Penn Station.

Now that the Gateway Tunnel has been announced, the RRWG appears to be focusing on refining the plan to ensure its get built. On Saturday, Joe Clift, a member of the RRWG and former planning director for the Long Island Railroad, outlined plans for a phased construction of the Gateway Tunnel:

Two-Phase Proposal for the Gateway Tunnel

The current Gateway proposal calls for $13.5B in investments, including replacing the Portal Bridge with two new bridges across the Hackensack river and the construction of the new Penn Station South between 30th and 31st streets. Besides the very large pricetag, which is yet unfunded, the demolition required for Penn Station South has already inspired opposition. Earlier this week, DNAInfo reported that businesses on the block are already concerned about their future livelihood.

The RRWG is proposing a step-by-step approach that could lower the initial cost and significantly diminish resistance from Manhattan property owners. In the first phase, the plan proposes constructing only those infrastructure pieces necessary for expanding trans-hudson capacity. In a later, second phase, the more disruptive items of the project like Penn Station South would be constructed, unlocking the full capacity of the entire Gateway Tunnel project. (See the chart above.)

According to the report from MyCentralJersey.com, Clift explained the benefits of the the initial phase:

“It is a much more accomplishable project,” Clift said. “You would have a project that is more affordable (to start) because all the Manhattan property cost (for Penn Station South) goes away.”

Indeed, Cliff gave a very rough and very preliminary estimate of Phase 1 costs of only $6B – around half of Gateway’s current estimate.

The proposal joins a list advocated by the RRWG, both practical and ambitious, including linking Penn Station with Grand Central and connecting the PATH to the Lexington Avenue Line. The Group plans to present their plan to Amtrak, NJTransit and public officals once they have garnered support from other rail advocacy groups.

As for NJTransit, Executive Director Jim Weinstein told MyCentralJersey that NJT is continuing to explore both the Gateway Tunnel:

“I’ve spoken to Joe and it’s their project, so we’ll assume they call us,” Weinstein said. “It’s not like we’re in a foreign country. If Amtrak moves forward on this project, it will have benefits to us.

– and the 7-Train Extension:

“We’re supporting that. I’m working with New York City on that to address it,” Weinstein said.

Both Weinstein’s comments and the RRWG proposal make clear that both Gateway and the 7-Train extension remain very nascent proposals. There is still a great deal of time to work out the physical, financial and programmatic aspects of each plan.

The Ghost of ARC Continues to Haunt

The consequences of the ARC cancelation continue to reverberate in NJ on the state and federal levels – almost five months since the project was canceled.

On Wednesday, NJ’s congressional delegation — republicans and democrats — delivered a unanimous letter to Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood, requesting that the federal government drop their demands for repayment of the ARC Tunnel money. The logic of their request is that the federal funding can be re-used in the future. The letter states:

“While some of us may differ on whether or not the ARC project should have been cancelled, we are united in our effort to protect New Jersey taxpayers from harm. We are deeply concerned that forcing New Jersey to pay these funds will undermine efforts for a new Trans-Hudson tunnel, and require the State to postpone or cancel other essential, job-creating transit projects throughout the State. This will only exacerbate the State’s transportation and economic challenges, and impose an unfair burden on taxpayers in New Jersey.”

This bi-partisan effort is the most recent of a series of steps by lawmakers to remove the bill. Since October, Christie has been waging a legal fight against the bill. Meanwhile, in December, NJ Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez successfully negotiated with La Hood to effectively cut the $271M bill in half. As part of the deal, NJ would re-pay the bill in full, while La Hood would provide a $128M credit to the state for future transportation projects. Christie did not take up the offer. Now, with the Gateway Tunnel  on the table and Obama’s infrastructure plan the center of a fight between republicans and democrats, La Hood may need to heed this letter to ensure the support of the NJ delegation.

While the federal legislators have exhibited an uncharacteristic bi-partisanship, state lawmakers have shown less cooperation. On Thursday, the NJ Senate voted to cancel planned toll increases that were meant to fund the ARC Tunnel. NJ Democrats are using Christie’s own anti-tax argument against him. Christie has repeatedly declared that there be no new taxes for NJ residents. If the tunnel project is canceled, the Democrats’ logic goes, then the associated tax should be canceled as well.

