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Ask George


Ask George: About the Port Authority and Moynihan Station

Recently, we asked George Haikalis for his thoughts on the possibility of the Port Authority taking over Moynihan Station. The focus has been on the funding advantages of the move, but Haikalis emphasized that having a bi-state agency take over the region’s transit hub is a major opportunity to force the commuter railroads to cooperate and, possibly, to realize the Grand Central – Penn Station connection. What do you think?

Question: What would a Port Authority takeover mean for the Moynihan Penn Station redevelopment project?

George: It would certainly be within the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's purview to operate, maintain and expand Moynihan/Penn Station. PA's recent toll increases (and unfortunately, PATH fare hikes) permit the agency to offer each state three billion dollars for transportation capital investments over the next decade. Some of that could be directed toward the MTA, NJ Transit and Amtrak to produce an enhanced Moynihan/Penn Station facility.

But for the Port Authority to be more than just a funder, and to actually take the lead in advancing this project, the Governors of NY and NJ need to seriously think out what role this bi-state agency should best play. Just replacing ESDC with the Port Authority as the lead on Moynihan Station will do little to advance the single biggest regional mobility opportunity in the near term – getting the three commuter rail operators to develop a collective strategy for "thru-running" at Penn Station.

Even more ambitious would be for the Port Authority to advance a plan for bringing the new Hudson River tunnel into existing tracks and platforms at Penn Station (See ARC), connecting these tracks to Grand Central and extending this thru-running concept for efficient use of this link. With thru-running, conflicts at station approach tracks are avoided and peak hour train capacity gains of 25 to 50% can be realized. This is the core of the "interoperability" concept that MTA CEO Lee Sander showcased during his State of the MTA Address on March 3, 2008.

Using its cash investment as a nudge, the Port Authority could play a leadership role in getting the four operators (NJT, LIRR, MTA, and Amtrak) to agree to work together to select common rail car designs, coordinate operating procedures and unify customer information and ticketing – critical steps needed for interoperability. While Amtrak and its predecessors have operated trains thru Penn Station and over the Hell Gate Bridge for nearly ninety years, a full-fledged thru-running "regional rail" service has yet to be put into place, even though such a plan could be accomplished in as little as six months if the will were there to do it!

Going well beyond just "nudging" the rail operators to cooperate, the Governors could request that the Port Authority go much further, leasing and fully merging the commuter rail operations and Grand Central Terminal, and acquiring Amtrak's Penn Station assets.

With traffic congestion reaching catastrophic levels, maybe its time for independent transit agencies, or at least the commuter rail operators to be brought together, but this time under the umbrella of the Port Authority. Such a merger could archive the efficiencies of consolidation, permit the introduction of innovative new services and most importantly, lead to advancing the ultimate of train station connections - linking existing tracks and platforms at Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal.

Read more about the Regional Rail Working Group’s Regional Rail operating plan


Ask George: Will Moynihan Station Improve the Reverse Commute?

Reverse commuters – workers who travel from South Brooklyn to a job in Westchester , for instance – are a fast growing segment of the city’s population. According to a recent New York Times article the number of reverse commuters grew 11 percent from 2000 to 2005 to a total population of over 300,000 residents.

From 2000 to 2005, reverse commuters to Westchester grew 32 percent, reverse commuters to Long Island grew 5 percent, and reverse commuters to New Jersey grew 14 percent.

Most reverse commuters drive to their jobs in the suburbs, but with increased traffic congestion many are willing to endure long and costly daily journeys that might begin with the MTA subway, continue with a connection to a commuter train at Penn Station, and conclude with a bus ride to the office park (check out a map of the average time and cost of commuter rail trips). After getting nailed with a transfer fee, reverse commuters are usually stuck with a 90 minute gap between trains during rush hour.

We asked George Haikalis what this trend means for Moynihan Station and transportation planning in general. How can we make the life of the reverse commuter less horrible?

He said the city and the state need to expand the subway connections at Penn Station, install frequent service in both directions on the commuter lines, and create an integrated fare system. Full answer below.

Q. How does the rise in reverse commuting affect plans for Penn Station and for Regional Rail in general?

Mr. Haikalis: Only a very tiny fraction of reverse commuters -- workers who live in NYC and commute to the suburbs -- live within walking distance of Penn Station. Most will arrive at Penn Station by subway, or take a bus or a subway to train stations in the Bronx, Brooklyn or Queens. To reach worksites in the suburbs these commuters will require yet a third mode, except for those who can walk from suburban train stations. At Penn Station, the need is to expand and upgrade the connections to the subways. Also, for suburb-to-suburb commuters who must change trains as they pass through Penn Station, easy access to a transfer concourse is essential.

