The newly formed Gateway Development Corporation, at a meeting on January 12, took the first steps in planning funding for new rail tunnels under the Hudson River, according to reporting by Larry Higgs for N.J. Advance Media (and printed in the Star-Ledger on January 13). The Corporation's mission is to secure low-interest loans to finance the tunnels and other components of the Gateway project, which includes a new rail bridge over the Hackensack River, a loop connection at Secaucus that would allow single-seat rail service to Penn Station in New York from the Main/Bergen/Pascack lines, an annex to Penn Station, and other improvements. The total cost has not be accurately estimated but might be on the order of $23 billion. The first step taken by the Corporation was to execute an agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation. Planning for the Gateway Development Corporation began 14 months ago with an announcement by U.S. Senators Booker (D-NJ) and Schumer (D-NY) that the U.S. would finance half the cost of the project, the other half to be borne by the two states. The Development Corporation would oversee planning, environmental studies, engineering, and construction.
In confirmation hearings in progress, Elaine Chao, president-elect Trump's designee for Secretary of Transportation, said that while she hadn't been briefed on the project, said "I would assume that any project in New York, New Jersey would be very important going into the future."
The Lackawanna Coalition believes that new tunnels under the Hudson should be the top priority; the other improvements, while they may be important in the long run, should not delay the tunnel project. The Coalition believes that new tunnels could be built for a fraction of the total cost of the ambitious Gateway project. Failure of one of the existing tunnels would be a catastrophe for the entire region, and must be avoided at all costs.
Not just anybody can go out and run a railroad train; to do so legally requires that the locomotive engineer hold a valid certificate issued under uniform Federal laws that apply to all railroads. Should an engineer's road driving record be considered in granting him or her an engineer's certificate? Under Federal rules, the individual's driving record is indeed considered: violations and suspensions for driving under the influence are considered, going back three years; but there are no hard-and-fast rules for applying driving infractions when granting the certificate. There is no requirement that locomotive engineers hold a motor vehicle license at all. Last year, New Jersey went a step beyond the federal regulations, passing a law that prohibits engineers from running trains if their motor vehicle license is suspended, according to reporting by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media (and published in the Star-Ledger on January 10). Two railroad unions called foul, saying that the state law is in conflict with the federal rules, is a solution in search of a problem, and that it would not do anything to improve rail safety. The unions noted that federal rules require engineers with an substance abuse problem to undergo treatment and be deemed "not affected by an active (abuse) disorder;" those who do not comply have their certificates lifted. The unions filed suit in U.S. District Court in Trenton on January 9, seeking to overturn the state law.
On September 29, 2016 an NJ Transit train inbound from Spring Valley crashed into a bumper block at the line's Hoboken terminal. A bystander was tragically killed, and there were many injuries on board the train, some serious. In a strikingly similar incident, a Long Island Rail Road train crashed on January 4 at that line's Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn. In the LIRR incident, fortunately injuries were not as serious, with a broken leg as the worst casualty. But the accidents were remarkably similar: a train under control of the engineer, apparently unrestricted by safety devices on the final approach to the end of track, crashed into the bumper; and the engineer in each case could not remember what happened. In the case of NJT, the railroad instituted new safety procedures, lowering train speeds at stub-ended terminals in Hoboken and Atlantic City (but not at New York's busy Penn Station, where the four tracks that NJT uses most end in a bumper block); NJT also instituted new rules on employees with sleep apnea, blamed for the cause of the Hoboken crash. The cause of the LIRR accident remains under investigation.
Both NJT and LIRR have suffered accidents; which is safer? Overall, according to reporting by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media, the Long Island Rail Road has the "inside track" on safety. if the measure is accident rates per million passenger miles. In fact, LIRR's rate of 0.95 per million passenger miles is just half that of the 1.9 recorded by NJT. But how you figure safety depends on what statistics are examined; are accidents in which trespassers are struck included, and so on. In some measures, NJT comes out the worse, but in others, the LIRR is the loser. But there is no doubt that the publicity of the recent accidents in Hoboken and Brooklyn will bring more attention to safety on all commuter lines.
