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.

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.

NJ Transit has a special present for traveling families: the agency's Family SuperSaver fares will be available all week between the Christmas/Chanuka/Kwanzaa and New Year's weekends.  The fares, normally available only on weekends or holidays, allow one or two children under age 12 to travel for free with each fare-paying customer.  The special fare went into effect as usual on Friday, Dec. 23 at 7 p.m., and will stay in effect "the entire holiday period."  The precise ending of the deal was not specified, but presumably  this will be 6 a.m. Tuesday, January 3.

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.