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February 25th, 2009
The No. 13 Line
The Stimulus Package and its impact on transportation

Welcome to the inaugural issue of The Number Thirteen Line, a monthly blog about transportation in New York and around the world. This month’s topic: The Stimulus Package and its impact on transportation.

Seven hundred and ninety billion dollars, as designated in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is a lot of money. Frankly, we had hoped that most of it would go toward public works projects; after all, good infrastructure projects have been shown to produce five times the GDP impact of broad-based tax cuts. Nonetheless, we understand reality doesn’t always play out the way we’d like. So we are reasonably pleased to see that $130-billion, of the $790-billion bill (16%), is intended for construction projects.

The really good news from a transport perspective is that high-speed and existing long-haul rail will receive more than $9 billion. Urban transit gets a nice sized boost as well. So what can we, as New Yorkers, expect and what should we demand?

Approximately $1.3-billion of the funds are being directed to on-going capital transit programs in the New York City metropolitan area. This means that projects such as the Fulton Street Transit Center and the No. 7 Subway Extension will finally be built. There’s little left for much else, so we must be thrifty in advancing other new projects. We are also limited in our imagination by the requirement that projects be “shovel-ready.” In an upcoming blog we will let our imaginations go wild.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has been lauded worldwide as the one of the cheapest, most easily-implementable forms of mass transit (read “shovel-ready”), widely popular among riders and similar to light rail transit in its ability to carry people. And it fits perfectly into the objectives of the stimulus package as it can be planned, designed, and constructed in just one year. We recently planned and designed a BRT line on Fordham Road in the Bronx (disclosure: we are consultants to the New York City Department of Transportation and Metropolitan Transportation Authority on BRT) which was quickly implemented and has been enjoying wide success. We should demand a network of BRT solutions city-wide

One of the most surprising elements of the Stimulus Bill is the provision of $8-billion for high-speed rail and intercity passenger rail service and, less surprisingly, $1.3-billion for Amtrak. America is far behind the rest of the developed world in its rail service. Today, it’s cheaper to fly between New York City and Boston than it is to take medium-speed rail. Given the much heavier carbon footprint that air travel produces, we should be doing everything in our power to make rail travel cheaper, faster, and more attractive. As New Yorkers, we should be pushing for some of this money to fund a high-speed rail line connecting New York City with Albany and Buffalo. Rails can be repaired and replaced, switches and signals modernized and train cars can be purchased all within the guidelines of the bill. Few people today heading from New York City to Buffalo or anywhere in Western New York would even consider using the anemic Amtrak because of the slow speeds and unreliability. The February 16th crash of Flight 3407 from Newark to Buffalo underscores this need for improved alternatives for short-haul travel. For the long term we should replace most air travel between cities under 500 miles apart by swift-moving rail.

But while the stimulus package was indeed meant as a short-term solution to fueling the economy, there seems to be a disconnect. We are losing certain transit services and paying more for what we have while federal funds are creating brand new services. That’s like spending the money to renovate your kitchen when your electricity has recently been shut off. We are being seduced by ribbon cuttings. Directing funds to existing services could maintain the jobs of bus drivers and maintenance workers that will be lost in favor of the creation of new short-term construction jobs. In fact, we will have just as much of a problem supporting the operations of new facilities and services as we did the ones that we are now losing. We should be acting more responsibly. One thought is to invest some of the stimulus money into a fund that will perpetually pay for maintenance of the facilities to be built.

The stimulus bill had a specific objective and appears to be taking many right – and some wrong – steps towards fulfillment of its goal. But it represents new money – bonus money – in our transportation system. But, what is soon to become the more critical issue regarding federal transportation spending is the upcoming reauthorization of the five-year transportation bill. (the current transportation bill expires on September 30, 2009). This is where the real reforms need to happen. An even greater focus needs to be placed on transit, specifically on cost-effective, quickly-implementable projects like BRT, as well as on high-speed passenger rail, to replace short-haul air trips. And rather than gearing all federal transit funds toward capital projects, the Federal Transit Administration should make maintenance and operations eligible for assistance. Only then will we begin to experience an efficient, robust, and environmentally-sound transportation system that can create jobs and provide equal access to an entire region’s population. This will be the topic of an upcoming The Number Thirteen Line.

Samuel I. Schwartz is a former New York City Traffic Commissioner who currently writes the Gridlock Sam column for the New York Daily News and is CEO of Sam Schwartz Engineering. Annie Weinstock is a senior planner at Sam Schwartz Engineering and has published several articles on transportation policy. She also worked on Stockholm’s congestion pricing program.

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