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March 17th, 2009
The No. 13 Line
A New Vision for New York Rail

with assistance from Harris Schechtman

Last April, chagrined transportation professionals from New York were aghast to find their L.A. compatriots wearing “I Love NY” buttons.  The Angelinos were enamored of the Big Apple because we had just forked over our $354 million in federal funds for congestion pricing after the New York State Assembly failed to even hold a vote on the matter.  The City of Angels (as well as Chicago, St. Louis and others) is hoping for a repeat as New York struggles in planning for stimulus money.

The infrastructure portion of the stimulus bill (don’t call it that to the administration; they are very sensitive and it must be called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) is aimed at “shovel-ready” projects, meaning that funds must be allocated almost immediately with at least half the money obligated within 180 days of the bill’s February 17th enactment. Unobligated funds would be redistributed presumably to states that met or exceeded the 50% threshold. The rest of the money must be obligated within one year. But, there’s one pot of money that has a much longer window — in fact, longer than 10 years.  In a “squeaker,” the high-speed rail initiative went from zero to $2 Billion to $8 Billion in the final version.  And there’s more where that came from.  All expectations are on the new federal transportation bill (the old one expires in September 2009) to include billions more.

A real rail network, as what is seen today in Europe and parts of Asia, is what this country’s transportation system truly lacks. Rail has the potential to seriously improve the environment by reducing the large carbon footprint produced by short-haul air or motor vehicle travel. A high-speed rail line for trips of less than 500 miles can easily compete and should beat air travel. So, if we are looking for opportunities to make transport more sustainable and connect and revitalize major cities, why not start at home?

We are pleased that Governor Paterson and the New York State Department of Transportation recently released their New York State Rail Plan 2009 – Strategies for a New Age, the state’s first comprehensive rail plan in 22 years. The Plan creates a 2020 vision for a statewide high-speed (we think medium-speed is more like it with top speeds of 110 mph vs. Asian and European high speeds of 200+ mph) rail network. Such an aggressive target year is laudable for the changes that the Plan proposes: reliable and frequent service between New York City and Albany; increased and improved service between Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse, Utica, and Rochester (the Empire Line); a 6½ hour trip between Albany and Montreal (the Adirondack Line); a modernization and improvement in the state’s freight rail system; and a host of other improvements.

However, we want the state to begin thinking on an even grander scale. While medium-speed rail may be achievable by 2020, high-speed is certainly within reach by 2030.  Here’s New York State’s chance to step up to the plate and take what’s rightfully ours. By the way, we also call for upgrades of the Northeast Corridor – but we’re less worried about that because of strong advocacy by our Veep and a cadre of U.S. senators and congress people. We want to speed up service on the Empire and Adirondack Lines, beyond the 110mph laid out in the Plan, to run competitively with systems in China, Japan, and soon California so let’s aim for 250mph or NY to Buffalo in less than 3 hours and to Albany in an hour.  Montreal and Toronto could be just 3 and 5 hours away, respectively, even with customs checks on the train!

Upstate New York cities are dying – they started experiencing their own recession decades before the rest of the country fell into the recession we live with today. Frankly, while the country is catching a cold now or even the flu, we’re worried upstate will catch pneumonia. Bringing them hours closer to New York City — the world’s capital — will give them an enormous boost. Linking them with Toronto and Montreal will create a cosmopolitan opportunity to Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and Albany. And by revitalizing our cities, New York State can really begin promoting compact, urban development – another huge plus for the environment.

Another major issue affecting our state’s economic well-being is the transport of freight. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey faces fierce competition with the Port of Baltimore. By strengthening our freight rail network, we may be able to capture some of the freight which is currently directed to Baltimore. Also, by providing a reliable freight rail link into Canada, we can make New York Harbor into a faster, more economical gateway for trans-shipment to the Canadian and upper Mid-West markets that are currently served by slow ships on the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes. Heck, throw in Congressman Jerry Nadler’s freight tunnel, link it with an upstate freight line and we will be on our way toward restoring New York Harbor as the Port of Entry to the U.S. east of The Mississippi and reestablishing New York City as the world’s port.