Making reverse commuter trips easier will require major changes in train frequency and integrated fares. For reverse commuting to Long Island the LIRR must operate trains in both directions on its Mainline through Mineola during peak commute hours. At present the LIRR operates both of its tracks in the peak direction, leaving an 80 to 90 minute gap in the reverse direction during peak periods. This is not really an issue of capacity, but rather performance. The LIRR can operate more non-stop express service through this segment this way, but at the price of sacrificing reverse service. With the recent completion of the Roslyn Road underpass in Mineola the LIRR could quickly complete a critical two-mile segment of three-track line, permitting start up of frequent reverse service, even before the full project is completed.

To serve a large and growing travel market the region's commuter rail lines need to be remade into "Regional Rail" lines. A desirable goal would be to provide 20 minute headways, each way, all day long, late into the evening and on weekends on each major "Regional Rail" line serving the NY-NJ-CT area. On a few of the busiest lines, like the Babylon Branch and the Stamford and White Plains locals, a ten minute headway would be helpful. These levels of service are now in place on many light rail lines in the U.S. and on the rapid transit lines that extend out many miles into the suburbs serving Washington, DC and the San Francisco Bay Area.

A second component of Regional Rail is integrated fares. Because reverse commuters have more difficult and time-consuming journeys than Manhattan-bound commuters they should get a price break. Since reverse commuters are more likely to need a second and third travel mode, at the very least the fare penalty for making a transfer should be eliminated. Since employers are more likely to provide free parking at worksites in the suburbs, steeply discounted reverse peak fares are needed to compete with the dominant mode - travel by car.

Read “The Big Commute, in Reverse,” by Ford Fessenden for The New York Times


Ask George: One-seat ride from Midtown to JFK?

Reader: George, do you think New York can ever have a one-seat ride from midtown Manhattan to JFK? What would it take?

Mr. Haikalis: Long the dream of New Yorkers is a convenient one-seat ride rail service between the core of the city and JFK Airport – the nation’s busiest international airport. It is a global embarrassment that we don’t have this link.

The good news is that this past Monday, March 2, 2008, celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the establishment of the MTA, CEO and Executive Director Elliot Sander called for a one-seat ride using the most obvious and direct route - the disused LIRR Rockaway Cut-off in Central Queens (indicated by blue arrow below). The bad news is that Sander did not specify a timetable for implementation of this critical link and failed to include funding for it in his proposed MTA five-year capital budget.

The key is to restore the weed-strewn right of way once used by LIRR trains heading to the Rockaway Peninsula. This high quality alignment – the Rockaway Cut-off -- remains virtually intact, and could be brought back to life with a relatively modest investment. Some 4.2 mile of rail line would need to be restored and a track connection made just north of the Howard Beach Station, so that trains could use the on-airport AirTrain loop. A small fleet of specially-designed rail cars that could operate on the Regional Rail system and the on-airport system would be needed. At Aqueduct Racetrack a cross-platform transfer with the subway is possible. Airport riders could switch to the A train for service to Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. Service would be at 10 minute intervals days, evenings and weekends.

The generous right of way could also accommodate hiking paths and bike trails, and add much needed open space in the corridor. Special provision for noise barriers would be an important feature. In consultation with the affected communities several intermediate stations could be re-opened, and adjacent transit-oriented development encouraged.

In the near term, Governors Spitzer and Corzine could demand that the PANYNJ immediately reverse its current anti-transit policy and eliminate the $5 fare penalty charged for mass transit passengers using the AirTrains at JFK and Liberty-Newark Airports. At present, the PANYNJ discourages air passengers, airport employees and visitors from using this two to three billion dollar investment in rail transit, and instead welcomes them to use the free roadways provided at great expense for no fee.

In the meantime, many political leaders are promoting a six billion dollar tunnel to link JFK Airport with Lower Manhattan, which would serve only a fraction of the potential ridership. Restoring the Rockaway Cut-off to Midtown would cost less than 10% of this, but would require political leadership to stand down a handful of opponents who are worried about the adverse impacts from bringing this rail link back into use.

Read more from "Ask George and submit comments and questions below.


Ask George: Response on West Side Yards

Last week, we received two detailed comments challenging George’s assertion that New York should lose the West Side Yards. Here is his response:

Typically, commuter rail lines have yards at their outer terminals in the suburbs, where trains are dispatched to the central business district, and yards close to the core, where cars are stored midday. Rapid transit lines, on the other hand, like our subways in NYC, have a single yard for each rail car. Trains might leave a yard in Brooklyn and end up in the Bronx, but no cars are stored in the center of town. Land is just too valuable. Newer rapid transit lines, with relatively long routes like those in Washington, DC or San Francisco (BART) offer much more frequent service all day long, and store rail cars that are not needed for this higher level of service in the same yards where they are kept overnight.

Much of the LIRR is like a long distance rapid transit system. Yet it is run like a 19th century railway, with far less service in the middle of the day than is need. This should change. The suburbs are not just homes for Manhattan-bound commuters, but are busy economic centers with travel needs all day long.

By keeping more trains in motion all day long, fewer mid-day storage spaces are needed in the center of the city. With the very high cost of building decks over yards, the need for these spaces can be seriously questioned. In my analysis, it looked like moving rail cars back to yards further east would increase operating cost by $8.2 million per year, or even less if more frequent service were operated all day long. This is a small price to pay to avoid spending a billion dollars or more for decks over the rail yards.

In 1987, when tracks that were needed to reach the yards were placed in service, they were helpful in making the northern portion of Penn Station into a thru-station increasing its capacity. This feature would be retained even if the yards are closed, since trains would continue to a two-track station that would be retained to provide access to West Side
development sites.

Finally, storing trains overnight in the center of the city, sending them empty to the suburbs to fetch passengers and then doing the same thing at the end of the day is costly. If rail yards cannot be built in the closer in suburbs, then the solution is to increase the utilization of the bi-level, dual-mode locomotive-hauled fleet which can be stored in existing underutilized yards much further to the east. These trains could be operated as thru-trains between points in Long Island and points in NJ. This need not wait for generations, but can be put into place over the next two to three years. This does require institutions to cooperate. Short of a full merger of all three commuter rail lines that serve the region, inter-operability agreements can be accomplished where the political will exists to press operators to move forward. With NY and NJ facing severe fiscal constraints, now is the time for agencies to work toward common solutions that save cost and improve service.

The time for the LIRR West Side Yard has come and gone. The stakes are too high to preserve the status quo!

What do you think? Please send us your comments and questions for George Haikalis.


Ask George: "The Mother of All Train Station Connections"

Reader: “Is there a way to connect Grand Central to Penn Station? Have there been any plans to do so?”

Mr. Haikalis: Yes, in fact a plan was put forward in 2003. The original plans for the new train tunnel under the Hudson River - known as Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) – proposed bringing the new 2-track tunnel directly into existing tracks and platforms at Penn Station, and then continuing under 31st Street and Park Avenue to existing tracks and platforms on the Lower Level of Grand Central Terminal (see green tracks in figure below).

This plan – the mother of all train station connections - would have tied the two stations together, permitting thru train service between points in Westchester-Connecticut and points in New Jersey. The plan called for using existing tracks and platforms at the two stations, taking advantage of unique elements that were incorporated into their design when they were built nearly a century ago.

The Major Investment Study (MIS) phase of planning found that this plan – known as Alternative G - would have cost the least to build and operate, attracted the most riders, and diverted the greatest number of motorists of three final alternatives studied (click here to read the report). It would have afforded West of Hudson riders easy access to Manhattan's East Side, the nation's premier commercial district, and would have made it easier for workers from points north of NYC to reach growing West Midtown developments. Furthermore, it would have allowed Amtrak's Northeast Corridor trains to serve both business centers en route from Washington to Boston, making the train more competitive with air travel.

The MIS planning study found no "fatal flaws" in the connection. But a key to making this plan work is for NJ Transit trains to operate on Metro-North tracks and vice versa. These inter-operability agreements are quite common in the freight industry, and could be negotiated between the two transit carriers. It’s a matter of political will.

The leadership in both states declined to advance this very attractive plan. Instead, NJ Transit was left to "go it alone", pressing for a deep cavern dead-end station 140 feet below 34th Street and Macy’s. This plan is costly, inconvenient and poses a clear security risk. It obviously lacks the connection to Grand Central. In fact, it doesn’t even have a connection into Penn Station. The red line into Penn Station in the figure above has been dropped from the project! Now with both states facing severe budget challenges, it is especially important to move forward on a more cost-effective plan -- Alternative G.

