Sunday, February 22, 2009

Officials Eye Highway Toll to Restore Rails to Reading

Among the more shortsighted decisions made in recent years by transit agency's was SEPTA's decision to annul service on its routes from Philadelphia to Reading, Pottsville and Bethlehem in the early 1980s. Shortsighted not only because they eliminated viable routes, but also because plans to restore service have become too expensive. One revival plan, the Schuykill Valley Metro running to Reading, would have cost $2 billion.

Now officials of Berks, Montgomery and Chester Counties plan to study the feasibility of converting U.S. Route 422, a limited access expressway between Pottstown, in the northwest corner of Montgomery County, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, in King of Prussia, into a toll road that could help pay for extending SEPTA's R6 commuter line to Reading. The $2 toll would also be used to upgrade the highway, which experiences heavy rush hour congestion.

Three rail options are under consideration: extending the R6 as an electrified train to Valley Forge; operating a connecting diesel train from Norristown to Reading, or extending electrification to Reading and providing direct service from Philadelphia.

"A commuter rail line has been discussed for many years as a proposed solution to the increasing traffic volumes on Route 422 in Berks and Montgomery counties, however, funding has always been one of the major roadblocks," said Judy Schwank, President and CEO of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania and a former Berks County commissioner. "This study addresses that difficult issue head-on by exploring possible funding mechanisms including public-private partnerships and tolling."
According to Leo Bagley, Montgomery County assistant director for planning, the new rail line would cost around $500 million, around one-fourth the price of the plan that was previously rejected by federal officials in 2002.

Montgomery County represents a potential growth opportunity for SEPTA. According to the Pottstown Mercury, 81 percent of the county's residents travel to work alone each day. A mere 4 percent take mass transit. A modern commuter rail service could change that ratio and help Montgomery County break away from the suburban sprawl mentality. It also could see Pottstown's beautiful limestone depot (above), which now houses a bank, welcoming railroad passengers once again.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Advocacy Group: New MBTA Line Would Cost $800,000 Per Rider

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an organization of public sector resource professionals says the MBTA has lowered ridership projections a controversial extension to Fall River and New Bedford while projected costs for the project have risen. In a news release posted on the Common Dreams.org website, it claims the cost of the state's preferred alternative, which would run across the Hockomock Swamp, Massachusetts' largest freshwater wetland, now equals $800,000 per commuter.

According to the release, MBTA now projects 2,500 new round trip riders for the New Bedford line. In 2002, the estimate was 2,953 riders. While the project's cost is estimated at $1.4 billion, that does not include environmental mitigation, which PEER claims could push the total cost over $2 billion.

"For $800,000 we could fly each commuter to New Bedford every day in a helicopter," stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett.

Phoenix Light Rail Exceeds Ridership Expectations

Phoenix' new light rail line exceeded ridership expectations by 5,000 riders per day on weekdays during January, the Arizona Republic reports. However, those positive numbers may not lost. A 50-cent fare hike may be in the works for the new transit line and that could promulgate a falloff in passenger counts.

Boardman Wants Rolling Stock

Railway Age reports Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman has written to Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi advising that the railroad will seek a $1.4 billion appropriation in FY 2010 to purchase new rolling in order to expand service. The request includes "60 electric locomotives for the Northeast Corridor, 25 single-level dining cars, 75 baggage cars, 25 single-level sleeping cars, and 130 bilevel cars for short-distance routes.

Boardman: Amtrak Managers Burnt Out

A fascinating interview by Don Phillips with Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman for Trains.com reveals many of Amtrak's managers are burnt out and do not have much confidence in the railroad's future. Boardman suggest that those who cannot make the transition from survival mode to growth mode may no longer have a place with the company. Read the whole piece here.

Stimulus Money Could Help Build Hudson River Tunnel

The economic stimulus package signed into law earlier this week could provide up to $1.5 billion toward construction of the Access to the Region's Core project, which includes new tunnels under the Hudson River and a new terminal in Midtown Manhattan for NJ Transit, according to New Jersey's two U.S. Senators.

In a joint statement issued last week, Sen. Robert Menendez said:
“This much-needed rail tunnel embodies what we’re trying to do with this recovery package. We’re jumpstarting a ready-to-go project that creates jobs now and lays the groundwork for a more secure economic future.”
“Not only will this package serve as an engine for job creation, but these investments will pay off in the years to come by reducing congestion on our roads and providing new, energy-efficient options for travelers,” added Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

However, even if the full $1.5 billion were to come through, New Jersey would still have a $1.25 billion funding gap for the $8.75 billion project, which has been criticized by some rail advocates for its failure to provide a connection to Pennsylvania Station, NJ Transit's current terminus in New York.

