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ARC: Critical to Build, A Struggle to Fund

Eliot Brown wrote an interesting story about the importance to build, and the struggle to fund, ARC (Access to the Region’s Core). The proposed tunnel would be the first built under the Hudson River since Penn Station was built.

The tunnel would have clear transportation improvements:

Brown wrote that ARC is "the largest individual transportation project in the New York area by dollars, and would double the railroad’s capacity, allowing for 80,000 more riders daily, with a new river crossing and a fresh set of platforms by Pennsylvania Station."

But it's becoming more expensive:

A preliminary analysis by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) found the cost of the project was estimated to span from the $7.6 billion to more than $10 billion depending on a variety of potential roadblocks during planning and construction, according to a government official familiar with the analysis.

AMTRAK has apparently joined the advocates in arguing for a Penn Station connection:

The tracks would not connect to Penn Station tracks—a sore point for many transit advocates and Amtrak, which has criticized the plan for its lack of redundancy should something happen to one of the two tunnel systems. As the region and rail ridership grow, capacity could be better expanded with a connection between the two systems, those critics argue, though New Jersey Transit has said the connection costs would be prohibitive.

While Brown indicates that funding the project is challenging, it's of national importance to complete the tunnel:

“The project is probably the most important public transportation project in the country,” James Simpson, the F.T.A.’s administrator, told The Observer. “The benefits accruing to New Yorkers and folks in New Jersey are so great that the project has to happen.”

Read “Billions Down The Tunnel!,” by Eliot Brown for The New York Observer

Read ARC: 100 Years Later, An Attempt to Re-Conquer Gotham


Times Says "Give Amtrak a Fighting Chance"

In today’s editorial page, the New York Times calls for the federal government to stop short changing Amtrak and criticizes the idea of soliciting private proposals for a high speed link between NY and DC. “Where passenger rail works best, as it does in Europe, it is treated like the critical service it is and is publicly financed, like the highways,” it says. Here is the full text:

It started out as a real victory for passenger rail: the House and the Senate voted to give significantly more money to Amtrak to improve service and upgrade tired cars, tracks and other equipment.

But, as is so often the case in Washington, there was a catch. To get a big enough vote to override a threatened veto by President Bush, the House leadership obliged the worst instincts of Republicans. It included a measure requiring the government to seek proposals from private companies to construct a high-speed rail service between New York and Washington.

Conferees from the two chambers should throw that privatization provision out as they reconcile the bills. Amtrak deserves this chance, without dilution, after years of being shamefully shortchanged. Its current funding is a woefully inadequate $1.2 billion. The bills would roughly double that, and sustain it for five years. That would allow long-term planning, instead of Amtrak’s yearly fight for life.

Diverting money to a pointless experiment in privatization (the cost of land alone to build a parallel set of tracks would be prohibitive) is counterproductive. It would all but ensure that Amtrak remained inefficient and ill equipped to meet increasing demands for service. Its intercity routes this year may carry as many as 27 million passengers, 2 million more than last year.

Apart from that misguided addition, the bills are good over all. The two bills — whose primary sponsors were Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Representative James Oberstar of Minnesota, both Democrats — require more accountability from Amtrak, and the states. To get states to determine and address local needs, the bills wisely include incentives, like 80 cents in federal money to match every 20 a state spends on rail.

Where passenger rail works best, as it does in Europe, it is treated like the critical service it is and is publicly financed, like the highways.

Lawmakers can no longer get away with shortchanging passenger rail. Rising gas prices and dependency on foreign oil are front and center in Americans’ minds, as are pollutants that contribute to climate change and respiratory illnesses. Airlines are responding to rising fuel prices by paring schedules, raising fares and charging for checked baggage. It’s no wonder that May was a record month for Amtrak.

Even with a relative windfall, Amtrak will not be able to deliver a French-style bullet train that can hit speeds of 200 miles an hour. But the only sensible way to get there is by starting now, with the critical investment that Amtrak needs to keep the nation moving.