More questions about ARC? Want to know more about Sunnyside Yards, connecting Metro North to Penn Station, or the possibilities of light rail in New York? Please submit questions in the comments section.


Ask George: More on the West Side Yards

In response to our first “Ask George” post we received this detailed response regarding the necessity of the West Side Yards:

Mr. Haikalis' asserts that the West Side Yards are somehow an unnecessary luxury that the MTA can ill afford. On the contrary, they are a vital asset serving a valuable function and must remain in place. Any development that takes place there must be in the form of an overbuild, precisely the process that is being pursued today. Of course, the MTA has a fiduciary responsiblity and an obligation to the public to maximize the proceeds it receives from any scheme to the greatest extent possible.

Mr. Haikalis leaves out two critical points. First, he neglects to give the reason why LIRR trains are stored there at all. In the late 1980s, it was forseen that the ability to handle traffic growth at Penn Station and in the East River Tunnels would be impeded as long as the tunnels were being used to send back empty trains east after their morning runs. Building the yard allowed trains to move west after unloading their passengers, getting out of the way of succeeding trains and freeing up additional slots in the tunnels for more trains to be added. A similar operation takes place for NJT trains which move to Sunnyside Yard in Queens for daytime storage after their morning runs.

Second, there is no room at the LIRR's existing yards on Long Island to support more storage, and the possibility of easily building new yard capacity will be difficult. The LIRR already discovered this in the late 1990s, when trial balloons about new yards were floated in Suffolk County and were immediately met with stiff local resistance. That is not to say they that new yards shouldn't be built; in fact they will be needed in the future so that East Side Access and the proposed additional track on the Main Line can be worked to their maximum advantage.

Mr. Haikalis may respond to this by saying that Penn Station is not being used effectively today because of its inherent design as a through station, and that sending LIRR trains to NJ in continued service is more efficient. This should be pursued in the future if we are to ever have an effective regional rail system. He may also point out that the East Side Access scheme is flawed and should be dropped (it is not flawed; it is a very expensive and ambitious project that needs to be finally built). However, these are not valid reasons for giving up the West Side Yards. They must remain in place.

We will be back later with George’s response!


Ask George: Does New York Need the West Side Railyards?

Hudson Yards
George Haikalis believes the LIRR’s West Side Yards, opened in 1987, were not necessary in the first place. In his view, the MTA should eliminate the yards, but keep one platform with two tracks to run a shuttle on the existing tracks between the Hudson Yards development and Penn Station. This would eliminate the need for the $1 billion deck over the yards and significantly increase the value of the land by adding a link to the region's rail hub.

Haikalis is a civil engineer/transportation planner who co-chairs vision 42, a citizens initiative advancing a plan for an auto-free light rail boulevard on 42nd St. which is sponsored by the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility, Inc. (IRUM), a NYC-based not-for-profit corporation. IRUM also hosts the Regional Rail Working Group, an informal collaboration of rail advocates from the NY-NJ-CT metropolitan area.

He is here to answer your questions about transportation and the West Side, including Hudson Yards, Moynihan Station, and ARC, for the next two weeks. We'll call it “Ask George."

“For 77 years the LIRR operated without a West Side yard,” Haikalis said. “Their operations were such that the trains would either return to points in Long Island carrying passengers in the reverse peak direction, or would be operated without passengers to Long Beach, Babylon, or Jamaica where there was more yard space and they would stay until the evening peak. That added operating costs but nothing compared to the cost of building the yard, which was originally estimated at $100 million but turned out to be $230 million.”

Haikalis estimates that, in today's dollars, the added cost of returning LIRR cars to yards further east for midday storage would be about $8.2 million per year, small in comparison to the value MTA would gain from clearing the yard and selling it as raw real estate, with a good access link to Penn Station.

He points out that even with the Penn Station/Hudson Yards shuttle in place, the city's plan for the #7 line extension adds important additional connections to subway lines, particularly on Manhattan's East Side. Yet he is concerned that it may not be worth the cost. Soaring construction costs are slowing the pace of major MTA projects, including the #7, and the Fulton Street Transit Center has already been sent back to the drawing board.

Haikalis thinks the LIRR shuttle train would require little capital cost and could be placed into service quickly. “In this day and age if you were to build only a small two track platform and ran more trains in reverse peak hours to Long Island you would come out way ahead,” he said. Furthermore, linking Hudson Yards to the Penn Station transit hub furthers the establishment of a regional rail network in the city.

Please submit questions or comments on this and other transportation issues and Mr. Haikalis will be happy to address them.