But we can’t rely solely on federal dollars to see our vision through. We must come up with a long term funding plan to assist a new rail system.  We look to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) model created by Governor Nelson Rockefeller over 40 years ago.  Today, the MTA Bridges and Tunnels (née Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority (TBTA)) hands over its excess revenue to its parent, the MTA. This money, in turn, helps fund New York City Transit, MTA Bus, and the commuter rail lines. We propose a similar model to help subsidize rail initiatives and operations throughout the state. In this case, we would recommend using the tolls on the New York State Thruway and introducing tolls on roads which parallel the rail system.  Toll rates would be set to include a subsidy for the rail.  This would also have the effect of shifting some freight and passenger traffic from the Thruway to the railways.  That means faster travel for motorists and less need to widen the Thruway as the upstate economy recovers.

High-speed rail for New York State already has its champions. Senator Chuck Schumer (D) called the plan a “great first step” towards a European-style system. Representative Louise Slaughter (D) has suggested aiming for electric trains that run at 150mph or faster which would develop the economy of Upstate New York. Representative Jerrold Nadler (D) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D) have also voiced support. We need to rally our champions to think even one step further. And perhaps we should also go beyond state lines to consider connecting our fast service with other cities and another country, Canada, to garner even more support.

We are at an exciting, but critical point in United States rail history. Rail is finally getting the attention it deserves and the dollars are beginning to flow in. But if we don’t think like visionaries now, we risk giving up our potential, and ending up with a good (yes, it will be good!) rail system that results in impressive – but not extraordinary – change.

  • Marc E.

    It’s about time. Rail and transit advocates have been vying for a voice for decades and it’s unfortunate that our transportation model is broken. There must be a way to keep up this momentum – I know I’ll be doing my part to exert pressure on my peers and government representatives. When heavy industry left towns in upstate New York, so, too, did the railroads. At the foot of my school’s approach in Troy, there used to be a large station (Union Station) that many students would use to arrive at the school. This was razed in the 1960s, shortly after Americans’ favour for cars over trains began to rear its ugly head. This was the final blow that confirmed Troy’s descent from a town with a booming industry; similar stories can be told of many towns in the upstate New York. And even as many of those towns have seen a recent resurgence in business growth, it’s been hampered by the poor rail service that facilitates that growth.

  • Bill Oddo

    Upstate NY except for a few boom years has been caught for decades in the Karen-Ann-Quinlan state of economic morass. Our state especially upstate needs this kind of bold project to energize our statewide connected economy.

    The first bold phase high speed train link, should ditch the 110 mph train, and at a minimum build a system capable of 150 + mph and do this quickly.

    We only act quick in a crisis and this is an economic crisis, so let’s act really bold as if our future depends on it. And it does.

    What is bold – Bold is doing whatever timeframe the experts tell us it would normally take to build this first phase system then gather a team with the charge and passion and build it in Half the time.

    BTW it should include a direct link to Stewart Airport to really build a regional economic engine to motivate, garner support, build confidence from our neighbors upstate. How would NYers feel if every time they needed to fly somewhere it took another 3 or 4 hours just to get to the airport.

    This finally sets the tone to upstate from down state that it really matters and is a place with a big future.

    This early first phase will help move the second phase for an international 250 mph Mag-Lev train. I agree only a bi- country commitment will move this agenda perhaps with a bi-coastal competition to speed it up with a huge capital bonus to who ever completes it first.

  • devin


  • Vic

    Good program tonight (5/20/09). But you never mentioned the connection between heavy use of mass transit and a community’s overall health level. It’s not just bikes. The W.H.O. in Geneva has studies demonstrating that a population that has to walk a lot to its trains, buses, streetcars and subways every day is a much healthier population. Obesity-related health problems plummet. PBS can contact the head of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in Washington on this subject. The fat land developer in Denver determined to complete that ring road around the polluted, traffic-clogged city and wipe out the last of its open spaces is Exhibit A for America’s car-related health problems. It would be good for President Obama’s health-reform efforts to stress the importance of getting American commuters, shoppers, students and travelers out of their cars. Besides, as soon as oil prices spike again (like last summer), tens of millions of Americans will no longer be able to afford to buy and operate a car. We should be using the stimulus-package billions on a crash program of building millions of state-of-the-art buses and light-rail systems nationwide — to put our workers back into their empty factories, to drive the vehicles, to build and maintain those networks, and to economically revitalize every community across the land. The money, workers and facilities are there. Now we just need the national will. Well done, Portland.

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