Also, CQ Weekly has a major story on “Amtrak’s Critical Moment.” Colby Itkowitz and Kathryn A. Wolfe report that despite record breaking ridership numbers, “experts say Amtrak is in no position to capitalize on this good fortune. After years of living on meager subsidies from Congress while coping with high labor costs and a staggering maintenance backlog, Amtrak is essentially locked in place, dependent on the year-to-year whims of congressional appropriators and struggling just to maintain the status quo.”

Read “Give Amtrak a Fighting Chance,” from the New York Times


NYT: Travelers Shift to Rail as Cost of Fuel Rises

The steady drumbeat of news on the recent growth in passenger rail travel continued on Saturday when the New York Times reported that Amtrak is “bumping up against its own capacity constraints” as intercity trains are already sold out for some days this summer. However, “despite its popularity with passengers, the biggest determinant of the railroad’s health is still the federal government, and in Washington, views diverge sharply,” according to the article. The future of Amtrak “hinges on who wins the White House; Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, was a staunch opponent of subsidies to Amtrak when he was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Barack Obama, the probable Democratic nominee, was a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill to provide an 80/20 financing match.”

Amtrak is an alternative to airlines along the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, and on some routes out of Chicago and a few in California. But most of its other routes are so slow that people take those trains because they have no alternative to reach places like Burlington, N.C., or Burlington, Iowa. Or they go for the train ride itself.

The railroad carried about 25 million passengers last year and may hit 27 million this year. (That is all intercity traffic; commuter rail, connecting suburbs and cities, is also growing, but that is not Amtrak’s market.) By contrast, the airlines carry about 680 million domestic passengers a year. If Amtrak were an airline, in terms of passenger boardings it would rank approximately eighth, behind Continental and US Airways and ahead of AirTran and JetBlue.

H. Glenn Scammel, a former head of staff of the rail subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the railroad should give up on some of its cross-country trains and redeploy the equipment on relatively short intercity trips, where it could provide enough frequency to attract new business. (Providing one train a day in each direction will not draw many new business travelers.)

But the railroad’s labor contracts provide stiff penalties for dropping routes, and dropping states from its itinerary would hurt its political support, especially in the Senate, where thinly populated states are overrepresented relative to their population.

Scarcity is not all bad for the railroad, though. It has raised ticket prices, so that it recorded ticket revenues of $153.4 million in May, up 15.6 percent from $132.7 million in May 2006. That jump is higher than the ridership increase of 12.3 percent, to 2.58 million, from 2.30 million.

Read “Travelers Shift to Rail as Cost of Fuel Rises,” by Matthew Wald for The New York Times


Money for Moynihan in Amtrak Bill?

Yesterday, we posted on the passage of the Amtrak reauthorization bill, which includes a plan to solicit private proposals for a high speed train between DC and NY. Today, Eliot Brown of the New York Observer cites a source in Representative Jerry Nadler’s office and reports that part of the $2.5 billion grant program could provide a boost to Moynihan Station.

But the bill faces a major hurdle. On Monday the Bush Administration vowed to veto the bill because it "authorizes an unprecedented level of funding but does not include basic measures to hold Amtrak accountable to taxpayers for its spending decisions.”


House Passes Amtrak Bill, Paterson Announces MTA Commission

The Amtrak bill that would solicit private sector proposals to build a high speed rail link between DC and NY passed the House on Tuesday. Gannett News reports that the 227-187 margin fell short of the majority required to override a Bush veto.

In addition to providing Amtrak operating subsidies over five years, the measure seeks to boost investment in high-speed rail.

It also calls for opening up the Washington-to-Boston route and 10 others across the country to private competitors — something Democrats such as Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey strongly oppose.

Though President Bush likes the bill’s privatization proposal, he rejects boosting funding for passenger rail if Amtrak isn’t held more accountable and doesn’t change the way it does business, the White House said in a statement explaining the veto threat.

Lautenberg, meanwhile, co-wrote an $11.4 billion Amtrak bill that passed the Senate 70-22 in October.

