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MAS Panel Recap: What if They Gave a Crisis...


Doors opening on a moving train? Train cars decoupling mid-trip? According to an article in today’s New York Times, New Jersey Transit is stretched so thin to keep up with record demand that many experts are wondering if it is cutting corners on maintenance.

That is pretty much the state of the nation’s transportation infrastructure according to two experts who spoke at the MAS last night in the first of our programs on Moynihan Station.

“We are in the midst of a transportation crisis in this country,” said Don Phillips, a journalist who has worked for the Washington Post and International Herald Tribune. “But we’re like the frog in the pan of water; we’re content to sit in the water as the heat is gradually turned up – and before we know it we’ll be boiled.”

Phillips provided a global overview of the transportation crisis and discussed how Europe, Asia, and even Mexico are placing massive investments in their infrastructure. France, for instance, is building rail tunnels “like crazy” for trains that, in some cases, will be carrying trucks. Iran is on a rail building boom. And Mexico is building a huge new port and rail network to compete with the Port of Los Angeles.

But “we have no vision at all,” said Phillips. “All we can say now is no new taxes.” He blamed the federal government for not spending a dime on passenger rail, but explained that some states and cities are getting around the problem to build small intercity networks. We have previously covered Mayor Bloomberg's efforts to draw attention to the infrastructure crisis through his new group, Building America's Future.

“People would rather ride a train than fly,” he said. “We are in a Golden Age for passenger rail with nothing to do about it.”

Walter Zullig, legal consultant and counsel emeritus, Metro-North Railroad, followed Phillips by pointing out that each commuter rail in the city, LIRR, Metro-North, and NJ Transit, is experiencing all time high numbers of daily riders. Amtrak continues to break records – even turning some people away – despite the fact it cannot afford any new equipment. “I don’t know how they do it,” he said.

Zullig then provided an overview of the major metropolitan region rail projects: LIRR East Side Access, Second Avenue Subway, 7 line extension, ARC, Tappan Zee Bridge, and Moynihan Station.

Zullig noted that regardless of “what happens upstairs” in the Moynihan Station there is an urgent need for track and platform improvements.

Regarding ARC, the trans-Hudson tunnel project and new station in Macy’s basement, Zullig said it would be “highly desirable” to bring the tunnels into Penn Station. Making the connection to Grand Central is “complicated building but could be done,” said Zullig. Many listeners learned a new term when one audience member accused New Jersey of lacking the “testicular capacity” to do just that.

Asked to identify the main obstacles to achieving a world-class train network in the New York region, Zullig echoed Phillips by identifying the negligence of the federal government. “They have abdicated their responsibility,” he said. “To say that states should take over the Northeast Corridor is ludicrous.”

If the transportation crisis is upon us what can we do about it?

“The biggest opportunity for rail is the environmental considerations, especially as energy prices continue to climb,” said Zullig. “Education about the benefits of rail – in terms of energy, air quality, quality of life – can go a long way. We need to create a ground swell of public demand. Then the politicians would be forced to listen.”

“It’s a matter of turning around the public attitude - and sometimes it takes a crisis,” said Zullig. He pointed to the example of Grand Central and described how the surrounding neighborhood was once a badly polluted and dangerous slum when the tracks were open to the air. But after a couple of really awful accidents occurred Penn Central stepped in and rebuilt the station. “Now look at it – they made a beautiful neighborhood out of what was a dump.”

Our next Moynihan Station event features Jill Jonnes, the author of Conquering Gotham. April 23rd at 6:30. Click here for more information.