$1.7 billion to extend the PATH rapid transit system to Newark Liberty International Airport is included in the long term capital plan introduced by the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on January 5, according to reporting by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media (Jan. 6). The budget plan also includes $1.5 billion to build a light rail link between La Guardia Airport in Queens and the No. 7 city subway line. But the most controversial part of the capital plan was the inclusion of $3.5 billion for a new Port Authority bus terminal in midtown Manhattan; critics said the amount budgeted was only a fraction of the total need of $8-10 billion, and that money would be harder to come by in the future if not budgeted now. Some advocates have suggested a better plan would be to build a new bus terminal in New Jersey, in the Secaucus area most likely, and forward passengers to Manhattan via new commuter rail links or an extension of the No. 7 subway line, but bus rider advocates have derided such a solution as not providing a single-seat ride to Manhattan. Others have emphasized the need for a new bus terminal as an alternative in case the existing two-track rail tunnel under the Hudson should fail, crippling the existing rail service and forcing many to transfer to buses.
After nearly 100 years since it was originally planned, subway trains rolled for the first time on New Years' Day. The new line comprises only four new stops on the "Q" Train beyond the former terminal at 7th Avenue and 57th Street: 63d Street and Lexington Avenue and 72d, 86th and 96th Streets under Second Avenue. The first train was scheduled to leave 57th Street at 12:00 noon, and it actually left at 12:02. The journey to 96th Street was slow, requiring 19 minutes. After a 15-minute layover, the same train traversed the line in the other direction, taking 18 minutes to reach 57th Street and then taking the rest of the historic BMT route to Coney Island.
The new route is dug deep underground, and is distinguished by stations with long escalators and spacious full-length mezzanines. The new line is short, and critics have called it the "Second Avenue Stubway." Transit managers plan three more extensions of the line, with construction scheduled to begin on a northward extension to 12t5th Street 2019. The line is supposed to extend the length of Manhattan, to the Financial District at the island's southern tip. Since the line was originally planned in the early 1920s, nobody knows when it will be completed.
In the meantime, the residential portion of the Upper East Side has new subway service. Since the elevated lines along Second and Third Avenues were torn down more than 60 years ago, the Lexington Avenue subway has been the only line serving much of Manhattan's East Side. Transit managers and riders hope that the new line on Second Avenue will relieve some of the overcrowding on the "Lex" Line.
A proposal to add real commuters top NJ Transit's Board of Directors moved one step closer to reality as the state Senate passed a bill to accomplish this; the bill now moves to the desk of Gov. Christie, according to reporting by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media. If signed by the Governor, one rail and one bus commuter would sit on the board as full, voting members. The two commuters would be nominated by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. Michael Phelan, co-founder of the New Jersey Commuters Action Network (NJ-CAN) said that "Board members, with very few exceptions, are not currently regular passengers on NJ Transit trains or buses. Therefore, they lack the unique perspective that commuters have gained." The bill was introduced by State Senator Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), and passed with a vote of 36-0 on December 20.
A better type of track bumper might have reduced damage and injuries in the fatal Sept. 29 crash at NJ Transit's Hoboken terminal, according to reporting by David Porter for the Associated Press, and published in the Star-Ledger (Dec. 23). The most modern type of bumper is equipped with hydraulic shock absorbers and sled-like friction shoes, which gradually absorb the energy from a train that collides with the bumper. No bumper is designed to safely stop a train moving as fast as the 21 mph the inbound train was reported moving on Sept. 29, but a better bumper might well have reduced the damage. Just one track, Track 15, at Hoboken has the new-style bumper; the rest, including where the crash occurred, have rigid concrete-and-steel bumpers, in service since the terminal opened in 1907. In contrast, NJT's Atlantic City terminal, built 25 years ago, has modern bumpers. But there's a downside to installing the improved bumpers: in order to slow a train gradually, they take up track space, reducing the length of trains a platform can accommodate. NJT Executive Director Steve Santoro says NJT would be forced to run trains "at least" one car shorter, and that new bumpers would "exacerbate an issue that already exists in terms of track length." "We would like every platform to be a 10-car platform, but can't do that." Santoro said that train-length constraints are a physical problem that NJT has to deal with in designing its operations. Safer bumpers would make those constraints a bigger problem.