House and Senate negotiators have to come up with a compromise bill, which would then have to pass Congress and win Bush's signature to become law.

In other news, Governor Paterson announced his appointments to a commission on MTA financing. Richard Ravitch, former head of the MTA, will chair the commission. Appointees include MTA CEO Lee Sander, developer Douglas Durst, Con Ed chair Kevin Burke, and former Port Authority director Peter Goldmark. Excerpts from a press statement:

Governor David A. Paterson today appointed 12 members to the Commission on Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Financing, to be chaired by former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch. The Commission is charged with recommending strategies to fund MTA capital projects and operating needs over the next ten years, a period when the Authority will be under unprecedented financial pressure as it expands its system and rebuilds its core infrastructure to provide the additional capacity needed to allow the region to grow. Governor Paterson announced in April that Richard Ravitch would head the Commission in wake of the failure of the congestion pricing proposal, which would have provided an additional revenue stream to the MTA….More here.


Media Focused on Passenger Rail

On Monday, a major story for NBC Nightly News reported that mass transit ridership has reached a 50 year high but it “may not be ready for all the Americans leaving their cars behind and hopping on for the ride.”

On Sunday, James Howard Kunstler called for fixing and expanding the rail system in an editorial for the Washington Post:

Fixing the U.S. passenger railroad system is probably the one project we could undertake right away that would have the greatest impact on the country's oil consumption. The fact that we're not talking about it -- especially in the presidential campaign -- shows how confused we are. The airline industry is disintegrating under the enormous pressure of fuel costs. Airlines cannot fire any more employees and have already offloaded their pension obligations and outsourced their repairs. At least five small airlines have filed for bankruptcy protection in the past two months. If we don't get the passenger trains running again, Americans will be going nowhere five years from now.

We don't have time to be crybabies about this. The talk on the presidential campaign trail about "hope" has its purpose. We cannot afford to remain befuddled and demoralized. But we must understand that hope is not something applied externally. Real hope resides within us. We generate it -- by proving that we are competent, earnest individuals who can discern between wishing and doing, who don't figure on getting something for nothing and who can be honest about the way the universe really works.

Read "Federal Government Remains Hostile to Rail Boom"


Bloomberg Supports High Speed Amtrak Service

As we reported last week, Mayor Bloomberg met with Rep. Mica regarding a bill that would solicit private proposals for high-speed rail service between DC and NY. Afterwards, he released the following statement:

"I met today with Congressman John Mica of Florida, the Ranking Republican on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, who briefed me on his plan to encourage proposals to bring high-speed rail service to New York. Congressman Mica's plan makes a great deal of sense and I strongly support it. High speed rail service could cut the travel time between New York and Washington to only two hours. This would encourage more people to take the train, which simultaneously would relieve congestion at New York City airports and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

"Congressman Mica's plan, which is included in the House Amtrak reauthorization bill, would solicit proposals - including proposals from the private sector - to build the high speed rail service. Those proposals would be evaluated and presented to Congress for further action. Soliciting and considering proposals is an important and necessary first step toward determining the feasibility of this initiative.

"Congressman Mica's plan demonstrates the kind of ambitious, pragmatic thinking about our future that guided PlaNYC and that Building America's Future - my coalition with Governors Rendell and Schwarzenegger - is asking Congress to provide. Investing in modern mass transportation is critical to New York's future, and all options should be on the table. No idea should be ignored or dismissed simply because it is ambitious. That is not how America's greatest infrastructure marvels - from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Grand Coulee Dam - got built."


Bloomberg to Meet with Rep. Mica on High Speed Rail Link

Yesterday, the New York Sun reported that Mayor Bloomberg will be meeting with Rep. John Mica on Friday to discuss his proposal for a high speed rail link – or “rocket train” – between DC and NY, a bill we detailed last week (see ”New DC/NY High Speed Rail Link?” and “DC/NY High Speed Rail Legislation Advances in House.”) It's no surprise that Senator Moynihan was an early proponent of the idea.