Amtrak Offers Discounted Acela Fares

Good news for travelers in the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak is lowering fares on its Acela Express by 25 percent. The new rates begin March 3 and are in effect through June 25. A ticket from New York to Washington can be had for as little as $99 and a New York - Boston ticket will be as low as $79. To get the low fares, tickets must be purchased 14 days in advance and are nonrefundable.

The reason for the discount comes down to one word: recession. In January, Amtrak reported a 14 percent decline in Acela ridership despite the traffic surge generated by Barack Obama's inauguration. For the most recent four-month period Acela traffic is off 10 percent, Bloomberg reports. The decline is attributed to a fall-off in business travel. So Amtrak, hopes to recoup some of its losses by pricing the train to appeal to the leisure passenger.

What's not known is whether the business traveler is abandoning Amtrak altogether or downgrading to the recently upgraded Northeast Direct service to save money. For some trips, the time savings on Acela over the conventional Amfleet-equipped trains do not justify the premium paid. On the other hand, Acela other amenities besides speed that can attract the leisure travelers, such as the large windows and better food options.

If Amtrak's strategy does work, expect to see a lot more college students on board headed for weekend jaunts to the Big Apple, Boston, Philadelphia or Washington.

How Amtrak Will Spent Its Piece of Stimulus Pie

Government Executive provides an interesting breakdown of how Amtrak's economic stimulus money will be spent. The legislation signed into law earlier this week by President Obama gives the railroad $1.3 billion in direct appropriations.

$450 million will go toward security improvements and the rest ($850 million) for capital improvements. Of the latter figure, 60 percent will be spent on the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak's busiest line.

According to the report, Amtrak could see additional money from the $8 billion appropriated for high-speed rail projects. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has the final call on how that pool of money will be allocated. An additional $288 million could be headed toward the Boston - Washington line as the result of a change in the law making Amtrak eligible to issue tax-exempt bonds to finance "high-speed rail facilities" along that route.

Is America Getting Real About High-Speed Rail?

The United States may at long last be getting serious about high-speed rail. According to Reuters, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said his agency is preparing for President Obama a report on developing high-speed rail in six corridors that include cost and time estimates.

"This is going to be President Obama's, I believe, top transportation priority," LaHood told reporters. "They asked us to give them as much information as we could."

According to the article, LaHood indicated the President is contemplating an investment beyond the $8 billion included in the economic stimulus legislation signed earlier this week. Politico.com reported that the President was a prime mover behind that appropriation, which was added to the legislation in final negotiations.

This would represent a 180 degree turnabout in government thinking on intercitty rail. Former President George W. Bush routinely submitted budget with appropriations well below the levels requested by the railroad. In some years, his budget provided nothing for Amtrak.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Budget Woes Again Threaten Chicago Transit Lines

New state and local taxes imposed last year won't be enough to balance the books this year for three Chicago region public transportation agencies. The Chicago Tribune reports that tax revenues are running below forecasts due to the weak economy and that a new "doomsday scenario" threatens the Chicago Transit Authority, which operates subways, elevated trains and buses in that city, Metra, which runs the commuter trains, and PACE, the suburban bus line.
"State lawmakers thought they fixed the funding problems, at least for 5 to 10 years, when they voted to increase mass-transit subsidies by boosting the transit portion of the sales tax in the six-county area. Chicago also increased its real estate transfer tax, directing more money to the CTA.

But sales taxes and real estate taxes have plummeted during the economic slowdown, reigniting the budget crisis.

"We all thought that the hard-won . . . legislation would provide sufficient resources to operate our system," RTA Executive Director Steve Schlickman wrote to the heads of the transit agencies. "And while that legislation did increase our funding, as soon as it became law, economic conditions wiped out much of what we gained."
Jim Reilly, chair of the Regional Transportation Authority, the board that oversees finances at the three agencies, told Chicago Public Radio that the agencies shouldn't look to the state legislature for a new bailout. He added his agency hopes to find solutions that don't involve fare hikes or service reductions. CTA raised fares last month.

Bus Competition Concerns Indiana Commuter Line

The Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority, which operates local bus service in that corner of the Hoosier State, is pressing ahead with plans to operate express bus service from Lake County to downtown Chicago, to the chagrin of the operator of the South Shore line, reports the Northwest Indiana Times.

The newspaper reports that the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD) has had a change of heart on the subject. At first, NICTD, which runs the South Shore line, an electrified regional carrier running from South Bend to Chicago, supported the new bus service. It thought it would be a good way to test demand for a proposed line extension.

However, NICTD Marketing and Planning Director John Parsons says the railroad has had second thoughts. "We have expressed concern, especially when it (express bus service) goes into downtown Chicago," Parsons said. "It's literally serving our market."

From a free market perspective, it seems silly to be complaining about competition - intermodal or otherwise. NICTD shouldn't have to worry. Only two buses would operate, and they would leave from Munster, which is not served by the South Shore. Plus, the buses run the risk of getting stuck in traffic, something that is not a concern for trains.

But, this is politics, not business. The expansion is funded by another agency, the Regional Development Authority, and the argument could be made that taxpayer funds are being used to pit one mode against another.

Perhaps the solution is to merge the bus agency into NICTD. This could not only reduce overhead, but put the service in the hands of one authority whose mission would be to utilize the two modes - bus and rail - in a way that maximizes their effectiveness.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Virginia Board Approves Train to Lynchburg

The Lynchburg News & Advance reports that the Commonwealth Transportation Board has approved funding for a state-supported Amtrak train from Lynchburg to Washington. The service could begin as early as October if agreements are reached with Norfolk Southern and CSX, over whose tracks the train will run.

The new service would supplement Amtrak's Crescent, a New Orleans - New York run, which stops in Lynchburg northbound at 6 am and southbound at 10 pm, and provide more convenient travel times.

Funding for the train is through a $17.2 million three year appropriation to support the Lynchburg train as well as a Washington - Richmond round trip. It is conceived as a demonstration project to test demand for expanded passenger service. During the funded period the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation will seek permanent funding.

MTA Payroll Tax Plan Faces Resistance Upstate

Business leaders and public officials from the northernmost counties in the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority are voicing opposition to a proposed payroll tax intended to moderate fare increases proposed for the agency's trains and buses. The tax, which would raise $1.5 billion, was a cornerstone of Richard Ravitch's plan to keep the fare hikes at eight percent rather than 23 percent authorized by the MTA board.

Officials fear the tax would be detrimental to area schools and hospitals since all employers - public, private and nonprofit - would be subject to it. That means hospitals would have to raise fees and school taxes would rise to cover the extra cost, pegged at 33 center per $100 in salary.

Middletown school superindent Kenneth W. Eastwood told The New York Times the payroll tax would cost his district about $225,000, roughly equivalent to three and a half teacher salaries. “The thing that irks us is we’re really paying for somebody else’s problem,” he said. Only a small percentage of residents of Orange and Dutchess Counties use MTA's Metro North railroad to get to work.

Added State Sen. Steve Saland, R-Poughkeepsie: "At a time when local taxpayers are at the breaking point trying to pay their ever-increasing property taxes, the governor and the MTA want to increase that burden by instituting a payroll tax. It's ludicrous and blatantly unfair." According to Sen. Saland the tax would add a $3.3 million burden on school districts and governments in Dutchess County that would ultimately be borne by homeowners through property taxes.


HSR: Where the Stimulus Money Will Go

The surprise last minute of $8 billion to fund high-speed rail projects in the economic stimulus package is leading to all sorts of speculation and posturing over how this pie will get divided up. A statement from Sen. Harry Reid's led some right-wing commentators to opine that this was little more than pork in the form of a maglev from Southern California to Las Vegas. Alas, that isn't even one of the federally designated high-speed corridors, although could always change, and senators from other states, as well as the President and Vice President, pushed for the measure.

In all likelihood the lion's share of the money will go to projects that are already in the pipeline. This is economic stimulus spending, which means the money needs to go toward projects that will create job; "shovel-ready projects" is what President Obama called them. The 11 corridors recognized by the Federal Railroad Administration have been developed to varying degrees ranging from the full-flung operation of the Northeast Corridor to route that exist mainly on paper.