Without the toll revenue, NJ will have to find an alternative way to fund the depleted Transportation Trust Fund, which Christie had planned to support using the tolls. With the margin of victory in the Senate so high (27-9), an over-ride of any veto seems very possible. If the repeal goes through, Christie may be forced to raise the gas tax — a move he has repeatedly refused to make. Before Christie can sign or veto, the bill will have to be voted on by the Assembly, also controlled by Democrats.

Despite targeting Christie, the bill wasn’t without Republican support. Seven republican senators voted for the toll repeal. On the other side of the aisle, only one democrat, Senator Ray Lesniak (D) voted against the repeal.  Unlike his fellow democrats, he had a constructive idea for the toll revenues: re-direct the funds to the Gateway Tunnel.

Although Lesniak’s plan would provide the biggest benefit for trans-hudson capacity, his proposal is pre-mature. Relatively little is known about the Gateway Project and its funding mechanisms are likely a year or two away. Furthermore, it remains in the states’s best interest to wait for the federal government to firmly articulate its plans for High-Speed Rail before committing any funding.

Christie Slams Infrastructure Spending

Despite lauding the announcement of the Gateway Tunnel last week (and taking credit for the proposal), NJ Governor Chris Christie continues to criticize federal infrastructure spending. As I reported last week, Chris Christie has criticized Obama’s proposed investments in HSR and high-speed internet access as “candy.”

According to TransportationNation, Christie has repeated his “candy” message. During a talk at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, Christie said:

“[Obama] says the big things are high speed rail. The big things are high speed internet access for almost  80 percent of American or something  by some date.  A million electric cars on the road by some date.  Ladies and Gentlemen, that is the candy of American politics, those are not the big things, because let me guarantee you something  if we don’t fix the real big things there’s going to be no electric cars on the road.”

For a video of Christie’s remarks, visit TransportationNation.

Christie’s remarks reveal his two faces toward infrastructure. In his cancelation of the ARC Tunnel, Christie praised the idea of the trans-hudson tunnel; it was the cost-overruns that he claimed were the problem. And in November, Christie said he liked the idea of the 7-Train extension to Secaucus. And yet, now, projects like High Speed Rail are deemed by Christie to be categorically a bad idea.

Christie’s double-talk may reflect a split between his local and national audiences. While Christe’s criticism of high-speed rail may be received warmly in other parts of the country, the Northeast currently faces significant infrastructure constraints. Meanwhile, countries like China and Brazil continue to invest in infrastructure to support their long-term growth. Christie must know that infrastructure expansion in the Northeast is not “candy,” it is essential for continued economic success.

Florida Rejects HSR Money – Feds Should Focus on Northeast

As announced on numerous sites this morning, Governor Rick Scott (R-FL) has rejected $2.4B in federal HSR funding, canceling the proposed HSR line from Tampa to Orlando.  Scott’s move comes just weeks after the newly elected governor’s of Ohio and Wisconsin also rejected federal HSR fundings. And, of course, these governors are taking their cues from Chris Christie, who canceled the ARC Tunnel in October 2010.

Map of the now-canceled Tampa-Orlando HSR line. (Image from Florida High Speed Rail.)

Scott’s move comes on the same day that the US House of Representatives debated cuts for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2011. According to Transportation For America, House Republicans are recommending to rescind all HSR funding, including those funds released in FY10 that have not yet been spent – effectively canceling Obama’s existing HSR program.  Amtrak was spared, despite threats to cut funding last week.

Although Governor Scott claims fiscal austerity as his motivation, the timing of the cancelations suggests it was at least in part motivated by political rhetoric and posturing. In January, Florida’s Department of Transportation issued a Request For Qualification – an invitation to private companies to submit their proposals to build, finance, operate, and maintain the line. The details of this private-public partnership would have determine the fiscal feasibility for the line.  Numerous companies had already expressed their interest in building the line.

