Monday, December 1, 2008

Big Station, Narrow Vision

In the comedy Blazing Saddles, the citizens of tiny Rock Ridge built a replica of their village as a ruse to confuse a posse of criminals sworn to destroy the town. They forgot one detail: people.

NJ Transit went them one dumber. When they opened the $450 million Frank R. Lautenberg rail station in Secaucus, N.J. in 2003, they also forgot a detail: parking. The massive facility, designed primarily to facilitate transfers between NJ Transit's Main, Bergen County and Pascack Valley lines and its Northeast Corridor, Morris & Essex and North Jersey Coast lines, is a chip shot from the New Jersey Turnpike. However, planners made no provisions to allow commuters to drive to the station and leave their cars, so they could take a short hop to New York's Penn Station, even though the turnpike built an exit ramp.

In an editorial today, The New York Times said the decision: "has left everyone inclined to use it scratching their heads in bewilderment." I agree. While the Lautenberg station is a beautiful facility and it has created all sorts of new travel options for NJ Transit's regional rail customers, it comes nowhere close to its potential.

According to the Times editorial, NJ Transit officials said they feared offering parking would add to the area's congestion. Guess what! The congestion is already there. The only difference the cars are heading toward the Lincoln Tunnel and Manhattan instead of parking in the New Jersey Meadows, where they could become NJ Transit customers.

By NJ Transit's logic, maybe the Lautenberg station shouldn't have been built in the first place. Afterall, aren't trains bound for Dover, Trenton and Long Branch crowded enough without having to be crammed with additional riders headed to Patterson, Ridgewood and Spring Valley? Why not make those passengers continue using Hoboken Terminal?

The Lautenberg fiasco demonstrates the need for creative thinking among transit planners. They designed a lavish facility paid for with tax dollars but didn't bother to figure out how they would maximize the return on that investment. A parking garage and commercial real estate development could have helped NJ Transit leverage their investment. On the other hand, it might have resulted in even more crowding, pressuring NJ Transit to increase capacity, something difficult to do in the near-term owing to limited capacity in the Hudson River tunnels.


  1. The Frank R. Lautenberg rail (Secaucus Junction) station can be put to good use with a relatively simple PATH train service improvement that can also provide significant benefits for the MTA by relieving congestion in New York Penn station and on the downtown subway lines. A significant number of customers that enter New York at Penn station from New Jersey are actually destined for the downtown areas below 23rd street. This traffic can be expected to increase as the work progresses at the World Trade Center site.

    NJ passengers that currently use trains to New York Penn station need to transfer to the subway to get to NY downtown/financial area. NE Corridor passengers can already transfer to the PATH train at Newark Penn station, but the rest of us have to go to Hoboken to get a PATH connection, and there are not as many Hoboken trains on the NJ Transit lines, as Penn station trains.

    With minimal rail and switch work just north/west of Journal Square, it should be relatively easy to connect Secaucus Junction to the PATH system. This is a quick and relatively inexpensive solution that will improve the usefulness of Secaucus Junction, and make it easier for thousands of NJ passengers to get to the NY financial district without having to go through Midtown. In addition, this will also provide a valuable alternate back-up capability for NJ Transit passengers to get to and from NYC.

    NJ Transit has an admirable concept of one-seat rides into Manhattan, but does this really help if I have to change trains in a crowded Penn Station? I would rather change trains in the spacious Frank Lautenberg station. This is low hanging fruit that can easily provide benefits and flexible alternatives to NJ Transit riders. How does one get NJ Transit and PATH to sit down and work this out?

  2. I'm not clear on who would benefit from a PATH connection at the Secaucus station. Passengers on the Bergen, Mainline, Pascack Valley, Morris & Essex, Gladstone and Montclair/Boonton Lines can catch PATH at Hoboken. Passengers on the Northeast Corridor, North Jersey Coast and Raritan Valley lines can transfer to PATH at Newark. What connectivity does this add and which PATH line would you extend to Secaucus?