What Does the Future Hold for New York’s Transit Infrastructure?

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The shadow of the cancelled ARC project, which would have augmented these century-old tracks into Penn Station, hung over last night's discussion of transit infrastructure. Photo: NJ Transit via ##http://secondavenuesagas.com/2010/09/16/for-christie-a-wavering-arc-commitment/##Second Avenue Sagas##

Last night, the Museum of the City of New York hosted a panel discussion about the future of large-scale transportation projects in the region. Hosted by New York Times reporter Michael Grynbaum, the panel — the RPA’s Jeff Zupan, MTA Capital Construction’s Michael Horodniceanu, the General Contractors Association’s Denise Richardson, and the Pratt Center’s Joan Byron — engaged in a wide-ranging conversation, which covered everything from the demise of the ARC tunnel to the high cost of transit projects and the question of whether New York’s transit system is too focused on Manhattan and rail.

Here are a few of the more interesting comments from the event:

  • 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.”
  • “It was a totally political decision,” Horodniceanu said of the ARC cancellation. Christie “didn’t conceive of it” and “won’t cut the ribbons.”
  • There was agreement that federal regulation is slowing down and adding to the cost of transit projects. “I think of myself as an environmentalist except when I look at the NEPA process,” said Zupan. Byron pointed to the “tortured” process for receiving federal transit aid, which she compared to highway spending, where the feds “just write the state departments of transportation a big check.”
  • The untolled interstate system has created a sense that “when I drive my car, it’s free,” said Richardson. “We have lost the concept of being willing to pay for all the things we use.”
  • Noting the amount of spending on the MTA’s four Manhattan-based mega-projects (the Second Avenue Subway, the 7 extension, East Side Access and the Fulton Street Transit Center), Byron said that many New Yorkers are “paying an inordinate share of the cost of expanding infrastructure [through the farebox] and not receiving a proportionate share of the benefits.” Continued Byron, “If people are not feeling the love for the MTA and its capital program, maybe there’s a reason for that.”
  • Horodniceanu explained that he was very concerned with the future of those transit projects if the state doesn’t find money for the MTA’s capital program. “If there’s no money in 2012 and 2013, we’ll slow down until the money will come back,” he said. If the state waits until the economy heats up, however, the current moment of cheap construction costs will have passed.
  • Zupan argued against spending billions to include commuter rail across the Tappan Zee Bridge, saying it wouldn’t have high enough ridership. “That’s one of those Manhattan-centric projects that I think Joan and I can both get against,” he said.”
  • The discussion mostly focused on transit, but when asked about bikes, Zupan said that “We have the specter of the former DOT commissioner suing the city because they’re putting a bike lane in in Brooklyn. That’s horrible.”
  • The otherwise quiet audience burst into applause when Byron suggested that bringing countdown clocks to buses would be even more important than bringing them to the subway. Byron pointed out that buses were in fact popular, prompting Grynbaum to respond, “I’ll have to tell my editors about that.”
  • Glenn

    We’re back at $100 oil so I suspect demand for transit will rise. Any planning for more rolling stock?

  • PaulCJr

    We don’t need count down LED signs for buses, we need an app for smart phones that can do the same thing. Having an app is cheap in building and maintenance. Something along the lines of NextMuni will do just fine for NYC.

  • The point about “paying an inordinate share of the cost of expanding infrastructure and not receiving a proportionate share of the benefits” is not a Manhattan vs. Outer Boroughs issue. It’s a city vs. suburbs issue. The most expensive MTA project by every metric – total, per-km, and per-rider – is East Side Access, George Pataki’s multiple-times-over-budget pet project. At $8 billion, it’s about as expensive as SAS Phase 1, the 7 extension, and Fulton Street combined. This is despite the fact that the LIRR has the lowest farebox recovery ratio of the major MTA rail agencies – 26% (40% operating) vs. 40% (55% operating) for NYCT and Metro-North.

  • LazyReader

    Even when oil was 147 dollars a barrel, we barely saw an even one percent decline in automobile use.

    What Does the Future Hold for New York’s Transit Infrastructure? Haven’t you ever seen…….

  • The issue with oil prices is long-term behavior, not just short-term behavior. The reason Saudi Arabia doesn’t cut back on production and send oil to $200 is that it will induce long-term shifts in behavior – i.e. more infill development, more fuel-efficient cars (hard to buy one in just one year, easy in ten years), more political support for transit.