The best best for receiving money are:
  • Northeast Corridor - While this is the nation's primary high-speed line it has a backlog of projects that the stimulus could fund. They range include replacing bottlenecks like the Baltimore tunnels and Zoo Interlocking in Philaldephia, which could shave minutes off schedules, to installing constant tension catenary between New York and Washington, which would enable the Acela Express to travel at its top speed of 150 m.p.h.
  • Empire Corridor - Amtrak backed out of a $140 million project to reduce New York - Albany trip times to two hours earlier in the decade when it got into serious financial trouble. The project could be brought back to the front burner with new funds., and upstate representatives are pushing for high-speed all the way to Buffalo or Niagara Falls.
  • Southeast Corridor - North Carolina has gradually been reducing trip times between Raleigh and Charlotte to three hours. Funding could accelerate the process, including double-tracking more sections of the route, which would allow additional frequencies. The planned high-speed service from Charlotte to Washington via Richmond, VA, is in the midst of a Tier II Environmental Impact Study that is expected to be completed next year.
  • Pacific Northwest Corridor - The state of Washington has a plan to increase speeds between Vancouver, WA, and Seattle to 110 mph, enabling Portland - Seattle trip time to be cut to three hours. The project involves adding a third track in congested segments, which would enable Amtrak to run more Cascade trains.
  • Midwest Corridor - The FRA and Federal Highway Administration havea record of decision for initial improvements to erduce trip times on the Chicago - St. Louis line to four hours. A project to increase track speeds to 110 m.p.h. has been approved for the Chicago - Detroit line.
  • California Corridor - Even though voters approved a $9.9 billion bond issue to help finance the network's core line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the project still in the environmental approval process.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

LIRR Riders: Clean Up Your Act

Newsday's report on the latest Long Island Rail Road customer satisfaction survey says in its headline "LIRR survey: Passengers slam bathroom cleanliness." Buried below in the story is the fact that riders gave the railroad an overall satisfaction score of 89 (out of 100) grading its on-time performance at 90 and giving conductors a mark of 95 for crew courtesy.

Now maybe Newsday's editors and reporters have an axe to grind against the LIRR, a perennial whipping boy and an institution not regarded favorably these days due to the disability pension scandal and pending 23 percent fare hike. But, Long Islanders, by nature, are a kvetchy bunch, and their antipathy toward the railroad may still be a holdover from 1950, the year more than 100 of their brethern were killed in two disastrous LIRR accidents.

If their beef is over the bathrooms, then what the railroad need to do is install better mirrors in them. That way the jerks complaining about them can see who is responsible for the sorry conditions, themselves. Afterall, it isn't the conductors who go in them, it is the commuters. Enough said.

Amtrak Interferes With Another Photographer

Motivational speaker Tony Robbins says the definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting different results.

We ignored the story about the railfan photographer arrested at New York's Penn Station since it really had little to do with the nature or quality of rail service. Yet, it took on a life of its own with Amtrak eventually being ridiculed over it on Comedy Central "Colbert Report." Things like that can public relations practitioners acute agita.

So it was distressing to learn than, like Britney, Amtrak "Oops...did it again," this time at Los Angeles Union Station. I'm disturbed not so much about the PR fallout - by now Cliff Black no doubt has developed a fortitude of steel. What troubles me is the organization's cultural failure to see to its that its employees understand that these actions are wrong, even if they are carried out with good intentions. Do we have to post copies of the Bill of Rights in every Amtrak station?

Feds to Crack Down on Freight-Related Amtrak Delays

Memo to Freight Railroads:

If you cause too many Amtrak trains running on your tracks to arrive late at their destinations it could cost you. Bloomberg reports that under legislation passed last year the Surface Transportation Board has been given authority to levy fines on railroads that delay Amtrak trains.

Freight railroad-related delays were the number one cause of tardiness for Amtrak last year, according to its chief operating officer, William Crosbie. Federal officials want Amtrak to get its on-time performance rate up to 80 percent.

On the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak considers a train on time if it reaches its final destination within 10 minutes of its scheduled time. Off the corridor, it allows 30 minutes. According to spokesman Clifford Black, so far this year Amtrak has a system-wide 77 percent on-time rate, but outside the Northeast Corridor the rate is below 70 percent.

Conflicted

Good news! Talking Points Memo reports that the conference committee version of the economic stimulus bill dramatically boosts spending on Amtrak and high-speed rail over earlier versions passed by the House and Senate. When the House and Senate approve differing versions of the same legislation, a conference committee with members of both houses meets to work out the differences before a final vote.

The new bill gives Amtrak receive $1.3 billion in supplemental grants. The House bill gave it $800 million, the Senate $850. The conference bill also contains $8 billion for high-speed rail corridors, bringing the total to $9.3 billion, compared with $1.1 billion and $2.25 billion in the House and Senate versions.

Now the bad news: The conference committee took out $6 billion for higher education. Disclosure: I work in higher education and my school has a "shovel-ready" project valued at close to $500 million. Hopefully it will still go forward.