"It's a little late in the game, but we need it," the chairman of the political science department at Touro College, David Luchins, a longtime adviser to Senator Moynihan, said yesterday in an interview. "It's important because of the cost of oil, its important because of the environment, and it would be great for the economy — I see no downside. It is the most economically sound way to move people from New York to Washington."

Mr. Luchins also said that the job of generating political support could be eased by the disgruntlement of lawmakers who must deal with the rigors of shuttling between New York and Washington.

"The senator used to say you get one less day in purgatory for every day you have to spend on the shuttle," Mr. Luchins said.

As for the role of Amtrak:

A spokesman for Mr. Mica, Justin Harclerode, said Amtrak could participate but that the congressman envisions creating high-speed service that would be independent of existing commuter and freight lines, which would likely require new tunnels and ridding existing tracks of curves to facilitate speed.

On Tuesday, Bruce Reed, the president of the Democratic Leadership Council, and Paul Weinstein, chief operating officer of the Progressive Policy Institute, presented high-speed rail as the solution for air congestion in an editorial for Newsday.

That's why the next president and the new Congress should commit to building five new high-speed rail corridors in the next 10 years. The corridors would be selected based on three key criteria: geography (the flatter the terrain, the faster the train); a high probability of use (densely populated corridors with significant levels of highway and airborne traffic); and a commitment by the private sector, states and localities to share in the cost of construction. Wherever possible, the high-speed rail corridors should connect to major air hubs.

Roads and airports have direct sources of financing - namely, taxes on gasoline and ticket purchases. If high-speed rail is going to become a reality, it will need a similarly robust stream of income. That's why policymakers should establish a trust fund that would finance construction and maintenance. We could pay for this investment in a number of ways: carbon-offset purchases; a 4.3-cent diesel gas tax on the railroad industry that would raise about $200 million a year; ticket surcharges; and/or matching contributions from states served by the new rail lines.

How this would impact Moynihan Station remains unclear.

Read “High-Speed Rail Solution for Chronic Sky Troubles,” by Bruce Reid and Paul Weinstein Jr. for Newsday

Read “Congress Eyes a Rocket Train to Washington,” by Peter Kiefer for The New York Sun


DC/NY High Speed Rail Legislation Advances in House

According to the Wall Street Journal, the bill that would have the U.S. Department of Transportation solicit proposals for a high speed rail service between NY and D.C. was approved on Thursday by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Chris Conkey reports that “the bill's prospects appear to be strong since it enjoys the support of the committee's Democratic and Republican leaders.” (For more info on the bill read yesterday’s post: ”New DC/NY High Speed Rail Link?” and this reader’s comment). From the Journal:

"One way to address road and air congestion is by expanding our passenger rail system," said Rep. Bill Shuster, (R., Pa.), the ranking Republican on the House railroads subcommittee. Rep. James Oberstar (D., Minn.), chairman of the transportation committee, called the vote a historic milestone. "We ought to at least do in America what has been done in France to promote passenger rail service," he said.

The slow-moving U.S. rail network pales in comparison to the popular high-speed routes in Europe and East Asia. But hints of change are emerging. California is poised to vote on a ballot measure this fall that would steer over $9 billion toward the development of a high-speed route stretching from Sacramento to San Diego. Several Midwestern states have teamed up in the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, which aims to speed up service times between Chicago and cities such as Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis.

The federal bill that advanced in the House Thursday would provide nearly $1.8 billion in grants to develop rail corridors between cities where trains can travel up to 110 miles per hour.

Another provision of the bill, championed by Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.), would have the Transportation Department solicit proposals for high-speed service along the heavily traveled and densely populated New York to Washington, D.C., route.

Mr. Mica's goal is to offer consumers a rail option that would connect the cities in two hours. It takes 2 hours and 45 minutes for Amtrak's fastest train, the Acela Express, to cover that distance.

Read “Railway Legislation Advances in House,” by Christopher Conkey for The Wall Street Journal


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.