  • LazyReader

    The effects of high prices, simply look at Europe, where high taxes have long made gas prices two to three times those in America. European incomes are lower than those in America, so even without higher gas taxes you would expect them to drive less. As it is, they drive about two-thirds as much per capita as Americans, and their growth in regards to driving is faster. High prices don’t seem to slow this growth down. In America, gas is above 3 dollars a gallon and driving accounts for 85 percent of our travel. In Europe, costs over 3 times as much and despite the price, driving accounts for 79 percent of their travel.

  • Don’t count percents – that’s meaningless given that in places like provincial France, nobody’s bothered to provide any alternatives to the car. Count vehicle-km driven per person, and average fuel consumption per car. Both are vastly lower in Europe than in the US, by a factor of 1.5-2, depending on the country. There’s a little bit of growth there, yeah, more in the transit-less provincial areas than in cities like Zurich and Paris.

  • PMT question

    Anybody know where the Payroll Mobility Tax paid per county is posted?

  • Bolwerk

    Zupan argued against spending billions to include commuter rail across the Tappan Zee Bridge, saying it wouldn’t have high enough ridership. “That’s one of those Manhattan-centric projects that I think Joan and I can both get against,” he said.”

    Just where do we find such oafish “planners”? This guy is willing to sacrifice generations of potentially environmentally friendly growth because he’s afraid of Manhattan-centricity? If there’s something worth sacrificing, it’s two (probably more expensive) lanes of highway on that bridge.

  • J:Lai

    \’We don’t need count down LED signs for buses, we need an app for smart phones that can do the same thing.\’

    While I agree that it would be excellent to have a phone-based app for bus arrivals, this is not really a complete solution. You can not assume that all bus passengers have smart phones. The incomes of those who rely on buses for transportation tend to skew low, so it is quite likely that a large numberof riders would be left out.

    Having said that, a phone app would be quicker and less costly to roll out, and may actually get 95% of the job done if people at bus stops talk to each other (only requires at least one smart phone owner at the stop.)

  • Larry Littlefield

    Don’t rely on new tech. Seniors ride buses. I’m still a little under 50, and I don’t even carry a cell phone.

  • J:Lai

    Elasticity of demand with respect to oil price is indeed low. However, this metric only looks at the immediate (or very short term) change in demand. For many uses, there is simply no substitute for oil, so the impact of higher prices instead manifests through lower consumption of everything else.
    For example, you can’t stop driving to work if you don’t have any other way to get there, so you will instead have less money to spend on entertainment or home improvement or something else.

    However, significant increases in the price of gasoline have in the past led to behavioral shifts such as greater demand for high mileage vehicles. It is widely believed that long-term changes in land use, transit use, etc could be achieved if the price of gas was significantly higher, and if there was sufficient confidence that this price regime would persist for a long time.

    Price spikes tend not to induce such behavioral shifts as experience has shown that the price of gas seldom stays elevated for long. A higher tax on gas would provide both increased price and stability, leading to meaningful changes in consumption.

  • JamesR

    Shouldn’t the ex-director of NJT Planning realize that transportation and land use run hand in hand? When first built, the NYC subway system ended in what were then empty farm fields in Queens and the Bronx. Today, they’re some of the highest density areas in the United States. While Rockland is suburban,the transportation-land use symbiosis is still in effect. What’s up with that?

  • Bolwerk

    @JamesR: agreed. Also, what’s notable is the Tappan Zee connection will connect two places that are (a) already growing and (b) already have rail infrastructure. It’s not like this project is destroying farmland.

  • tom

    Last summer in Europe I rented a VW Passat, manual tranny with AC, and fully loaded it with four adults with max baggage. I still got 37 mpg tearing up the road. Cuts down the price shock at the pump, even though you need an bank loan to fill the tank.

    True, where’s to go before they change the language and road rules. But there are places where they are auto-dependent. They have high compression engines that take 95 octane, or higher, petrol(try finding that over here). Diesel is readily available, auto tranny is not.

  • Commuter rail to Rockland County could be used as the focal point of some TOD, but do not expect it to produce the same results as the subways in Queens. Both Queens and the Bronx were doubling in population every decade even before the subway reached them. New York’s population growth at the time was immense, much unlike the glacial growth rates seen today. At the same time, Manhattan was overcrowded and needed an outlet for excess population, which is not true of the city today.

    The entire Tappan Zee replacement is too expensive. The Oresund Bridge-Tunnel complex between Denmark and Sweden, consisting of 8 km of bridge, an artificial island, 4 km of undersea tunnel, and freeway and rail connections on land, cost $5 billion to build. There is no reason 5 km of bridge should cost $16 billion, or even the $8 billion it would cost without the rail connections. The outer limit I’d be willing to entertain for the entire project – both road and rail – is about $4 billion. Beyond that, it becomes more cost-effective to not replace the bridge.

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