Assuming passage of the legislation unchanged, this is a watershed development. As The Transport Politic notes:
This represents the largest single expenditure on rail in United States history and promises a new day for train travel. The U.S. Department of Transportation will lead the distribution of these funds; most of the money is likely to go to existing programs such as California High-Speed Rail, Midwest High-Speed Rail, and Southeast High-Speed Rail. States will get no supplementary money for rail programs, which implies that the bill’s writers want states to focus on implementing high-speed rail over standard-speed intercity rail.
However, not everyone is totally pleased. Robert Cruickshank over at the California High-Speed Rail Blog says: "The fact is that America needs more passenger rail period and needs a comprehensive program to implement them that includes high speed and non-high speed trains."

And the right-wing echo chamber sees dirty politics afoot. Citing the roll of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, in pushing for the increase, the American Spectator opines that the money will not go toward the high-speed corridors under development in California (San Francisco - Los Angeles), the Southeast and Midwest, but rather toward development of a maglev train from Southern California to Reid's hometown, gambling mecca Las Vegas.
"Reid's high-speed gambling train not only violates the President's guiding principles for this bill, it also violates American taxpayers."
But the conservative screed ignores other high-speed rail advocates on the Obama team, and I'm not talking solely about Vice President "Amtrak" Joe Biden. Over at The Takeaway, Andrea Bernstein reports that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is a big high-speed rail supporter, as is the President, himself. Also, one of the key players in the economic stimulus negotiations is Sen. Arlen Specter, R-PA, who last year introduced a bill, along with Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, authorizing $8 billion for high-speed rail.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

New York Looks to Eliminate Amtrak Bottleneck

New York State transportation officials have brought a $60 million project to eliminate a bottleneck on Amtrak's Empire Corridor back to the front burner, the Albany Times Union reports. The move doesn't necessarily mean the project will get done, especially in light of the state's bleak fiscal outlook, but it makes it eligible for funding through the economic stimulus plan expected to be signed into law next week by President Obama.

The bottleneck is an 18-mile stretch of single track line between Albany-Rennselaer and Schenectady, where eastbound Amtrak trains often are forced to wait as much as 20 minutes to allow westbound passenger and freight traffic to pass. According to Robert Hansen, DOT regional planning and program manager, the project not only would improve reliability and make the service more attractive but also reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

Monday, February 9, 2009

2nd Vancouver Train Stopped at Border

Amtrak wants to start a second daily round trip on the Seattle - Vancouver, B.C. segment of its Cascades corridor in time for next year's Winter Olympics held in the Canadian. However, it is being held up by the Canadian Border Services Agency, which wants the passenger railroad to pay $1,500 [Canadian] a day for customs inspections, even though there is no fee for inspections on the existing service. The Seattle Times has more.

Friday, February 6, 2009

FEC Entertains Running Passenger Trains

First Pan Am Railways, now the Florida East Coast.

FEC, a regional line running along its namesake territory from Miami to Jacksonville, has signaled its willingness to host commuter trains on the Miami - West Palm Beach segment of its route, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Twenty years ago, Florida transportation officials had eyed the FEC as the preferred route for passenger service on Florida's Gold Coast because it passed through the most populated areas of cities like Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and Delray Beach. But FEC said no, and the service, Tri-Rail, was routed over CSX, which runs alongside I-95 most of the way.

Don't look for service to start anytime soon. The Sun Sentinel report says operations won't begin for at least six years, and the cost of upgrading the line, which has 200 grade crossings, could run as much as $6 billion.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Late Trains May Cost Boston's 'T' Riders

MBTA commuter trains are getting later and, if the trend continues, they may become less crowded, as well. Over the past six months, one in five commuter trains in the Boston area reached its destination five minutes or more behind schedule, the Boston Globe reports.
"The commuter rail system set a modern-day ridership record in November, with more than 76,000 round-trip passengers per day boarding the trains. But transit managers concede those gains are tenuous.

"If we don't deliver on-time performance, then our customers are not going to stick with us," said Daniel A. Grabauskas, general manager of the MBTA.

Grabauskas attributes recent delays to unusually inclement winter, construction on the tracks, and the private consortium that operates the commuter service under contract with the T, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. The private operator, in turn, says the MBTA's old equipment has hampered its efforts to improve service and it is considering efforts to buy its own used locomotives because the T has not bought new ones."

