Getting Transportation Priorities Straight

By Lisa Schreibman

As New York City grew in the 1990’s so did the demand for transportation. Population grew by 9%, jobs by 10% and personal wealth by 5%. The average number of weekday bus riders grew by 47% between 1996 and 2001 and truck trips over the Hudson River increased 18% in the past decade.

But service and infrastructure failed to keep pace with the growth and elected officials failed to plan for mobility in the 21st century. When every project now under construction is completed, only Queens will be able to boast new rail services — the V line, which will add 20% capacity to the Queens Boulevard line to Manhattan, and AIR Train, which will serve 7,000 people headed to Kennedy Airport daily. There will be no additional lane-miles placed on our highways, no new bridges built and only a few minor improvements in the freight rail system.

More Congestion, More Pollution

As a result, New Yorkers face chronically clogged transportation arteries. Overcrowded transit, congestion on the roads and the concomitant pollution are so ubiquitous that the heavy financial and health toll they take is hardly mentioned by officials. According to an estimate by Community Consulting Services, road congestion costs $8 billion/year in lost time.

Half of the air pollution in the city comes from mobile sources — cars, trucks and buses. In February, the Journal of the American Medical Association published findings that linked traffic to asthma. They found that regulations to prevent congestion in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympic Games decreased traffic by 22% and acute care asthma events — emergency room visits and hospitalization — by 41%. In New York City there are 46.26 asthma-related hospitalizations for every 10,000 people. In the worst pockets, the rates of hospitalization for children is as high as 200 per 10,000, according to a report by the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.

The incoming politicians must do better. Although many transportation decisions are in the hands of state-led regional authorities like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and Port Authority of NY & NJ, city elected officials should not use that as an excuse. They must make the City’s transportation priorities known, get the funds from new city sources, or get them funded in Albany.

Expand Rail Freight

New York City receives only 4% of its freight by rail, while the figure nationwide is 39%. As a consequence, we rely more heavily on trucks than most metropolitan areas. And since, according to the EPA, trains use one-third the amount of fuel as trucks to move the same amount of cargo, we are using natural resources and polluting our city needlessly.

Little freight comes into the region by rail because there are no rail connections across the Hudson River south of Albany. The Hudson River separates most of New York City from New Jersey and the nation’s rail system. To partially remedy this problem, the Port Authority needs to connect the Staten Island lift bridge to the Chemical Coast line in New Jersey. That connection to Staten Island would decrease truck traffic over the Goethals Bridge — a bridge to New Jersey that the Port Authority erroneously wants to twin in order to handle more truck traffic.

Secondly, the numbers of rail cars that float on barges across the harbor need to increase. The biggest obstacle here is lack of terminals on the west side of the harbor. If the rail line on Staten Island were activated, the NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC) could develop terminals for the float bridges on Staten Island that would connect to existing and planned terminals in Brooklyn. If not, the Port Authority could build float bridge terminals at either Bayonne or Port Newark in New Jersey.

Once freight has made it to New York City, on the east side of the Hudson, it must be unloaded at rail yards. At the moment, there are not enough yards to support a substantial increase in train traffic. Instead of the old fashioned mega-yards that make neighborhoods into massive train-to-truck depots, new yards should be small enough that a community can absorb the truck impacts. Potential sites that could be developed or redeveloped include Phelps Dodge in Queens, the Harlem River Railyard in the Bronx, Port Ivory in Staten Island and Pilgrim State on Long Island.

Trucks will take the freight from the yards to its final destination. At the moment, these trucks are fueled by diesel. One of the biggest obstacles to switching fleets to compressed natural gas, a cleaner fuel, is that the fueling stations do not exist. But if the range of the trucks is short, under 100 miles, then the city could build or provide incentives to build clean fueling stations and thereby encourage truck companies to convert their fleets to cleaner fuels.

Finally, a freight rail tunnel must be built across the harbor. The NYC EDC will kick off the environmental impact study for this proposal this summer. However, the EIS is not fully funded. Elected officials will need to come up with the $15 million in the next year to move this project forward.

Transit to Unserved and Underserved Areas

Several areas of New York City lack subways, including Staten Island and the southeastern sections of Queens and Brooklyn. Population density in these neighborhoods is half that of the citywide average, making it hard for transportation officials to justify spending money for new rail systems.

Other cities in the same predicament, including Pittsburgh, Ottawa and Los Angeles have developed busways as an alternative. A busway is a dedicated lane for buses that differs from the tried-and-failed bus lanes of New York City by physically restricting cars and trucks from the lane. Depending on their design, buses can travel as fast as subways, and busways are much cheaper to build. A new busway in Pittsburgh cost $65 million/mile to build, whereas the Hudson Bergen Light Rail is costing $91 million/mile. The first year of construction of the proposed Second Avenue subway line will cost $250 million/mile.

Throughout the city transit demands have outstripped supply. Since the start of free transfers from buses to subways in 1997, there has been a 47% increase in bus ridership. Chronically clogged lines need increased service. Similarly, on the east side of Manhattan, subway service has maxed out the tunnel capacity. The long-awaited Second Avenue subway now has a timeline that puts the first shovel in the ground in 2004. However, there is no funding to build the line after that year.

Roadway Redesign

Highways have a useful life of 40 to 50 years, after which they must be rebuilt. At present, the State Department of Transportation is reconstructing or planning to reconstruct nearly every expressway and parkway in the city. This provides a golden opportunity to completely redesign highways.

The Gowanus tunnel proposal is probably the best example. The Gowanus Expressway is a six-lane elevated structure in Brooklyn. In response to the State DOT’s proposal to rebuild the highway as-is, community groups including the Gowanus Expressway Community Coalition counter-proposed putting it in a tunnel. After suing the DOT successfully, the Brooklyn groups have gotten the tunnel option into the EIS process. Over the next few years, this process must be nurtured and money leveraged to pay for the tunnel.

The State DOT is also looking to rebuild the Cross Bronx Expressway, a highway notorious for its destruction of Bronx neighborhoods. Community groups around the highway have requested that part of the reconstruction include decking the sunken sections of the highway and placing a greenway/transitway on top.

Finally, in response to a proposal to rebuild the northern and southern interchanges of the Sheridan Expressway, community groups have asked the State DOT to completely remove the little-used section of highway. A report released last year indicated that Bronx-wide pollution would not increase from the removal of the highway.

Poor Vision

Of course, not every transportation plan – rail, road or bus – is good for the environment. Infrastructure that destroys more of the Northeast’s farmlands, wetlands and forests either directly or by encouraging sprawl is not merely ecologically damaging but also unsustainable. When a highway or rail system is expanded, the expansion temporarily lowers the cost — in this case commuting time — of living in far-flung places. As a result, more people are attracted to these places. Population increases in the suburbs create more demand for transportation. Soon the highways fill up and the cycle begins again. Witness Los Angeles.

Although the concept of induced demand is now common in planning and engineering literature, not many transportation departments are using it. In New York City, the Port Authority’s plan to build a second Goethals Bridge and the State Department of Transportation’s goal to widen the Staten Island Expressway are the worst examples in the city of encouraging sprawl. Our new officials must stop these projects.

Paying for It

There will be no major transportation improvements without social costs. For instance, if the MTA extends the subway to LaGuardia Airport, one or more Queens communities will suffer noise and dust from construction and, depending on the design chosen, the long term cost of having an elevated railway near their home. Although these costs are outweighed citywide by the decrease in congestion and pollution on highways, it is doubtful that the people near the link will see the tradeoff as beneficial.

Vision must also be backed by dollars. Most of the city’s transportation money will pay for pavement — not transit or rail. Of the $6.2 billion in capital spending over the next five years, 95% will go to the city’s streets and bridges through the City DOT and only 5% to the MTA’s budget, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. Repairs and maintenance of the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensborough Bridges will suck up 58% of the budget, or $680 million/year. Ironically, the richest untapped sources of money are these four free East River bridges that link Brooklyn Queens and Long Island to the city. If cars and trucks were charged the same amount on the free crossings as they are on the tolled ones, New York City would generate $650 million dollars/year. Thus, money needed for other capital projects (transportation, schools, etc.) would be freed up.

Beyond paying for the capital costs of maintaining the bridges, tolling will also have congestion and pollution benefits. At the moment, three of the seven East River car crossings are tolled and four are free. Those trying to avoid tolls often drive miles out of their way, creating more pollution. So putting tolls on the bridges is one way to reduce the amount of driving and pollution in the City.

New York City’s growth must be matched with transportation projects that reduce pollution and the disproportionate impact on neighborhoods. That means freight needs to move by rail, people by transit, and roadways need to become benefits not hardships for communities. Elected officials must create support for the good projects and strike down the bad ones. They must also make hard decisions about controversial projects, giving real benefits to communities that host transportation projects that have massive public benefits.

Lisa Schreibman, AICP, is the New York City Coordinator for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. She is also an Adjunct Professor at the Urban Affairs and Planning Department of Hunter College.

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