The reliability and comfort factors can be debated, but NJ Transit delivers tens of thousands of passengers to New York's Penn Station every day; reportedly, 57,000 NJT riders arrive at New York Penn in the peak weekday morning rush hours of 6-10 a.m. OK, your train arrives at its platform . . . then what? Reporting by Melanie Grayce West and Andrew Tangel in the Wall Street Journal (March 21) has highlighted what riders have known for years: arrival at the platform can be the beginning, not the end, of the struggle. Years ago, when NJT was planning new trans-Hudson tunnels and a new station under 34 Street, advocates lambasted the plan, partly because the "deep cavern" station far below street level would be inconvenient to access, with riders taking 10 minutes or so to reach street level. Gov. Christie canceled that plan, but is Penn Station any better in this regard? Platforms at Penn are narrow, and jammed in peak hours, and sometimes in off-hours as well. Sometimes two trains arrive or depart simultaneously on each side of the same platform; even worse can be the situation when a train arrives as another is preparing to depart across the platform, leading to collision between riders on access stairs. Some new stairways have been constructed, but most are still gated shut, not ready to open. Escalators exist, but often are running the wrong way or are stopped; not infrequently, riders who find an escalator running the "wrong way" hit the emergency stop button, violating signs warning against the practice. Amtrak operates the station, which has undergone demolition, underground rebirth, upgrading and modernization since it opened in 1911, but the track and platform layout remains basically unchanged: 21 tracks shared by NJT, Amtrak, and the Long Island Rail Road. The passenger load has increased enormously since the station opened more than 100 years ago, but no new tracks have been built. In contrast, Grand Central Terminal across town, which opened in the same era, was built with 67 tracks and has plenty of capacity. What can be done to ease the crush? Building new tracks would take decades and may never happen. Why do the escalators run the wrong way? NJT, in a familiar refrain, blames Amtrak for last-minute track assignment changes, perhaps due to a train with mechanical problems, or maybe a sick passenger. The new stairways will open, eventually. For now, riders can only grin and bear it, and factor the additional time into their trip planning.
NJ Transit has announced that substitute buses will begin operation on weekends on the Gladstone Branch between Summit and Gladstone, effective Sunday, March 19 and continuing until some time in the fall. This substitution has become an almost-annual event and allows work on the railroad track and overhead wires; a major part of the work is the replacement of the original wooden poles that support the overhead wires with more permanent steel supports. New paper timetables for the revised service are available. Inbound travelers will find two bus services, one serving Murray Hill and New Providence, and the other serving all other stops. (It is unclear how passengers boarding at outlying stations who want to travel to Murray Hill or New Providence would be accommodated, but bus drivers have usually been accommodating to special needs; the bus from Gladstone passes by the New Providence station, and at Murray Hill the driver will probably drop passengers on request on Springfield Avenue, albeit some distance from the Murray Hill rail station.) Note that inbound departure times are typically some time earlier than the regular train departure times, and that bus stops are in some cases several blocks from the rail station. A description of the service, including a list of the bus stops, can be found here. The bus service will also operate on holidays, except that a special train service will operate on Tuesday, July 4, and on October 21 for the Far Hills Steeplechase event.
NJT also announced that midday bus substitution will be in effect on weekdays from July 10 through August 31; this has also been the custom in recent years.
We need more transit infrastructure, riders and advocates say. All our transportation facilities are overloaded. There's not an empty seat to be had, at least in peak hours. But is this really true? Have a look at the automobiles traveling across the Hudson River, or on any street in Manhattan. Sure, the roads are clogged; but look closer: there are lots of empty seats in those vehicles. Enter the smart-app ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft, which mobilize once-private vehicles to fill some of those empty seats and provide an increasingly-popular transportation alternative. How many riders may have been diverted from suburban transportation networks such as NJ Transit remains unknown, but according to reporting by Emma G. Fitzsimmons and Winnie Hu in the New York Times (March 7), the ride-sharing services may already be cutting into ridership on New York City's transit system; and riders switching to the cars have their reasons.
First, there's the price. Medallion taxis in New York City are convenient, if you can find one, but they can be pricey. The price of a ride using a car-pool service can be as low as five dollars, more than the $2.75 base fare of the transit system (and a lot more if the customer already has an unlimited-ride transit subscription), but potentially much more convenient: door-to-door, quiet, no stairs to climb, and with a guaranteed, upholstered seat. The result has been burgeoning patronage of the ride-sharing services. Meanwhile, the number of taxi rides has been falling, and with it, the price of the once-sky-high "medallion" that allows operation of a stop-on-hail taxi in the city's monopoly system. (Declining taxi patronage also hits the transit system, as transit operator MTA collects a 50-cent surcharge on each taxi trip.) And recently it was disclosed that ridership on the city's subway system has declined for the first time since 2009. Since then, transportation demand has increased markedly, and most of the demand has been satisfied by the city's subways and buses. Most of the city's rapid transit system is decades old and, with new investment rare, the result has been that "It's hit a point where people are choosing to travel by ride-hailing because the subways have become intolerable," according to Thomas K. Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association. The Times illustrated its article with photos of jam-packed subway platforms, with clearly worried customers trying to find a way through the crush. Riders who could say they can't afford taxis will spring for a shared-car ride, typically costing $5 for a trip anywhere in Manhattan. Late at night, when plenty of seats are available on the subways, riders may still call a car for faster and safer service, rather than wait 20 minutes for a train on a deserted platform.
