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.
Train to the Plane & and Long Island
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
Recommendations will lead to environmental reviews of (as the request
for proposals [In
PDF format] puts it) a recommended alternative(s).
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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