The historical model for the automobile may be changing, according to reporting in "Wheels" in the New York Times (Dec. 23) by Neal E. Boudette. The old model: you need a car to get anywhere. Today, there are alternatives, including ride-hailing services such as Uber and even self-driving cars; and public transit is experiencing a renaissance. But for many people, you still need to get that "first mile" to the local train station or bus stop. How to get there? For years, automakers didn't concern themselves with that part of the journey: how to get people to transit was regarded as a problem for the transit agency to solve. But as the market changes, and many younger Americans aren't focused on owning two cars, or even one car, as a life goal. Self-driving cars may be one solution, and General Motors is ready to test a fleet of such vehicles with Uber competitor Lyft. Ford is also exploring the market. How will this affect the long-term profitability of the car makers? They are betting that sales to fleets, such as Uber or Lyft, will offset losses in the individual-owner market. Consulting firm PwC forecasts that, by 2030, only 29% of automotive profits will come from new-car sales; 20% will come from the new "mobility services" sector, which includes ride-hailing and first mile/last mile transportation. And self-driving cars will help alleviate the endemic problem of public transit: once you've driven to the train station, where do you park your car?
Two months after the fatal Sept. 29 crash at Hoboken in which an incoming train inexplicably increased its speed and crashed through its end-of-track bumper block, another inbound train derailed as it was entering the terminal on Sunday, Dec. 4, as reported by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media on Dec. 7 (and published in the Star-Ledger on Dec. 8). This train was apparently moving within speed limits, which had been reduced from 10 mph to 5 mph following the September crash, and crew actions were apparently not at fault in this case, according to an NJT spokesperson. No injuries were reported on the train, which had left Waldwick at 11:35 a.m. Mechanical factors are being investigated, which raises the possibility that neglected maintenance may have been a factor. Mechanical problems are increasingly blamed for delays on the NJT rail system, which have become an almost daily occurrence for commuters. The rate of mechanical failures on the NJT system has been reported as higher than that on other commuter rail networks.
When the Republican Party solidified its control over the federal government by taking the White House and retaining both houses of Congress in last month's elections, you could hear the moans from transit advocates: the Republicans have never been noted for attention to transit, other than trying to reduce government subsidies for it. But could president-elect Donald Trump be an exception? Maybe so, says Paul Mulshine in an opinion column (Dec. 8) in the Star-Ledger. Mulshine points out that whatever the general orientation of the GOP, Trump is a New Yorker at heart and so understands the need for transit infrastructure; he's publicly announced his support for fixing the nation's crumbling underpinnings; and he has prided himself on the ability to "get things done," particularly in the construction field. Mulshine points out how long it can take to get things done, given a cumbersome environmental review process, and goes back to the failed "ARC" project, saying that an originally good project was "picked apart by bureaucrats piece by piece and eventually we were building a 'tunnel to Macy's Basement' that couldn't be shared with Amtrak." Mulshine finishes up his column with extensive quoting of Lackawanna Coalition Chair David Peter Allan, noting the Coalition's support of service on the Lackawanna Cutoff (to Pennsylvania) which had to go through a "long, costly environmental review." Mulshine quotes Alan as saying, "I don't see why we can't have a streamlined environmental review procedure to bring back passenger rail service to lines that once had it;" Mulshine then says "I don't either."
Everybody seems to agree that the aging Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Manhattan cannot cope with the demands that increasing ridership imposes on it, but what is to be done? Options include building a new terminal, likely some distance closer to the Hudson River than the present edifice, or even terminating buses in New Jersey and forwarding passengers into the Apple by rail -- assuming new rail tunnels would even make that possible. The problem is in the lap of the Port Authority, a bistate agency in which the governors of New York and New Jersey share responsibility for its actions and appointing its leaders. The sharp divide within the Port Authority during the now-famous "Bridgegate" crisis in 2013 is emblematic, as employees loyal to N.J. Gov. Christie closed lanes in an apparent political act, while Port Authority employees loyal to N.Y. Gov. Cuomo tried to get them reopened. The Port Authority, with its vast revenues derived from various sources including ever-increasing tolls on cross-Hudson bridges and tunnels, remains a source of considerable power for both states. In the case of the bus terminal, cost estimates range from $3.5 to $13.5 billion for the project, but the Authority's ten-year capital plan, drawn up in 2014, did not include any funding at all. Now, attempts to include the bus terminal in the formal plan have run into a stalemate: New Jersey advocates, notably the Authority's Chairman, John Degnan (a Christie appointee) have demanded that at least $3.5 billion be included in the budget for a new terminal. New York advocates, apparently at the instigation of N.Y. Gov. Cuomo, have insisted that $2 billion is as far as they will go. And Gov. Cuomo has at least once directed his appointees to make sure that nothing gets done at the agency's monthly board meeting, and seemed poised to do it again, apparently to make sure that a lot of money does not get earmarked for what New York sees as a project largely benefiting only New Jersey. A full report appeared by Patric McGeehan in the New York Times (Dec. 7).