With off-peak suburban train service slow and infrequent and fares high, ride-sharing services are likely to cut into suburban train and bus markets. And in another application, the city of Summit, NJ has started a program to encourage commuters to use free or discounted Uber rides to reach its NJ Transit station; they hope to avoid having to build more parking facilities by partnering with Uber
Five months after a fatal train crash severely damaged NJ Transit's busy Hoboken terminal, there is still no prediction as to when the terminal will fully reopen, according to reporting by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media. The crash damaged canopies over the pedestrian walkway at the end of the tracks, closing tracks 5 and 6 and separating access to tracks 1 through 4 from the rest of the terminal. It also requires riders to and from the higher-numbered tracks to take a circuitous detour through the main waiting room to reach the streets of Hoboken, the local bus terminal, and the PATH train station. NJT spokesman Jim Smith declined to predict when the historic terminal would fully reopen, saying only that "the work has to be approved by many regulators and done with safety in the forefront." Federal investigators have yet to release a report on the cause of the accident, in which an inbound train failed to stop at the bumper and continued across the pedestrian walkway, stopping only after impacting the terminal structure itself. A pedestrian died in the incident, and numerous passengers on the train were injured.
Transportation advocates are largely convinced that massive investment in the area's infrastructure will be essential to cope with increasing demand and aging in-place facilities. But even when transit agencies try to move ahead with improvements, they often run into opposition from communities which fear adverse effects from the projects. Consider the Long Island Rail Road's plan to add a third track to its busy main line from Floral Park -- where the existing four-track line ends -- to Hicksville, where the line divides into two two-track branches. The ten-mile bottleneck has been in place for a century, yet in that period Long Island has changed from a sleepy agricultural area to a burgeoning bedroom community in which tens of thousands of commuters depend on the railroad to get to work. Improvements allowing use of the two tracks in either direction have helped, but demand continues to outpace capacity; thus, the plan for a third track to handle what has become 107,000 passengers each weekday on the line. But according to reporting by Joseph De Avila in the Wall Street Journal (Feb. 14), towns along the line are reacting negatively to the proposal, and the years of disruption that the project would entail. Mayors of online communities Garden City and Mineola argue that the demand can be satisfied without adding a third track, and residents say the benefits won't be worth the "headaches that construction would cause." And Floral Park's mayor questions whether the estimated three-to-four-year construction period is realistic. On the other hand, businesses, construction companies, and real-estate interests, predictably, endorse the plan.
With recent changes in Washington, a new issue appears to taking center stage in discussions about transportation policy. That issue is infrastructure. We, as advocates for better transit, recognize the need for more transit infrastructure to improve capacity, especially capacity on our rail lines. At the same time, the highways that were built as part of the Interstate Highway Frenzy of the 1960s are deteriorating, too. Money from Washington will be scarce, due to the dominance of "fiscal conservatives" in the Republican Party, which now controls the government. That means the competition for infrastructure dollars will be fierce. It will not be easy to compete against highway-building interests and their sponsors, who want to build toll roads that will generate an income stream in the future. Transit is firmly rooted in the public sector, since the private sector got rid of most of it during the latter half of the past century. So we will be doing well if we get enough resources to keep the existing transit network going and add some new elements, like two new rail tunnels and a bridge over the Hackensack River, where the aging Portal Bridge stands today. We may hear that the Trump Administration still favors such large projects as the entire Gateway Project and a full-length extension for the Second Avenue Subway in New York City. If we get that amount of funding, we will take it, but we had better not count on it.
Throughout the discussions about funding, spending and infrastructure in the future, one thing is certain. The riders, and that includes organizations like ours who represent the riders, deserve a genuine "seat at the table" during these decision-making processes. Indeed, it would be impossible to design and build useful projects if we are denied the right to participate to that extent. We are the people who pay for every project, through the taxes and the fares we pay, and we are the people who will use the projects that are built. It is imperative that we have an opportunity to participate fully in every step of the process, as invited participants and not merely as "members of the public" with no recognized standing.
It is time for the members of the business and political communities, who make the decisions about these important projects, to recognize that we have a right to participate, too. Of all the "stakeholders" who have reason to care about our transit, no stakeholders are more important than the riders.
Is U.S. transit just too expensive to build, when compared with the experience in other developed countries? This is the theme of a “Financial Page” column by James Surowiecki in the New Yorker (Jan. 23, p. 21), entitled “BigTicket Transit.” The recently-opened Second Avenue Subway, ballyhooed by New York Gov. Cuomo as an example that government “can still do big things and great things,” is an example, Surowiecki writes. He says it’s the most expensive transit project ever built, with only three stations and two miles of track, at a cost per kilometer of about $1.7 billion. A projected extension, not likely to be completed for decades, will cost even more on a per-kilometer basis. Transit is expensive everywhere in the world, and often runs over budget and behind schedule but, Surowiecki argues, transit projects are much worse in this regard in the U.S. compared to other countries, citing studies and published information. One source claims that U.S. transit projects are “often five to six times higher here than in other developed countries.”
