Thursday, December 29, 2011

Costly To Build; Costly To Maintain; And No Way To Pay For All of It

I agree with much of what Benjamin Kabab writes on transit issues, and I don't disagree with his posting about how Amtrak lacks the operational funding to operate the Moynihan transit center for Penn Station in New York City. Money is in place to build out the Farley Post Office as a transit center to replace the decrepit Penn Station beneath Madison Square Garden, but it doesn't actually expand transit capabilities.

Moreover, Amtrak lacks the funds to operate out of the Farley Post Office should it be force to pay rent on the space. That's why Amtrak is asking for rent abatements or other reductions to its costs so that it can take advantage of the space.

Kabab closes with the following:
In a time when transportation money is scarce, the available dollars are being burned on things that look good instead of things that deliver better transportation service. If that seems backwards to you, well, that’s because it is, and until things change, we’ll be left with fancier train stations and no better service than what we already have.
The whole mess points out something that I've riffed upon for years. Politicians love to have ribbon cutting and will push for construction of projects but don't follow through with funding maintenance and operations for mass transit, even though those are key to the long term maintenance of infrastructure and mass transit. This is far from a new problem either. It's a problem that goes back decades and we're still dealing with bad decisions.

This problem is severe in New Jersey, where NJ Transit built the Secaucus Transfer and blew apart its budget, and where it had hoped to build the ARC Tunnel, but was thankfully cancelled by Gov. Christie over cost overruns that would have inured to New Jersey taxpayers. NJ Transit lacks the ability to maintain its current level of service, and as part of the latest round of fare hikes, it cut service. If it couldn't maintain the current level of service even with fare hikes, how would it ever have been able to provide service with the ARC tunnel project? It couldn't and it never could explain how it would maintain the space underneath Herald Square that it was proposing, let alone how it would expand rail service via ARC for Northern New Jersey rail riders when it was busy cutting service for those same riders.

At the same time, NJ Transit and Amtrak have let the Portal Bridge project get wrapped into other projects, even though everyone knows it must be replaced. So it continues to decay and act as a bottleneck on the Northeast Corridor because it can't get rebuilt as a separate project despite funding that should be in place for this critical infrastructure.

Elsewhere, the Port Authority is in the midst of building out its PATH transit hub at the World Trade Center and the MTA is building out the Fulton Street Transit Center and both are over budget and overdue on their construction deadlines as originally proposed by several years.

Building projects that would leave or restore monumental hubs for transit are all well and good, but detract from the nuts and bolts of maintaining and expanding critical infrastructure. Spending $3.4 billion for a PATH hub that was originally expected to run $2.2 billion (and which will expand capacity not one whit over the temporary PATH terminals at the WTC that have been rebuilt twice since the 9/11 attacks at an additional cost of over $500 million) makes little sense except that the Port Authority wanted a designer hub and monumental architecture to accompany the station rebuilding. That's money that could have just as well gone to building a replacement for the Goethals Bridge, better access to LaGuardia Airport, or averted fare/toll hikes on the bridges and tolls. As it is, nearly all of the fare/toll hike can be explained by the cost overrun for the PATH terminal - not any of the ongoing capital construction work being carried out by the Port Authority.

The Fulton Street Transit Hub cleans up a mess of multiple transit lines and connects them in a more rational manner. It also connects the N/R and PATH with the numbered lines for the first time in Lower Manhattan, and that's a vast improvement over the warren of tunnels and connectors that was there previously. However, massive cost overruns and delays have pushed back the completion date time and time again. The station headhouse (the part we see above ground) will look spectacular when it's done, but it again doesn't affect the usability of the station. The costs that could have been saved by scaling back the above-ground portion - then selling off air rights, all while cleaning up the mess underground, could have then been used to rehabilitate stations elsewhere in the system, or used to build out another station on the 7 line extension in Hell's Kitchen that was dropped due to cost concerns.

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