Sen. Schumer Proposed Expanded Tax Break for Rail Commuters

In a move that could take some of the sting out of transit fare hikes facing commuters around the country, U.S. Sen Charles Schumer, D-NY, has proposed increasing the maximum allowable monthly contribution to employer-issued commuter benefits, such as Transit-Chek, from the current $120 to $230. The proposal is contained in the economic stimulus package that was passed in the House of Representatives and is now before the Senate.

The higher amount would mainly benefit users of commuter lines such as the Long Island Rail Road, as opposed to subway and light rail patrons, because they pay higher fares. Newsday says the change could yield $1,000 in benefits for LIRR commuters.

And You Thought the New York Subways had Some Tough Customers

http://seattletransitblog.com/2009/02/04/coyote-on-portlands-max/

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Stars Align for Amtrak Missouri Service

Missouri rail passengers have much to celebrate these days. The two daily Amtrak round trips connecting the state's largest cities, St. Louis and Kansas City, have a new name, Missouri River Runner. And, the River Runner is running well, of late, posting an enviable 96 percent on-time rate for January.

For years, Amtrak's Missouri trains were plagued to extensive delays caused ridership to plummet. But, improvements in dispatching by host railroad Union Pacific as well as capital investments to increase capacity have all but eliminated these woes, and the riders have returned.

"MoDOT officials attributed the recent turnaround to better train dispatching by Union Pacific and track repairs that allowed the trains to move faster.

Since 1999, Union Pacific has spent about $400 million to upgrade tracks in the corridor to reduce “slow orders,” which require trains to reduce speed over tracks that need work.

MoDOT also pointed to Union Pacific’s $26 million project to fix a bottleneck by adding a second track across the Gasconade River. The second track opened in October.

Ridership between Kansas City and St. Louis increased 26 percent from July through December, compared with the same period in 2007."


ACTION ALERT: Oppose Bond Amendments Raiding Rail $$ From Stimulus Package

Two amendments to the economic stimulus plan being considered by the U.S. Senate offered by Sen. Kit Bond, R-MO, would divert $7.5 billion in funding for rail projects, including high-speed rail, to highway construction. Transportation for America has issued a call to action for rail advocates to write their senators and ask them to oppose the Bond amendments.

Service Cuts May Derail Transit-Oriented Development

Two months ago, a real estate developer struck a deal with the Town of Hempstead to construct 150 units of much-needed rental housing next to the Long Island Rail Road's West Hempstead station on the site of a notorious motel that the Town wants to condemn. Now it appears this transit-oriented project could be in jeopardy because the LIRR plans to eliminate weekend service on its West Hempstead branch.

At a hearing last month held by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on its proposed 23 percent fare hike, 40 West Hempstead residents protested the planned service cut. They fear the cutback will lead developer Trammell Crow to walk away from the project.
"In these difficult economic times, eliminating weekend services will create hardships for both workers and customers," Civic Association president Rosalie Norton testified at the hearing. "You should be exploring ways to increase ridership, improve service and make every effort to keep fares reasonable."
LIRR officials say its West Hempstead branch, which operates on weekends as a shuttle to Valley Stream, where passengers change for trains to Jamaica, New York and Brooklyn, generates only 360 riders on a typical weekend day, compared to 3,110 on weekdays. However, Trammel Crow officials say the railroad should factor future traffic generated by the development into their plans.

"The construction of 150 new residences directly adjacent to the station will most certainly increase demand and ridership to this branch," Trammell Crow spokeswoman Maria Rigopoulos said. She called weekend service "critical" to its transit-oriented development.

There are additional transit-oriented possibilities near the West Hempstead station. A discount store occupying an even larger site across the street from the motel recently closed.

Even if the LIRR discontinues weekend service on the branch, it won't be lacking for transit options. Long Island Bus, which operates bus service in Nassau County, connects four of the five stops on the branch with LIRR stations in Lynbrook, Rockville Centre or Hempstead. But that would make communities on the line the equivalent of a two-fare zone on weekends. Hence it only seems fair for the buses to honor LIRR tickets when the trains don't run.

The West Hempstead branch isn't only LIRR route threatened with cutbacks. The railroad would end its practice of running specials to Belmont Park for thoroughbred racing, expect for the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown. Horse racing specials on the LIRR date back almost to the railroad's founding in the early 19th Century. The move is opposed by the New York Racing Association, which operates Belmont.

That's What I Call Stimulus

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who represents Manhattan's East Side in Congress has released a report showing that two mega-billion dollar rail construction projects in her district have produced billions of dollars in economic benefits, including 38,000 new jobs. The projects are the Second Avenue Subway line and the Long Island Rail Road East Side Access project, which will run commuter trains to a new station beneath Grand Central Terminal.

