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New Projects, Same No Money

by Bruce Schaller, Jul 17, 2003
 

The city’s transportation to-do list has lengthened. One big-ticket project, new rail service for Lower Manhattan, was added to the list. Another task, shifting private bus lines that operate primarily in Queens to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, was not resolved despite a self-imposed June 30 deadline. The city (and region) thus remain mired in debates tied up by a lack of funding and unresolved disagreements over priorities.

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Train to the Plane & and Long Island

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In early June, rebuilding officials requested consultant proposals for a study of new rail connections to link Lower Manhattan to JFK Airport and the Jamaica, Queens station of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR). The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey will oversee the $5 million study, expected to take up to nine months. Recommendations will lead to environmental reviews of (as the request for proposals [In PDF format] puts it) a recommended alternative(s).

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Officials foresee the new rail connection running between Lower Manhattan and the AirTrain, an automated, elevated line that will connect Jamaica to JFK. Officials envision either a new rail tunnel beneath the East River, or using existing A line or M line subway tunnels. The new service is intended to reduce travel time from Jamaica and JFK to Lower Manhattan, reduce the number of transfers involved in these trips and possibly increase the frequency of service.

When the AirTrain opens later this year, a two-seat ride from Lower Manhattan to JFK will take approximately 48 minutes, with frequency of four to eight trips per hour. Officials want to reduce the trip time and possibly eliminate the transfer between the A train and AirTrain. The consultant will study the option of designing an advanced-design rail vehicle that could operate on both the AirTrain’s automated guideway (there are no conductors or train operators on board) and traditional subway tracks. These cars could provide a premium service, akin to a good-quality commuter rail service, aimed at business travelers.

The consultant will also analyze short-term options such as enhanced subway service and ferry services. These options could presumably be implemented more quickly than a new rail line, and at much lower cost. Ironically, the ferry option could also address Lower Manhattan’s most pressing transportation need, which is better access from the northern suburbs of the city, as I have discussed in earlier columns and a recent report. The contemplated rail link to JFK and Jamaica would in fact save commuters just a few minutes as compared with current travel times.

The Lower Manhattan business community has strongly advocated direct rail service to JFK and Long Island, viewing airport access in particular as providing a competitive edge over Midtown. Governor George Pataki has picked up the cause. He promised in an April 24 speech to select and implement direct rail service to Lower Manhattan. This study is the first step in finding the best plan.

Competition for Dollars

Finding dollars for the plan will not be easy. Direct rail service to Lower Manhattan joins a long wish list of transportation mega-projects. Heading the list is connecting the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal, a project that is heading toward construction and will enhance the attractiveness of midtown office space at the expense of downtown offices.

Next on the list is the long-sought Second Avenue Subway, now undergoing environmental reviews and as yet largely unfunded. The Second Avenue Subway would relieve the severe overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue subway, in the process improving access to Lower Manhattan from Grand Central Terminal (and thus the northern suburbs) and the Upper East Side.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been relatively cool to Second Avenue plans, focusing instead on extending the 7 train to the West Side of Manhattan. The 7 train extension is a key part of plans for the city’s 2012 Olympic bid. It supposedly has separate funding sources, though there are doubters and it could end up competing with Second Avenue for scarce dollars.

Other big-ticket projects that would benefit New York City and are more-or-less advanced in consideration are a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River; a cross-harbor rail freight tunnel; and in Brooklyn, Gowanus Expressway rebuilding (or perhaps replaced by a tunnel).

The total cost of all these projects comes to $25 billion to $40 billion.

Where will all this money come from? One source that seems less and less likely is East River Bridge tolls. In his campaign, the mayor extolled the idea of charging drivers to enter the Manhattan business district. But with sinking poll ratings, the governor’s opposition, and higher taxes already pouring into city coffers, the mayor has cooled to even a limited idea such as tolling the four city-owned bridges that connect Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens. The xity recently took toll revenue out of budget plans, and the Daily News quoted a spokesman for Mayor Bloomberg as saying, "The plan to toll the East River bridges is off the table." News reports the next day quoted the mayor as holding out for tolls down the road, implying that he may revisit the issue in a second term.

Nor can New York rely on the federal government. Reauthorization of the six-year transportation funding act is underway in Washington with a main point of dispute being how much gas tax revenue transit-rich states such as New York should get versus car-faring states such as Texas. It is quite possible that New York and other northeastern states will end up with less of the pie in future years than they have lately. With billions in federal funds already allocated for Lower Manhattan rebuilding, few in Congress outside of the New York delegation have much desire to help fund more NYC projects.

Thus, not only is funding for these projects an open question, officials can not agree which projects are the most important. Several years ago, then-Senator Alfonse D’Amato, from Long Island, jumped the LIRR connection to Grand Central to the top of the list and got Congress and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to commit to the project. Nowadays, the Lower Manhattan business community understandably places top priority on projects that would help revitalize downtown. The governor and to a lesser extent the mayor have lined up in support of their needs.

The mayor looks at transportation in an economic development framework. He feels that extending the 7 train would spark development on the West Side and help bring the Olympics to New York. Transportation officials and many transit advocates identify relieving overcrowding on the Lex line as the top priority, and thus push for the Second Avenue subway.

Differing constituencies and differing objectives thus make it difficult for officials and the business community in the city, much less the state or region, to agree on priorities. The lack of consensus impedes efforts to fund any of the projects, whether with city, state or federal dollars.

Still on the List: Private Bus Lines to the MTA

Officials had hoped to reach agreement on a deal to transfer control of private bus lines to the MTA by June 30. Newsday reports that the city and MTA now hope to reach agreement by January 1, 2004. MTA officials reportedly will not make a deal if the takeover creates new costs for the MTA. Another unresolved issue is how the private bus companies’ contracts with the Transport Workers Union Local 100 will be handled in a takeover.

Eliminating the city’s subsidy is the main reason for the city to transfer the lines to the MTA. Thus, unless the MTA can run the bus lines more efficiently than the private companies -- a proposition open to question -- it is easy to see why the matter remains unresolved.

Meanwhile, the city will continue to subsidize the seven bus lines, which operate mostly in Queens and have been criticized for providing inferior service.

Bruce Schaller is Principal of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis to government, business and non-profit groups seeking to identify and meet customer needs in the transportation sector. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.


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