What’s the cause of transit project expense and delay, and what can we do about it? Surowiecki says the problem is complex, and it’s not just higher land or labor costs, as places like Japan and France are just as high. The U.S. process is just too complex, with “a plethora of regulatory hurdles and other veto points,” involvement of multiple governing bodies, and political factors in which politicians favor big, splashy projects that can further their careers, rather than straighforward construction that just gets the job done – an effect that Surowiecki calls the “edifice complex.” That’s why we have a four-billion-dollar World Trade Center PATH station, a striking structure and a high-end shopping mall; but Stckholm is building 19 kilometers of subway and a six-kilometer commuter rail tunnel, for the same price. The WTC experience might be explained by national angst over the 9/11 disaster, but it’s not unique: Detroit has a splashy people-mover monorail that few ride, and San Jose is planning a new transit center billed as “the Grand Central Station of the West.” Getting back to the Second Avenue Subway experience, the stations – which account for most of the cost – are well-publicized affairs with mezzanines and fancy artwork, but could simpler structures make the line more affordable? In the end, Surowiecki says, such fancy projects and high costs polarize the issues of new transit constructions, allowing conservatives to lampoon them as boondoggles, and liberals to respond reflexively to defend them. We may need a simpler process for approvals, and simpler projects to implement.
The Port Authority's Jan. 31 meeting on its proposed capital budget sparked a turnout of advocates and citizens, all with views on what's most important for the region; a principal component involved rail transportation advocates. According to reporting by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media, transit advocates and bicyclists dominated the hearing; the cyclists want better bicycle access to the George Washington Bridge in a planned rebuilding of that crossing. The proposed new Port Authority Bus Terminal remains contentious, with local residents watching the project carefully, and transit advocates saying that the new facility should be built in New Jersey rather than in Manhattan, with commuters forwarded under the Hudson by rail rather than at present by bus through the crowded Lincoln Tunnel. While some advocates blasted the proposed PATH extension to Newark Liberty International Airport, others said the proposed AirTrain link to La Guardia Airport in Queens was also a waste of money, saying that bus service would be quicker.
A second meeting is scheduled for 5-8 p.m. at Port Authority offices at 2 Montgomery St., Jersey City, near Exchange Place. Email comments can be submitted until February 15, with a vote on the plan scheduled for the following day.
The Port Authority has published information on the plan and meetings here.
Veronique "Ronnie" Hakim, who served as Executive Director of NJ Transit in 2015 before returning to her old haunts to head NYC Transit in New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, has been named by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as interim executive director of the MTA. Hakim replaces Tom Prendergast, who retired as MTA head on January 31. While in her post at NJ Transit, Hakim visited a regular Lackawanna Coalition meeting and engaged in a spirited dialog with LC members.
Larry Higgs reported on Hakim's new job for NJ Advance Media.
On Tuesday, January 30th, this writer appeared on behalf of the Lackawanna Coalition at a hearing sponsored by the Senate Oversight Committee and its Chair, Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen). Other senators on the panel were Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Thomas Kean, Jr. (R-Union). The Coalition and its sister organization, the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) were invited by the Office of Legislative Services to participate. The hearing was held at Bergenfield Town Hall, located about 40 minutes from the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
The main topic of the session was the plight of commuters who take buses to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, along with the Port Authority's plan to replace that aging facility. Bergen County has more bus commuters than any other county in New Jersey. Senior managers from NJ Transit led off, followed by a representative of the private bus carriers and Chair Peter Palmer of the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority (NJTPA). Palmer is also Chair of the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition.
NJ-ARP President Len Resto and this writer shared the witness table. Our statement repeated our call for riders to receive a genuine "seat at the table" during future decision-making processes and warned that there may not be enough money available to build the entire Gateway Project; in which case, the interested parties should be prepared to make the best use of available funds by concentrating on building two new tunnels into the existing Penn Station and a new span to replace or augment the aging Portal Bridge. We also questioned the credibility of the Port Authority plan, since it mentioned that costs of projects could change, and the overrun for the new PATH station in downtown Manhattan exceeded the amount that had originally been budgeted for the project. Resto stressed the need for more trans-Hudson capacity and blasted the Port Authority's proposed PATH extension to Newark Airport and the "Disney-style" airport monorail, which the Port Authority plans to replace.
Michael Phelan of the New Jersey Commuters' Action Network appeared separately, and other local elected officials and Bergen County commuters also had their say.
We appreciate the opportunity to participate as an invited organization, and we look forward to presenting our views at future legislative events, on behalf of the riders and communities we represent.
Getting back to the Morris & Essex Line form Bergenfield required a trip to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and a walk from there to Penn Station, to catch the train.
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.