That's good news, but it would be a true delight if some of the laid-off investment bankers who live in her district now work as sand hogs.

Pan Am's Fink Offers New Hampshire Passenger Rail Gambit

David Fink, CEO of Pan Am Railways, the successor to Guilford Transportation, nee Boston & Maine and Maine Central, has proposed that his company operate regional passenger rail service from Boston to Concord, NH, on upgraded tracks paid for with government funds. Fink made his proposal in an op-ed piece published February 1 in the Manchester Union-Leader.

"Our commuter rail plan for New Hampshire would include service over Pan Am's lines not only to Manchester, but also to Concord and along the Route 101A corridor at approximately the same initial investment as has been proposed by the group studying commuter rail service solely to Nashua.

This plan is designed to minimize cost through rehabilitation of Pan Am's existing right of way and the use of previously owned equipment to permit the service to be operated for a length of time that would allow for an objective determination of the viability of each route, with periodic adjustments to meet demand on each route.

This planned service would also eliminate the need for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to extend its service into New Hampshire because it would be operated by Pan Am employees over Pan Am's tracks right into Lowell with the potential to continue directly to Boston by means of a negotiated operating agreement with the MBTA."

MBTA has put the cost of the Nashua extension at around $300 million. Fink says he could run trains with that money all the way to Concord, although there would be fewer of them and they would use second-hand equipement. He wants to tap the econonic stimulus plan working its way through Congress to help pay for the project.

It is interesting to seem Fink positioning himself and his company as a champion of passenger rail in light of how they stonewalled the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority's Downeaster, which uses Pan Am track on its run from Boston to Portland, ME. But the success of that project may have given Fink religion. It's turned out to be a win-win.

"In devising this plan, Pan Am has relied heavily on its past experience with other passenger rail operations, including the Downeaster service from Portland to Boston, and existing MBTA commuter rail operations over lines jointly operated by Pan Am and the MBTA in Massachusetts. In a project similar to that being discussed with New Hampshire officials, Pan Am worked closely with Maine and Amtrak to rehabilitate Pan Am's lines from Portland to Plaistow for passenger service at a fraction of the cost of comparable projects elsewhere, and continues its relationship with those entities to operate passenger service with the best on-time performance of any Amtrak route in the country."
The Union-Leader op-ed might be little more than a P.R. ploy. On the other hand, it could be a new model for passenger rail development that brings the skills of successful freight railroads to the table.

Shared Sacrifice Needed to Keep Transit Solvent

Throughout the country, transit agencies are struggling with deficits brought on by rising fuel costs and lower government subsidies on account of reduced tax revenues. However, in Boston the culprit may be a generous arbitration award to some employees of the MBTA.

According to the Boston Herald, the MBTA payroll rose by 14 percent last year on account of back pay awarded to members of the carmen's union and overtime. 441 employees made over $100,000 last year largely due to overtime. The agency reported a $160 million deficit, slightly more than it planned to spend on a now-canceled purchase of 28 locomotives for its commuter rail lines.

The failure to control payroll expenses isn't sitting well with some area politicians. “A 14 percent hike is ridiculous,” said state Sen. Mark C. Montigny (D-New Bedford). “The first thing the T needs to do before it thinks about increasing fares or taxes is to clean up its own mess.”

Today President Obama announced that executives of companies receiving federal bailout money would have their compensation capped at $500,000 a year. Perhaps a similar cap is needed for transit workers, as well.

In these times, all need to make sacrifices. The burden of maintaining transit services shouldn't be borne solely by taxpayers who might not use the service nor commuters who depend on it. Labor is a stakeholder, too. It deserves to be compensated fairly, but should be willing to give back when times get tough.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Amtrak, GDOT Belt Atlanta Beltline

The Beltline is a development project to transform 22 miles of underutilized rail lines circling Atlanta into a network of recreation trailsView Blog and light rail routes. Recently, Norfolk Southern filed application to abandon a 4.3 mile branch line on the northeast side of the city that would become part of the project. However, Amtrak and the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) have intervened, claiming the segment is needed for future commuter and high-speed intercity rail service.

GDOT claims the segment is essential to enabling future trains from northeastern Georgia and points north to reach a new depot proposed for downtown Atlanta. Amtrak's Crescent, the only intercity train serving Atlanta, stops at Brookwood station on the city's north side. GDOT says using part of the Beltline has been part of their plans since 1992.

However, Beltline and city officials say they were blindsided by the move. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin claims: “Simply put, because of GDOT’s boorish behavior and AMTRAK’s willingness to play along, the future of the city of Atlanta is at stake.”

An article on the Creative Loafing website suggests that GDOT, which has sidetracked rail projects has woken up and smelled the money - economic stimulus money from the Obama administration that could be put toward rail projects.
“We’ve heard clearly from the Obama administration that high-speed rail is going to be something that is on their plates,” GDOT Commissioner Gena Evans says. “And we’re trying to think of ways to show that GDOT is committed to other modes of transportation. I’m ready to do something with commuter rail.”
Evans says her agency could live with commuter rail and light rail sharing the same right of way. But Beltline officials say that "wouldn’t mesh with the vision of parks, bike trails, mixed-use residential developments and pedestrian thoroughfares."

The impasse could work against Georgia — a state notorious for infighting among its transportation agencies — when it comes to the federal government’s generosity with infrastructure funding. Terri Montague, who as CEO of Atlanta Beltline Inc. oversees the project’s planning and implementation, says new U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood already has been made aware of the dispute.

“Anybody looking for money for Georgia from the federal level is probably going to have to wait until there’s some sense of resolution here,” Montague says. “Our credibility as a state has been called into question. The discord is not looked upon favorably by the federal agencies.”

The situation reminds me of the Middle East where Israelis and Palestinians have been fighting over the same piece of precious land for more than 60 years. In this case, both projects have merit. Hopefully this will be resolved before someone starts lobbing missiles. Atlanta was burned to the ground once, and that was one time too many.

The good news is that earlier this week officials from Atlanta, GDOT, MARTA, Amtrak and other agencies agreed to resolve the dispute within 30 days.

More good news from Georgia: In an unrelated development, the state senate today approved a measure that would allow the 10 counties in the Atlanta metrolitan area to hold a voter referendum on using a new sales tax to fund highway, transit and rail projects. Even though they may gain the authorities, the counties may be hesitant to hold a vote in the current economic climate.

Take the "A" Train

The New York subway's A train holds a special place in my heart. It was aboard the A train that I met my wife. Also, I ride the A train every weekday to my day job at The City College of New York. The stop I get off at, 145th Street, is referenced in the Duke Ellington hit tune "Take the A Train."

So I was amused to learn that Texas' fledgling Denton County Transportation Authority has named a planned commuter train from Denton to Dallas the "A Train." According to the Dallas News, the 21-mile route will use an old freight line running parallel to I-35. The first trains will use Budd Rail Diesel Cars that are over 50 years old handed down from Trinity Railway Express, the regional line linking Dallas and Fort Worth. Construction of the $314 million project could begin next month with operations commencing late in 2010.

However, the diesel-powered trains won't run all the way into downtown Dallas. Passengers will have to transfer at Carrollton to an extension of DART's Green Line to complete the 70-minute trip to downtown.

Are Rail Commuters Going to Hit the Road?

First, please excuse my extended absence. I've been dealing with computer problems, i.e. fried hard drive.

These should be heady times for intercity rail and public transit, given the record ridership reported in 2008 and the behavioral shift that resulted from sky-high gasoline prices. But gas prices have fallen back and state and local government are hard pressed to subsidize transit operations in the face of reduced tax revenue and other hardships. The ultimate impact could be a reversal of the trend from the highway to the railway.

From Florida comes a report that Tri-Rail, which carried a record four million passengers last year on its line between West Palm Beach and Miami, may be forced to cut service from 50 to 20 trips a day. This after an investment of $450 million to double track the route and build new stations.

Said one commuter interviewed by the Los Angeles Times: "If it happens, I'm going to be forced to drive. I'm not very happy about that -- but it's an adjustment I'll have to make."
"What's happening in Miami is happening all over the country," said Joe Calabrese, CEO of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. "For the layperson, it's very difficult to understand that if ridership is at all-time high levels, how can we be cutting service?"
Consequently, the American Public Transportation Association has asked Congressional leaders to add $2.5 billion in transit operating subsidies to the economic stimulus package now being debated. This would be a marked departure from past practice since the federal government has only provided support for capital investments, leaving state and local governments to pickup the losses on rail transit operations.

Unfortunately, it is not likely to make it into law, given Republican opposition to Uncle Sam spending our way out of a recession (They sing a different tune when it comes to tax cuts). If Sen. Kit Bond's remarks are any indication of the GOP position, then why do we even have Republican's in America? Don't they still believe the world is flat?