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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.

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