Now, Scott’s decision may be signaling to these investors that the US may not be ready for the private-sector’s commitment.  Siemens’ director of media relations, Michael Krampe, told the Tampa Bay Business Journal:

“We’re seeing that much of the country is still unsure about high-speed rail and its benefits,” Krampe wrote. “Public education and acceptance of high speed rail is important for us — whether or not we were able to bid on this particular project.”

In the northeast, the role of private partnerships remains unclear. In their Gateway Tunnel announcement, Amtrak re-iterated its desire to build and operate HSR in the northeast.

But as other states continue to pursue HSR, the Tampa-Orlando line was supposed to serve as a shining model. As Tanya Snyder noted on Streetsblog, America 2050 rated Florida’s HSR line as the most feasible, particularly since the right of way was already in public ownership. Despite their analysis, the Florida project had its flaws. In 2009, Yonah Freemark criticized the line’s eastern terminus for stopping short of Downtown Orlando. On the western end, the line wasn’t going to reach Tampa International Airport until Phase 2. As a result, Florida’s HSR was never a guaranteed success.

If we are looking for a proof-of-concept for HSR in the United States, the best place to start is in the Northeast.  Yes, the Northeast has the population densities, transit-rich cities, and clogged airspace that make HSR both operationally feasible and economically appealing. But, in the context of the current political bickering about transportation spending, the Northeast appears to be the region where most politicians and citizens want HSR.

Obama Budget Proposes Major Infrastructure Spending

Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic outlines the impact of Obama’s proposed budget for 2012. According to the Federal Department of Transportation Fact Sheet, the budget includes key highlights for rail spending:

  • $53B for High Speed Rail over six years, including $8B in FY 2012
  • A $30B National Infrastructure Bank to provide loans and grants for infrastructure projects (which could stimulate public-private partnerships)
  • A “Fix-It-First” policy for highway and transit grants, which could curtail highway expansion programs.
  • A six-year, $556B surface transportation legislation (replacing the now expired SAFETEA-LU).

The last point — the surface transportation legislation — will include critical funding programs and criteria that will determine how much money is available for rail projects. In the past, federal legislation has given significantly higher funding levels to new highway construction, undermining states like Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey, where new highway projects are far less feasible — and perhaps less desired — than new rail projects.

As discussed earlier today, the key to Obama’s budget will be the compromises made with House Republicans, who just Friday proposed cutting all High Speed Rail funding in 2011.

For more details on Obama’s proposal, check out The Transport Politic’s analysis.

 

 

GOP Proposes Drastic Cuts To Transit Infrastructure Spending

While the White House’s announcement last week to fund High-Speed Rail construction represented a best-case scenario for the Gateway Tunnel project, last Friday’s news from the House GOP lawmakers represents the worst-case scenario.

As reported by Transportation For America, the House Appropriations Committee, led by Hal Rogers (R-KY), released their proposed budget for 2011. The cuts go well beyond what was announced last week by House Members. Stephen Lee Davis reports for T4A:

  • New Starts, the program that funds new transit construction, gets cut by $430 million. There is also a rescission of about $300 million in unspent 2010 (fiscal year) funds.
  • High-speed rail is cut completely and the CR would rescind essentially all funds from 2010. Other than the money already spent, this entire program is eliminated.
  • The innovative TIGER program is eliminated completely and the unspent/unobligated FY10 funds are rescinded.
  • Amtrak appears to be mostly intact, avoiding the cuts that were proposed by the GOP study committee.

While the GOP’s cuts are aimed at the rest of the 2011 budget, they bode very poorly for FY 2012 and beyond. Although Amtrak is restored by Friday’s proposal (after last week’s study threatened major cuts), the proposal’s damage to New Starts and HSR are particularly distressing for the prospect of future spending on Gateway and trans-Hudson rail capacity.

Obama’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2012 was released this morning. It was expected that his budget would propose $53B in High Speed Rail funding. The compromise over transit infrastructure, however, will be but one part of the budget debate.