Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Urban Resources Vol. 5

I was able to pick up two fine pieces of literature free of charge between the 13th and the 17th. The first was the Empire State Passengers Association May/June newsletter, the second the January 2008 edition of Planning, the magazine if the American Planning Association.

As this post is only going to key on different modes of passenger rail, I won't be covering in detail the other excellent articles that touch on topics such as the APA's 10 best neighborhoods and individual streets and what makes them so. Other narratives expound upon transportation equity, sustainable community development codes, and historic preservation/energy concerns regarding the demolition of modernist skyscrapers in our city cores.

The Rail Association (ESPA) bills themselves as working for a more balanced transportation system and pushes forth six newsletters per year, each of church bulletin size. This edition provided the practical (Spring and Summer Timetable Changes), encouraged use (Empire Corridor Travel Tips, Discounts...), and related meager system improvements (LIRR Outlines $46M Platform Gap Remediation Program, Track Improvements Coming to Corinth).

Most notable of the elements of the publication were two significant announcements. First, the New York State Department of Transportation was in the process of developing the first comprehensive state rail plan released in over 20 years (New State Rail Plan Advances). Participating rail stakeholders include Amtrak, MTA, the Port Authority, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Canadian Pacific, Railroads of New York (representing short line interest), and of course ESPA. A draft copy was purported to be made available on May 19th for public review, but as of yet I haven't seen it. This was to be followed by a public review period including open meetings in the Buffalo area, Binghamton, and New York. I will likely write to ESPA to find out the status of this document and report back at a later date. (Photo by Flickr user: reivax - CC A-SA 2.0 license)

The other significant announcement underscores the absolutely imperative need to increase passenger rail capacity. As the compulsory motoring program comes to an end for most amidst the failure of several small and large airlines this will become even more obvious. The following are direct quotes:

  • Ridership on the two Niagara Falls trains and the Maple Leaf surged ahead 61% in March as compared to last year
  • The other New York State services also all enjoyed healthy gains, with the Adirondack's ridership up 26.5%
  • ...the Lake Shore Limited was up 26.4%...and the Ethan Allen (New York to Rutland, VT) was up 10.0%
  • The western New York increases are in spite of continuing poor on-time performance and capacity constraints

About the topic of delays, more than 97% of Amtrak's 21,000 miles of routes run along tracks owned and maintained by private freight railroad companies. Delays cost Amtrak $137 million in overtime salary for its employees, additional fuel costs, and lost revenue from passengers frustrated with not arriving at their destination on time in fiscal year 2006. I shouldn't even have to emphasize how bewildering it is that congress is not having a discussion in earnest to either privately or publicly encourage old rail line restoration. To his credit Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey has put forth a new federal Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act awaiting action in the house. I think it's high time these types of measures get pushed to the forefront. (Photo by Michael Patrick - CC A-N-NDW 2.0 license)

In the Planning magazine's cluster of major metrorail chronicles, maintenance funding and capacity are proving to be the issues of the day. This proves that Americans are capable of enclaves of true large-scale urbanism, in these instances forced by the most extreme limits of proximity/density/sprawl issues. The challenge currently is maintaining the service long enough to bridge the gap to an age of increased mass-transit patronage.

Mark Johnson writes that Chicago, faced with not only a $110 million deficit, but also a notable train derailment in 2006 due to deteriorating unsafe track which cost $91 million to fix, is facing widespread bus route cuts and fare hikes. Years of chronic underfunding by city, state, and federal agencies have created 50 miles of slow zones (20% of the system) on the rapid transit lines and put the CTA in a position to require $6 billion in capital to bring their rail and bus systems completely up to date. (Photo by Jim Frazier - CC A-N-NDW 2.0 license)

Boston's "T" operates under a system called forward funding, a statutory requirement that the transportation authority only spend the money it brings in. Despite the benign sound of such an arrangement, one third of the agency's operating budget goes toward interest payments on municipal bonds used to finance major construction projects. When interstate highway system instituted Massachusetts' 'Big Dig,' the MBTA had to move rail lines and stations at its own expense. There is now a push to make the state own up to their role as the root cause of said projects. Annual debt costs are forecasted to drop to $80M per year if this is instituted.

New York's widespread subway system, despite being this nation's largest, is at capacity. The only possible way for it to expand ridership is to add another line which has been the course of action planned for Second Avenue since the 1920's. It would appear that off and on construction will finally culminate in the fulfillment of a ninety year old vision in 2013 as the Second Avenue line opens to alleviate the pressure on the Lexington Avenue line. The IRT Lexington carries more passengers per day than the San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston subway systems conbined. Later phases, incorporating unfinished work started in the 1970's, will create an entirely new subway line from 125th Street to the southern tip of Manhattan. (Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid - CC A-N-NDW 2.0 license)

Christopher Swope pitches in from our nation's capital to talk a relative new kid in the neighborhood. Non event driven regular service days began to crack the top 10 daily ridership chart last summer after 31 years in business. At the same time, the infrastructure is beginning to be the cause of more common service disruptions. Washington Metro remains the nation's only major transit system without earmarked governmental funding, resulting in a $1.5 billion shortfall in long-term maintenance/equipment upgrade funds. Despite the gloomy finanical outlook, the Washington system has done the best job of spurring transit oriented development in Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Arlington leading to a discussion of Metro expansion through Fairfax County by 2013-2015.

I hope this glimpse into the present (and very likely the future) served informative. Next time, I plan on revisiting my hometown of Scranton and a planned restoration project already profiled as well as a new one in progress of fairly grand scope.

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