Beyond local

beyond-local
Click here to view the full-size map, with explanatory key. (Illustration by Mattias Mackler)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

On February 2, 80,000 people are going to stream through New York City toward MetLife stadium for the Super Bowl. There won’t be enough parking spaces for all of them to drive there, so NJ Transit, the Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corporation and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will be coordinating efforts to get this mass of people to and from the stadium.

This sort of cooperation between the New York region’s different transit entities doesn’t happen often. Really, it only happens for football: On home-game Sundays, Metro-North, the entity that runs the trains east of the Hudson, and NJ Transit, which runs the trains west, combine operations to take Giants or Jets fans all the way from Connecticut or Westchester County into New Jersey.

This arrangement won’t be in place for the Super Bowl itself, presumably because there are too many other logistical complications on that day. But to mark the occasion, the MTA announced that it has created, “for the first time, a special Regional Transit Diagram.”

The most notable feature of this special diagram is that the services provided by the regional railways and the New York City subway system all coexist on a single plan. NJT lines intrude into Manhattan; PATH lines are rendered as cross-Hudson extensions of the subway system. It’s like an inset into a larger map that no agency has ever designed or published—a map of the whole of New York City’s regional transit system, stretching out into Connecticut, up into the Hudson Valley, and down into Trenton.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

In reality, the transit system that serves the New York region isn’t even close to unified. The MTA’s unified diagram, in fact, only hints at something closer to the well-integrated systems that exist in some other major international cities.

In Paris, for example, public transit throughout the city and its region function as one system. It’s possible to travel from one suburb to another or to take a train from the airport to a home in the city or the suburbs with a single ticket.

In London, trains that travel far in opposite directions, to places with names like Welwyn Garden City, Sevenoaks, and Uckfield, all converge at London Bridge.

In New York, by contrast, it takes at least three different trains to get from Brooklyn to Newark Airport. If you happen to want to do something as ambitious as travel by rail from New Jersey to Connecticut, you’ll need NJ Transit or PATH, the subway, and Metro-North to get there.

From Manhattan, New York might look like a densely populated city, but in comparison to other urban agglomerations, it’s a sprawling mess so big that, when not concerned with political boundaries, the federal government calls this place the New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA Metropolitan Statistical Area. (That’s right—Jersey City is, functionally, part of New York. Bridgeport used to be in there too, but now it’s lumped in with Stamford.)

There are real advantages to having more people travel by train around this built-up stretch of land. If trains were originally a 19th century technology and cars the mode of the 20th, in the 21st, trains are coming back into their own. They’re safer and more predictable than cars. They reduce congestion, produce little climate-changing carbon and help keep sprawl in check. They spare commuters hours of sitting idly in traffic.

But New York City and its suburbs aren’t fully benefiting from these perks. Anyone working on transit in this region must function in what Robert Paaswell, the director emeritus of the University Transportation Research Center, once described as “an environment where pertinent data is lacking, no comprehensive regional transportation plan and objectives are defined, and the decision-making environment is highly fragmented.”

“That was a polite way of putting it,” he noted more recently. “Agencies have their own missions. They get funding through specific sources. The problem is turf. It’s a lack of coordinated vision. It’s competition between governors.”

The dangers of competition between governors, of course, can come into play even when they’re ostensibly working together. This much is gruesomely clear from the ongoing “Bridgegate” scandal currently engulfing the administration of Chris Christie and his appointees to the famously fractious bistate Port Authority—a worst-case scenario involving appointees making parochial political decisions with no loyalty to the entity and no sense of responsibility for the overall regional mission. Regional entities, if poorly conceived, hurt more than they help.

But imagine if it were done right, and the systems were unified in a way that created a shared incentive among the states, and which discouraged parochialism and political maneuvering.

The benefits wouldn’t just accrue to people traveling to special events, or to the odd souls who have regular occasion to travel straight from New Brunswick to Rye. Cohesive regional transit would be of significant benefit to the New York area, and to most everyone who depends on public transportation to get around it. The effect would be particularly noticeable to anyone who ever travels, in any direction, through Penn Station.

In 1900, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the largest in the country, had bought the Long Island Railroad and was looking for ways to get into Manhattan. In the east, LIRR stopped at the edge of Brooklyn, and in the west, the company’s intercity lines terminated on the New Jersey side of the Hudson, where passengers headed to New York had to disembark and get on a ferry to reach the city. The only trains that could steam their way onto Manhattan came from points northeast, down Park Avenue and into Grand Central Station—not yet a starry-ceilinged dreamboat of a municipal monument, just a particularly busy station serving three different rail lines, including Pennsy’s rival, New York Central.

The Pennsylvania Railroad wanted a New York station of its own, and tracks into Manhattan. A bridge would interfere with shipping, officials said. If the railroad wanted to cross the Hudson, it would have to go underneath.

No one had managed that yet, although one company had tried, and failed, in the late 1800s. But in 1901, William Gibbs McAdoo, who would end up Woodrow Wilson’s treasury secretary and director general of railroads during World War I, decided there should be a tunnel under the Hudson. By 1904, there was. The first trains of McAdoo’s Hudson & Manhattan Railroad ran through in 1908, from Hoboken up along Sixth Avenue. By 1910, the trains ran all the way up to 33rd Street.

Pennsylvania Station opened that same year, fed by two tunnels under the Hudson and four under the East River. By 1913, when Grand Central Terminal first let passengers in under its new, soaring ceilings, the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad had acquired the right to tunnel between these two major stations.

And that is pretty much the structure that railroads have at their disposal today. Trains entering and leaving Manhattan follow routes put in place a century ago. The same handful of tunnels, the same two train hubs that served people for whom traveling under a river was the height of modern invention, now serve people who find it perfectly natural to respond to email while underground. The main change has been in ownership.

Almost as soon as these passenger rails were built, cars became cool and urban planners came to believe that highways, rather than rails, were the way to move large numbers of people quickly. (For all his grand visions, Robert Moses’ imagination did not extend to traffic. He thought the West Side highway would be a blissful joyride through a park on a Sunday afternoon.) As railroad companies began atrophying, politicians worried that they’d stop service altogether and started talking about buying up their assets.

At the beginning, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut made some effort to work together. As a newly elected governor, Nelson Rockefeller was skeptical that a joint transit authority could raise enough money to start buying up rail assets. But by 1961, he and the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut had set up an official Tri-State Transportation Committee to study their options. In 1963, legislators in Connecticut and New York voted to give the committee the authority to take over failing rail operations, as well as highways and airports. This plan, however, was contingent on all three states approving it before the end of the year.

In December, when a bill was finally introduced to New Jersey’s legislature, neither the state Senate or Assembly even brought it to the floor.

“The folks in New Jersey didn’t want to do that for the same stupid reason Chris Christie withdrew from the ARC project—the idea that it hurts New Jersey to have people go into New York,” said Peter Derrick, a former transit official and a historian of the region’s transit, referring to the major rail-tunnel project Christie pulled the plug on immediately shortly after he took office. “It was just parochialism.”

It was also a reluctance to ask any constituents to pay for infrastructure they wouldn’t use.

“Politicians were happy to work together as long as there would be an advantage to their voters,” said Jameson Doig, a historian who started studying the region’s transit in the 1950s. “It was possible to get support for a rail line as long as it didn’t involve significant additional taxation.”

By the time the New Jersey legislature killed the tri-state authority, the state’s commuters had PATH service to take them across the river and the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad had been sold to the Port Authority, in exchange for the rights to built the World Trade Center. The New York Times reported that “there was also a strong feeling in the legislative halls” that a tri-state authority would use New Jersey taxpayers’ money—the state was to provide 45 percent of the funding—to take over the failing New Haven Railroad in Connecticut (which was only footing 10 percent of the proposed authority’s expenses).

Instead, New Jersey started subsidizing its many private commuter rail lines, which would later be consolidated into NJ Transit. New York bought the Long Island Railroad, and started negotiating with Connecticut about operating trains from New York City to New Haven. In 1968, Rockefeller created the Metropolitan Transit Authority to oversee LIRR, New York City’s subways and buses, and the Triborough Bridge Authority (wheedled from Robert Moses’ control and the one source of income in the group). Metro-North became a subsidiary in 1983.

From a political point of view, this wasn’t necessarily a problem.

“The states were only too eager to create separate railroads,” said George Haikalis, a longtime transit advocate who once worked for the tri-state commission. “There were aggressive bureaucrats who saw opportunities to become king of the heap with their own particular railroad.”

But from a planning point of view, it hasn’t always made sense. Local politicians protect service for their constituents, find funding to improve their lines, and ignore the rest. For the past five decades, the divergent prerogatives of officials representing different localities have guided the system’s growth.

“There’s no common vision,” said Paaswell, who has analyzed the relative benefits of projects like the Second Avenue Subway and the (canceled) ARC tunnel from New Jersey to New York. “People put projects on the table, but they’re not tested against each other. Somebody has a favorite project, and they build it.”

Ad hoc rail planning can get expensive, and some regionally necessary projects never get built because they don’t have a natural, geographically concentrated political constituency to push for them. There has to be near-universal agreement that a capital project is needed for it to have any chance of happening.

At the moment, according to transit advocates, there is one program above all others that fits the bill, benefiting commuters from Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut and city residents: running regional trains through Penn Station.

Right now, regional trains arriving in Manhattan stop, empty out, take on a whole new load of passengers and head back in the direction from which they came. This is actually silly.

There’s little in the way of infrastructural impediment to running the trains straight through, meaning New Jersey trains would continue on to Long Island, on LIRR tracks, or up to Connecticut, on Metro-North routes, and vice versa. Amtrak already does it. So does NJ Transit, on those special Sundays when Metro-North passengers need to make it to the Meadowlands.

These through-running trains wouldn’t even need in every instance to carry riders from New Jersey across to Connecticut and back. Simply running the trains in a straight line through Manhattan and turning them around at less crowded stations further down the line would take less time, and mean that more trains—25 percent more—could run through Penn Station.

“It’s not because there are so many people desperate to get from New Brunswick to New Haven,” said Tom Wright, the executive director of the Regional Planning Association. “It’s that Penn Station is a disaster. Through-running trains would create more capacity.”

In other words, if you’ve ever been standing in a rush of people in Amtrak’s concourse or crowded against a wall in NJ Transit’s salmon pink section of the station, if your train to Newark Airport has ever been delayed, if you’ve ever gotten on the subway at 34th Street among a crowd of seething, jostling straphangers, this change could improve your life on a regular basis.

But absent political pressure, it’s exactly the sort of project that none of the existing agencies are going to fight for.

It would be a pain for them to coordinate. They’d have to rethink how they used their train cars, establish how to split fares, reorganize their workforce, and plan for the future in a way they’ve never had to before.

The idea of a unified regional rail system has been around for years, along with plans to create a unified fare system and to make it easier to reach the New York airports. But however nice they might sound, there’s no agency, commissioner, or politician who really has both the incentive to push for them and the power to make them happen.

“There are very few new ideas that come about in metropolitan planning. … It’s the actual doing that’s the achievement,” said Wright. “It’s almost more pathetic that it’s out there and everyone knows it should be done, and no one been able to force the agreements that are needed to make it happen.

This article appeared in the February edition of Capital magazine. 

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT