Tuesday, October 19, 2010

When Transportation Priorities Are Backwards

Groundbreaking ceremonies were held to celebrate the first phase of building the Moynihan rail station to replace the decrepit New York Penn Station that is built underneath Madison Square Garden.

It's named for the former US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who championed the project to build a grand entrance for passengers to the Amtrak, LIRR and NJ Transit commuters who use the station and to hearken back to the grandeur of the station that was demolished to make way for the Garden.

The first phase is expect to cost $267 million of the approximately $1.5 billion project, which will shift Amtrak's platforms West underneath the Farley Post Office Building and constructing new entrances to the station. The additional phases will include building hotels and restaurants in sections of the Post Office Building that are no longer used by the post office.

A grand entrance to Amtrak is a worthy endeavor, but does it actually improve service and reliability? This station does not expand capacity. It does not improve reliability. It is getting done because the financing for this long overdue project finally came through.

However, it came through at a time when $1 billion could finance the construction of the new Portal Bridge. That bottleneck is the site of repeated problems causing delays on the entire Northeast Corridor and affects not only Amtrak but New Jersey Transit commuters. Just this morning, a disabled train in the vicinity of the Portal Bridge caused 30-45 minute delays because the train blocked one of the two tracks through the area. Indeed, long after rush hour is over, residual delays are causing ongoing delays of 10-15 minutes on the affected lines.

A replacement Portal Bridge, which would cost over $1 billion but would increase the number of tracks to five on two separate fixed spans over the Hackensack River (one bridge would have three tracks for northbound traffic, the other two tracks would be for southbound traffic). The increased reliability and reduced delays that would result from that project are more than worth it since improved reliability and on-time performance would encourage people to commute by rail rather than dealing with auto traffic into the City.

NJ Transit and Amtrak have both consistently gotten their priorities backwards. Penn Station isn't a priority, nor is the ARC Tunnel's destination terminus at Herald Square - building out a rail system that is robust and can handle existing levels of traffic is necessary and prudent since on-time performance is a big selling point for Northeast Corridor traffic in hopes of luring passengers off air shuttle flights. The Portal Bridge would also enable trains to travel through the area at much higher speeds, reducing travel times considerably.

Moreover, the Portal Bridge project is as close to being a shovel-ready project as any around the country and yet finding funds for this vital piece of transportation infrastructure was hard to come by. How is it that both New Jersey senators Menendez and Lautenberg are busy complaining about Gov. Christie's prudent actions to protect New Jersey from cost overruns on the ARC Tunnel but silent about getting funding for the equally necessary and vital Portal Bridge project, which would have as great an impact on commuters?

No comments: