Freight Railroad Intransigence and Empire Corridor Options

The Albany Times-Union reported on Sunday that CSX, freight railroad owner of the old New York Central Water Level Route, had officially filed with the state Department of Transportation its opposition to the state’s proposed improvements to the Empire Corridor West passenger service.  This isn’t particularly surprising; CSX has long opposed the project and has for quite a while developed a corporate reputation for not being a fan of passenger rail sharing any of its infrastructure. That being said, the claims that CSX seems to have made in its letter of comment on the Empire Corridor EIS say a good bit about its corporate strategy, and potentially about the future of passenger rail in New York.

The Times-Union acquired a copy of CSX’ letter, but did not provide direct quotes in its article. Instead, it summarized the railroad’s objections thusly (caveat: not a full list):

CSX said additional passenger trains would only add to the congestion, causing delays and hindering access to freight customers on sidings along the main rail line.

Without adequate separation between the freight tracks and a newly constructed passenger track, high-speed trains also would pose increased danger to CSX track crews, it said.

CSX criticizes the methods used to compile the draft statement, pointing out that projected costs don’t include payments for use of CSX property, which it says is worth “billions.”

CSX also said the statement doesn’t consider other, more cost-effective, ways to improve passenger mobility from upstate cities such as Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo that are along the route, including improved bus service and air service.

And it says the study should have considered the Albany-New York City and Albany-Niagara Falls segments as two different corridors, allowing policy makers to proceed with improvements on the first and choosing the “no-build” alternative for the second.

These objections are, not to use too fine a word, bullshit. And I think CSX knows that, and the state DOT knows that, and anyone following the situation carefully should know it too. I’ll provide a brief fisking here:

–The recently (ok, a few months ago) released DEIS explicitly only covers the portion of the line west of Albany; that’s the whole point of calling it the Empire Corridor West study.

–The entire project is predicated on the separation of passenger trains from freight on an entirely new track, thus getting them out of each others’ hair.

–Railfan forums (yes, they can be a good source of information; career railroaders know a lot), in particular this one, have long studied CSX’ claim that only three tracks will fit where four used to be and two exist today. CSX’ logic is that the distance between track centers now needs to be 30 feet, where 15 sufficed historically. The consensus is that CSX’ insistence on 30′ track centers is completely unnecessary.

–The DEIS makes very clear (page 1-6, for those who are interested) that the cost numbers it calculates do not include buying the right-of-way from CSX and otherwise compensating the railroad for inconvenience; that will occur at Tier 2 of the EIS process.

–The EIS itself makes very clear, and to its credit the Times Union includes in its article, that NYC-Upstate, much less intra-Upstate bus and especially air services are in no way competitive with better train service. Buses don’t get people out of cars, and air service is unprofitable in those corridors and prohibitively expensive for most travelers in any case.

–CSX’ claim about the fragility of capacity of the Mohawk Subdivision, its designation for the line across Upstate New York, is very, very suspect. A 2012 CSX network planning document makes clear that the Mohawk Sub is currently under-capacity (in contrast to, among other routes, the freight-only, single-track West Shore Line):

capacity capture

Meanwhile, the 2009 NYS rail plan also shows the Mohawk Sub below capacity, and envisions it only beginning to approach capacity in 2035, despite predicted increases in traffic. CSX claims that increased traffic from the Panama Canal widening is likely to move across the Mohawk; most observers think that container traffic to the Midwest will continue to move via West Coast ports, with increased traffic to East Coast ports being confined to the coastal area. Certainly, Amtrak trains are disruptive to CSX’ 50-60 freights a day on the Mohawk; but they are clearly not having any significant impact on the line’s reliability. Indeed, despite federal rules mandating that Amtrak trains be given priority, the 47% (!!!!) on-time performance of Empire Corridor trains west of Albany indicates that they’re not exactly the top priority of Mohawk Sub dispatchers.

So if CSX’ objections to New York’s plan are mostly bull, and can be dealt with easily if they’re not, what’s going on? Why bother to object to a project that is potentially lucrative (if the state pays the billions that CSX claims half the ROW is worth) and would significantly improve the railroad’s image at a time when well-publicized gas train explosions are proving to be a massive PR problem for the industry?

There are, in my opinion, at least two separate dynamics in the CSX-NYS impasse, both of them essentially political in nature. First is CSX’ strategy for dealing with its busy, but expensive and competitive (between freight and passenger traffic) legacy lines in the Northeast. For years, CSX has gotten cash from the Massachusetts state government for improvements to its ex-Boston & Albany line over the Berkshires, while at the same time intentionally not agreeing to capacity improvements that would have allowed the MBTA to run more commuter trains between Boston and Worcester; when business east of Worcester proved less profitable than trucking most goods into Boston from an intermodal terminal in Worcester,  CSX sold the Boston-Worcester segment of the line to the Commonwealth. Meanwhile in New York, CSX and the state long maintained a cost-sharing arrangement for the upper portion of the Hudson Line, the Empire Service’s southern leg; as soon as the (always limited) freight demand on that line dipped, and the state proved willing to pony up, CSX leased the line to Amtrak. The strategy is clear, and quite smart: CSX milk public funds made available to its infrastructure for all they are worth, while intentionally not making capacity improvements that would allow more robust passenger service; as soon as the states tire of the situation and prove willing to pay up, the railroad is suddenly willing to sell.

The second dynamic has to do with the Andrew Cuomo administration’s lukewarm relationship with transit. As Alon Levy has written, it’s pretty clear that the Cuomo administration sandbagged proposals for a “true” Empire Corridor high-speed rail system by arguing that government can’t build infrastructure projects during a recession and publicizing inflated cost numbers.  The numbers the DEIS includes for the Empire West improvements are likely inflated too ($6 billion for a few hundred miles of third track on an existing ROW?), and the administration’s indifferent attitude towards the project–and any other kind of transit, really–has come across pretty clearly.

Cuomo values his image as a business-friendly, tax-cutting centrist governor, clearly believing that it separates him from other Democrats in the national field (we can, of course, argue about whether this is true, or whether it’s working for him in his own state). As Alon wrote in the first post linked to above, “Although Andrew Cuomo likes flashy public works projects, of which HSR is one, he is consistently pro-road and anti-rail.” This isn’t, I think, a particularly ideological stand (though it might have something to do with Cuomo’s well-know affection for vintage cars); rather, it’s a product of Cuomo’s desire to appeal electorally to white, wealthy suburban voters (=drivers) in a state where Democrats have long, and for good reason, been identified with New York and other cities. Nowhere has that come across more clearly than in his administration’s transportation and infrastructure priorities. Though the transit-advocate furor over the administration’s raid of the MTA budget for Verrazano Narrows Bridge toll relief was probably overstated given the relatively small amount of money involved, the raid was a clear indicator of an administration that cares more about attracting swing Staten Island votes than rewarding its loyal soldiers in the other boroughs, who are going to vote for the Democrat anyhow (especially after the combustion of the potential Working Families Party challenge to Cuomo). Similarly, Cuomo’s hugely expensive, unnecessary, and controversial (seriously? Clean water money for a car bridge?) new Tappan Zee bridge is clearly a sop to suburban populations in Rockland and Westchester counties.

So…I’ve been rambling. What do CSX’ intelligent strategy for maximizing profit from its legacy Northeastern holdings and Andrew Cuomo’s antipathy to transit have to do with each other, and with Empire Corridor West? I believe that CSX corporate management is watching the Cuomo administration very carefully, and is very much aware of its reluctance to invest serious money in transit. So CSX is going to, quite logically, play a waiting game. Their interest is in getting a massive payoff from New York State for the right to reclaim half of the Water Level Route ROW for passenger rail. With the Cuomo administration unlikely to want to invest the kind of money such a deal would take, their will almost certainly be no political ramifications in the short term for CSX’ intransigence. CSX is gambling that, in the medium run, if the next gubernatorial administration finds the Empire Corridor West situation unacceptable (and I certainly don’t see passenger OTP improving under current conditions), it will be willing to pay the company a massive amount of money.

If there’s one good for passenger rail that could come out of CSX’ reluctance to cooperate with the Empire Corridor West project, it’s that it might allow–or even force–future administrations to revisit the idea of true HSR in the Empire Corridor. Improved regional service in the corridor is better than nothing, but Upstate New York desperately needs an economic game changer, and nothing can match HSR for that potential. If CSX is truly unwilling to deal–or if, as I suspect, the price of a deal is just going to be incredibly high–studying HSR (at realistic prices, not the Cuomo administration’s inflated ones) may again become an attractive option.

In the meantime, it’s not like New York State has no leverage in the situation. CSX has long essentially held a monopoly on rail freight traffic into New England, a status enabled in recent years by Massachusetts’ investment in allowing modern freight car clearances and weights on the Berkshire Line. In recent years, though, the other titan of Eastern railroading, Norfolk Southern, has begun to challenge CSX’ chokehold on the region. Using traffic rights over the Delaware & Hudson’s longtime bridge route from Binghamton to the Capital Region, and an alliance with New England regional Pan Am east of there, NS has gradually built up a modern infrastructure for its traffic in the market. NS/Pan Am Southern is not yet capable of challenging CSX; in particular, the eastern part of the allied route, east of Mechanicville, would require significant investment to bring up to modern double-stack clearance/315,000 lb freight car weight standards. Norfolk Southern is beginning to pour in some of the necessary on its own, but if the state threatened to ally with Massachusetts to fully prepare the NS/Pan Am route for competition with the Berkshire Line, one imagines that CSX might find it shares more interests with the state than it thought. Just don’t count on any of those things happening.




Existing Parking Under-Utilized? Add More! The Story of Albany’s Park South Redevelopment

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about the parking crater that dominates the area around Albany Medical Center. Blaming the sacrifice of so much potentially valuable urban land to parking lots, I wrote a paragraph I’m now quite proud of:

What makes the Park South project even more galling is the presence of so much other essentially empty land around AMC and its sister institutions. If anyone were able to unite land-use planning for all of the parcels now used as parking, AMC could avoid ripping out old buildings in Park South and share with the other institutions an enormous parking structure (if it’s even needed!) that’s nowhere near residential areas. Instead, it appears that the city has declined to force the various institutions in the area to cooperate, and instead allowed institutionally individualized, and therefore wasteful, land-use plans to go into action.

I went on to argue that Albany should be encouraging redevelopment of those vast parking lots as a real, walkable urban neighborhood. I stand by that assertion, but in this post I want to focus more on the questions I raised in the above paragraph. The impetus is the release of a City of Albany-commissioned report on parking and transportation demand management (PTDM) in the area, focusing in particular on Albany Med’s plans for urban-renewing a large swath of the adjacent Park South neighborhood.

Let’s begin with the question of whether the planned Park South garage (now planned for almost 1,000 spaces) is even necessary. Without saying so explicitly, report contractors Nelson/Nygaard, a prominent planning and transportation consulting firm, say pretty firmly that the demand just doesn’t exist. Looking at the area within five minute’s walking time of the proposed project area, the consultants measured existing parking capacity and utilization thus:

PTDM Report, p. 9

PTDM Report, p. 9

Even at the peak time of 11:00 AM, there were more than 1,500 empty spaces within a 5-minute walk of the Park South project area. And that’s not including the AMC-owned “satellite” lots, which are located less than a ten-minute walk away (there’s also a shuttle bus). Those hold almost another 1,500 cars, and, according to the TDM report, always have excess capacity. As for added demand from the new office and residential buildings proposed for the Park South project, even the most conservative assumptions, derived from the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE)’s suburban-style standards, assume at most 822 new spaces would be needed (and remember, the developer and AMC are planning nearly 1,000).

The clear implication is that if one looks at the AMC/Park South neighborhood as a whole, rather than just considering the institutional resources and perceived needs of AMC itself, the added parking from a massive new garage in the Park South project would be entirely unnecessary; any added parking demand could be easily satisfied by existing excess capacity. Even if, as predicted by ITE guidelines, 822 more cars magically materialized as a result of the Park South development at 11 AM every morning, parking occupancy in the area would still be just 88%–within industry accepted standards of 85-90%. If the satellite lots are included (as they should be), the figure would be even lower, though exact numbers seem unavailable. Of course, if proper measures are taken, new demand won’t come close to 822 new cars every day, according to Nelson/Nygaard’s report: “If the development has a TDM program (as recommended below), the parking demand would be about 515 parking spaces (plus valet), which would translate to a supply of about 640 spaces – about 280 less than proposed. This assumes a 20% internal capture rate and a 15% TDM program reduction.” These smaller numbers, obviously, would be even more easily accommodated by existing parking in the area.

Alas, looking at the AMC area as a whole, rather than as atomized parts, has clearly long been the bane of Albany’s land-use and parking policy. In my previous blog post, I used a capture of a segment from Albany’s handy-dandy institutional land-use ownership map to demonstrate the fragmentation of land ownership, and therefore coordination, in the area:

AMC ownership

Ouch, right? Predictably (via the TDM report), this fragmentation leads to total lack of coordination in parking, with different parking lots in the area owned by several different institutions, and no attempts at cooperation:


When the companies involved in the redevelopment project assert that the project is infeasible without adding the garage, they’re considering the issue only from the perspective of the resources available to AMC, not to the area as a whole. And that’s the kind of mistake that can be disastrous for a city.

The policy implications of the TDM study, then, are pretty darn clear. When neighborhood context (and not the kind that implies “everything in the neighborhood must look alike”) is taken into account, there is more than enough parking supply in the neighborhood to meet peak current and any expected future demand, even if the Park South project is fully built out. The massive parking garage planned for Myrtle Avenue is completely unnecessary, and reflects the worst pathologies of midcentury American urban design: atomized institutional self-interest, accommodation of perceived rather than actual parking demand, no attempts to conceive of alternative ways of accommodating growth in transportation demand.

That being said, “don’t build the garage” isn’t a full policy response.

The primary challenge to parking management in the AMC area is the fragmentation of land-use policy and lack of cooperation between the area’s resident institutions. The City of Albany should establish a commission or task force to regulate transportation management in the area, with representatives from each of the major institutions in the area (AMC, CDPC, the VA Hospital, Sage College, Albany Law—I’m sure I’m missing some), the city planning department, and neighborhood residents. This body should be given power over (if not actual ownership of) ALL of the parking resources in the area, with a mandate to streamline and unify management and control.

The savings from not building the garage stand to be considerable, and should be able to fund a kick-ass TDM program for years to come. At national average costs of around $15,000/space, the cost for the proposed parking garage is probably approaching $15 million, a significant chunk of the overall $110 million project cost. The TDM study mentions that the developers and AMC have agreed to a $70,000/year Memorandum of Understanding with local transit authority CDTA, with one possible way of spending that money being for the agency to operate 2 additional buses on Route 13 (the primary route serving the hospital) at peak hours, enough to increase frequency significantly. Imagine what CDTA could do with payments of, say, half a million dollars a year to increase service on all of the routes serving Park South and AMC (see below for more transit analysis). Devoting some of the costs that could be saved by canceling or considerably reducing the size of the garage to transit and other alternative modes seems like a win for everyone.

That the Park South project has gone as far as it has without examination of these fundamental points about parking and transportation demand is a signal of the kind of desperation that economically depressed, fiscally desperate cities can sometimes show. Albany can do better. It’s time to stop wasting valuable taxable land and inviting more cars into Albany.

A Few Additional Points

  • The report makes at least one assumption that is likely to be politically controversial: it counts on-street parking spots on many streets in Park South that are currently mandated for residential permit parking as available resources. Given that the biggest parking problems residential neighborhoods in downtown Albany currently face are at night, and the vast majority of AMC demand seems to be gone by 4 PM, one imagines that residents in the area might be willing to trade their permit protections for the garage not being built, thus adding the spaces on their streets to the overall supply. Alternatively, AMC and the city could work out a deal where AMC workers could pay for on-street permit passes; many small businesses in the adjacent Center Square neighborhood own parking permits, and the point of Albany’s permit parking program is to keep out state workers in the Empire State Plaza anyhow.
  • The report mentions that as of 2008, only 2% of AMC employees took transit to work, a shockingly low number for a medical center in an urban area (though that number has probably gone up since the establishment of Route 100, connecting the city’s poor South End to AMC). Truth be told, AMC isn’t in the best location for transit; it’s around a mile from the city’s biggest transit hub near the corner of Lark and Central, just far enough to be inconvenient.  The report recommends re-routing the only “trunk” route (it still doesn’t run very frequently) serving the area, the 13, away from Holland Avenue to serve all of New Scotland; this seems like a good idea. Increasing the frequency of the #114, which currently runs twice an hour, and straightening it out so it runs down the length of Western and Madison seems like a good idea as well. According to the map (by zip code) provided in the report, which local blog-of-record All Over Albany correctly emphasized as one of the most interesting parts of the entire report, the heaviest concentrations of AMC employees are in neighborhoods centered on Western Avenue, which currently does not have an all-day direct bus link to AMC; re-routing the 114 from Washington to Western would provide this link.  Via Park South councilwoman Leah Golby, who has doggedly fought for transparency and good urbanism in the redevelopment process, it appears that AMC is preparing to enter into a Universal Access Agreement with the CDTA, which was also one of the report’s recommendations; that’s a good first step.
  • Report consultants Nelson/Nygaard also call out AMC for, essentially, not providing remotely adequate facilities for employees biking to work. That seems like a no-brainer, but it’s sadly typical of the unthinking attitude most Albany institutions seem to take towards biking (and I say this as someone who has never learned to ride a bike).  AMC is just two blocks from Albany’s first proposed road diet, which would provide the city’s first real bike lanes; it’s an obvious connection.
  • As I said on Twitter, Nelson/Nygaard deserve huge props for an unstinting, well-researched, and above all honest study, as do the members of the Albany Common Council who pushed for it. At a certain point, Albany has to start looking out for itself rather than submitting to the (often 40 years out of date) viewpoints of the institutions that call the city home. Hopefully—just maybe–this is a turning point.

The Valley: Anatomy of the Decline of a Chicago Neighborhood

I have a habit of poking around on Google Maps for intriguing things in my spare time. Last night, I spent some time looking through a part of Chicago that I have noticed before, but never really researched. Scrolling around Chicago, it’s near-impossible not to notice the virtually empty blocks roughly bounded by Damen on the west, Roosevelt on the north, and the Pink Line L tracks and Paulina on the east, with the BNSF tracks marking the southern boundary:


Zoomed in a little, the area looks like this:


I decided to take the time to examine the area at street level, through Streetview. At street level, it’s impossible not to notice one thing about the area:

A little bit of playing around made it clear that all of the streets in the empty area have either old-style meters or the newfangled boxes:

What the actual #^%&? Who in their right mind would park here, especially when almost all of the institutions in the area provide their own, free parking? Why do completely empty streets have parking meters? And why the hell is this (former) neighborhood so devastated, when it’s adjacent to the L, two blocks from the city’s newest Costco, a potent symbol of gentrification, and only three blocks from the booming UIC Medical Center? (I have my frequent Twitter interlocutor @VamonosLA to thank for helping me develop these questions)

I took a dual approach to figuring out what happened to the area. The first step was to determine when the area’s decline set in. Aerial images from historicaerials tell a somewhat surprising story. What had been a typical-looking Chicago neighborhood–dense, and apparently full of two-and three-flats and a few single-family homes, had only declined sharply beginning in the 1970s. There were still a decent number of houses remaining in 1988, though it was clear that the neighborhood had been largely decimated:

historic aerials 1988


There were even a few houses remaining in 1998:

historic aerials 1998

My working hypothesis had been that the land was cleared at the same time as much of Little Italy and Maxwell Street, when the university was developed in the 1960s. The aerial images told a different story; this neighborhood had been abandoned only gradually, and later than your typical urban renewal scenario.

The second obvious place to start in diagnosing what ails the area is to attempt to figure out the ownership of the land. This proved to be more of a task than I had anticipated. I started from the premise that the most likely; unlike Albany, whose city plan contains a handy-dandy institutional land ownership map, Chicago is far too large to have a comprehensive land-ownership map. I figured from the beginning of my research that the most likely culprit for the land lying fallow (so to speak) was that it is being held for comprehensive redevelopment by UIC or one of its affiliates; this turned out to be not too far off from the truth. UIC’s (HINT: 90 MB PDF. DON’T OPEN UNLESS YOU WANT TO WAIT A WHILE FOR A DOWNLOAD) master plan provided a hint that the university at least has plans for part of the space:

DDA_UIC plan

So, we know that the vacant land is slated for expansion of the medical complex sometime in the next 50 years (yes, that’s the time scope of the UIC master plan). An appendix to the UIC plan, however, told me that the land south of Roosevelt Road was currently the property of something called the Illinois Medical District. And with that clue, we start to unravel the mystery of what could destroy a neighborhood so thoroughly.

The Medical District, it turns out, is a little-known special zoning district intended to promote and develop the medical industry that has developed in the area over the past century, and develop the land in the area (ah, now we’re getting somewhere).  Governed by a board of seven commissioners, the IMD was established by the state legislature in 1941 as a gift to long-ago West Side congressman Vito Marzullo; according to a 1996 Chicago Reader article, the IMD “by state mandate has eminent domain within its boundaries; at any time it can buy as much land as it needs for ‘medical purposes.'” The IMD’s official history mentions one of these land purchases: “The 1960′s experienced the growth of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center and the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Campus, including a new University College of Pharmacy. During that period, the boundaries of the District were expanded to 14th/15th Street South of Roosevelt Road creating the “District Development Area” as an area of continued land acquisition and assemblage for future growth.” Ignoring the poor grammar of the previous quote, we now have an idea of what had happened to the area: acquired for “future growth” by the Medical District in the 1960s, it seems to have more or less languished and gradually slipped into nothingness since then, with the residents presumably being “encouraged” to leave.

The IMD’s map confirms that the vacant lots in the area belong to what it calls the District Development Area (an interesting note to this map: it appears that the IMD is in the process of applying for vacationing, or selling to private landowners, of the streets on most of these blocks):


What, though, is the communal history of what had once been a real neighborhood? What existed there before IMD took possession of the land? I uncovered a very useful Forgotten Chicago thread on the topic, which, in addition to the aforementioned Reader article, helps to flesh out some of the history. Once known as The Valley, this area was once, as late at the early 20th century, an enclave of Dutch settlement in Chicago. The area became heavily African-American starting in the 1950s, and IMD took possession of much of the land not long thereafter (according to their own account; the Reader article seems to imply that the term “District Development Area” is a creature of the mid-90s attempts to rid the area of its last inhabitants). The area gradually emptied of residents once IMD owned most of the land; IMD attorney Kenneth Schiewe told the Reader in 1996 that the District’s interest was in consolidating lots to create superblocks that would be attractive to developers, the idea being to compete with suburban greenfield development:

“We’ve torn down a lot of buildings,” said Scheiwe. “Every time you get rid of an abandoned building it basically improves the neighborhood.” The district argues that if it doesn’t acquire all the land that belongs to it by state law, it cannot attract developers to come in and start big-ticket projects. “Basically, having the assembled property is the inducement for the developer,” said Scheiwe. “When the developer comes and sees buildings sitting there, he knows the time factor involved, especially if those buildings are inhabited. He knows it will be a long time before he can begin construction. If we have an assembled site that is vacant he will know that we can begin almost immediately. Any steps where we can improve our position over the suburbs, we’re going to take. They can go out to Naperville and find a five-acre site, completely leveled. Knock down the corn.”

We can let the state of the area today speak to the wisdom of IMD’s approach.

There is also a very useful set of photographs of The Valley before it disappeared, taken by UIC grad student Lou Fourcher in the early ’70s and put online by his son Mike. I can’t figure out how to embed the whole slideshow here, but I might try later; in the meantime, click on the links. It’s worth it. And read the entire Reader article, too.

So what can we learn from the sad story of The Valley? First and foremost, probably, that urban renewal projects shouldn’t evict tenants from land until they have a definite buyer for the land, with financing in place and everything set. This may seem like a “no shit” kind of deal, but it hasn’t always been universal practice (far from it!) and the IMD clearly made the mistake of destroying an entire neighborhood without having a clear succession plan in place (that is, if you don’t consider destroying the neighborhood in the first place a mistake). Second, giving public powers–eminent domain and zoning, in particular–to a semi-private commission not accountable through the electoral process is probably a really bad idea. This, sadly, is rampant in Chicago.  Thirdly, closing local streets to create superblocks? Still a bad idea. Finally, the fact that this land is still sitting vacant after 40 years says something about the demand for land use in Chicago, as compared to the booming coastal cities. This land is transit-adjacent, near one of the city’s top employment centers and only a couple of miles from the Loop. And yet, there has been little to no demand fr it in recent decades. Chicago’s on the comeback trail, but (for better or for worse) the demand for land isn’t nearly as nuts as in New York or LA or Boston or San Francisco. On second thought, that’s definitely a good thing.

Oh, and what about those parking meters? No, I didn’t forget about them. As seasoned Chicagoans probably guessed immediately, they’re a legacy of that incredibly dumb parking deal the last mayor struck. I suppose we should give the city credit for stiffing the parking company like this?



This is Why Regional and High-Speed Rail is Going to be a Thing

A sampling of complaints from people I follow on Twitter, not in the planning/urbanist biz, about air travel, from today alone:

As air travel becomes more and more of a horribly unpleasant, unreliable hassle, and highway congestion inexorably increases, people are going to start looking for alternatives. The only question is whether we make our intercity transportation system grind to a halt before recognizing that, or whether we can catch ourselves before the crash.

Pioneer Valley Should Consider its Rail Options Carefully

Frequent passenger service is coming back to the  Pioneer Valley. Amtrak, and its contractors MBTA (which, though the Pioneer Valley is outside of its service area, provided engineering services) and Pan Am Southern (the freight railroad from which the Commonwealth has bought the tracks) are wrapping up work on the Knowledge Corridor project, renovating the decrepit rails along the Connecticut River in order to shift Amtrak’s Vermonter back to the line through Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield from its 20-year diversion to the tracks through Amherst. With the end of that long slog in sight–Amtrak service is supposed to return in early 2015–Valley political leaders have begun calling for commuter trains on the line to complement the restoration of the once-daily long-distance Vermonter. These trains would run several times daily between the cities of the Valley and Springfield, connecting to commuter trains to Hartford and New Haven (a project scheduled to open in 2016), and hopefully eventually MBTA service east to Worcester and Boston.  Sounds great, right? Let’s take a closer look.

The Knowledge Corridor project represents a huge opportunity for the area–the Valley is essentially being gifted a high-quality, 79-mph railroad at no local cost (other than the local share of the state dollars that went into the renovation, of course).  Using that high-quality railroad for more than the one train a day in each direction represented by the Vermonter (plus a couple of freight trains a day) seems like a no-brainer, but in order to maximize the usefulness of this resource, Valley leaders should think carefully about what kind of local rail service they want to introduce. The current plan (explained in the MassLive article linked above) seems to be to purchase old, excess commuter-rail equipment from the MBTA and run a few trains in each direction every day, primarily serving 9-t0-5 commuters.  This is certainly a start–and preferable to not using the Connecticut River Line’s new capacity at all–but for me it hardly seems to represent an ideal use of the resource.

For one thing, commuter rail is very expensive.  American commuter trains–built to withstand collisions with the heavier freight trains with which they often share tracks–guzzle fuel at very high rates.  Commuter trains are required to have two or more (usually more) crewmembers on board at any time, regardless of the number of riders. With labor expenses making up the vast majority of public transit operating costs–a fact little appreciated by the public–running a commuter train with multiple employees is vastly more expensive than running a bus with only one driver. Meanwhile, commuter trains tend to attract riders only during the peak commute hours since they run very infrequently or not at all in between, eschewing a broader vision of what public transit can be and do for a community. Five or six trains a day between Springfield and Greenfield is a start, but the ridership that could be attracted will likely not move the needle much in terms of the landscape of transportation in the Valley.

Meanwhile, alternatives that would make better use of the Valley’s new transportation resource do exist. Most current public transit service in the Valley seems to wander through rural or sparsely populated areas, focusing on bringing people from the country and suburban areas into the nearest town. Frequent rail service along the Connecticut River line, though,  has the potential to directly connect most of the Valley’s densest core cities–the areas most likely to generate serious ridership. The only major population center whose core the line does not serve directly is Amherst (which, indeed, will lose trains service entirely once the Vermonter is re-routed), but that area would be directly linked to downtown Northampton and the new train service by the a planned “Bus Rapid Transit” route. Currently, and rather astonishingly, no direct service of any kind ties together the downtowns of Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke, and Springfield.  The Connecticut River Line rebuild offers the opportunity to do exactly that.

Given the gift of an upgraded rail service, and the lack of current options to connect its densest cores, the Valley should consider an enhanced rail service that will function more like an express bus service between the downtowns of the Valley’s several leading cities. Rather than a commuter rail mentality, which stresses attracting 9-to-5 workers and only operates a few times a day, the line should be used as if it were a regular PVTA bus route–indeed, it could probably be treated as that agency’s most important route, the spine that ties together each city’s local buses. Instead of concentrating service in rush hours, such an operation would run frequently–every 20 minutes or half an hour–throughout the day, making it easy to get from one city to another. A model for such a service can be seen in the Google Map embedded below (zoom in for more detail):


Running such frequent service would be best done with different equipment than the commuter rail currently under consideration as well. In Europe, many rural rail services use railcars called Diesel Multiple Units, or DMUs, that are, at their simplest, essentially buses on rails. DMUs accelerate and brake faster than the secondhand commuter rail equipment Valley leaders are currently considering, and because they are lighter they use considerably less fuel. The trade-off is less capacity on each train, and often a lower top speed, but when trains come more frequently and spend less time accelerating and braking with frequent stops, those become less important concerns.

There remain several constrains on the ability to implement DMU service in the Valley, or anywhere else in the US for that matter. First, and most importantly, Federal Railway Administration regulations currently prohibit lightweight, European-style DMUs from sharing tracks with freight trains. This is actually not as insurmountable a barrier as it might seem, however; many indications are that the FRA is likely to revise their regulations to allow such operations within the next couple of years, and several operations have already been given a waiver to operate lightweight DMU service on tracks shared with freights, so long as a temporal separation is maintained between passenger and freight service (generally, passenger runs during the day, and freight at night). Such operations include MetroRail in Austin, TX; the A-Train in Denton County, also in Texas; the River Line between Camden and Trenton, NJ; and the Sprinter between Escondido and Oceanside, California.Maintaining a temporal separation between freight and passenger traffic, should the proposed FRA reforms not occur, should not be too much of a challenge on the Connecticut River line, where freight traffic is sparse, consisting of at most two trains a day, and can definitely be run at night (in addition to which, one of the major on-line freight customers, the Mt. Tom coal-fired power plant, is closing this year). Another crucial aspect of FRA reform (or a waiver in its place) is the prospect of reduced labor costs relative to commuter train service. While many of the DMU services mentioned above do run with an engineer and conductor on each train, it appears that the FRA waivers allow for them to operate with only one crewmember, with ticket checking being conducted by roving inspectors, an approach known as proof-of-payment. Perhaps most relevant to the Valley, though, are the MBTA’s ambitious plans to convert the inner segments of many of their Boston-area commuter rail lines to frequent DMU operation. A potential Valley DMU operation could piggyback on the MBTA’s DMU order, reducing initial costs for buying new equipment.

The kind of semi-rural DMU service I am proposing here is unprecedented in the US, but it is commonplace in Europe, and has become a crucial part of the British approach to rural rail service, which stresses local partnerships and community ownership of operations. Running frequent DMU service as the trunk line of public transit in the Pioneer Valley would be a unique concept in the US, but what does the Valley stand for if not progressive ideas and publicly-minded innovation?

(Updated 6/2/14 with typo corrections and a new link to story about the Mt. Tom power plant closing)