There’s a Good Reason to Evacuate Albany’s Ezra Prentice Homes. It’s Just Not What You Think It Is.

A good deal of media attention in Albany in recent months has focused on the situation of the Ezra Prentice Homes, a public housing project in the city’s South End (or really, just outside of it). Various local politicians, most prominently Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, have seized on the paranoia surrounding transportation of crude oil by rail after the Lac-Megantic disaster by trying to make Albany a national leader in protecting its citizens from the #BombTrains threat. Indeed, the very first post on this blog was about the conceptual issues with the campaign, arguing that there are in fact much greater threats to the public health than the exceptionally low-probability event of being blown up by an exploding oil train. Today, it’s time to revisit that question a little bit.

The single biggest focus for Albany politicians who want to make a point regarding oil-by-rail has been the Ezra Prentice Homes, a public housing development that opened in 1967, in the wake of the urban-renewal clearance of thousands of homes for the Empire State Plaza project. Always something of an anomaly in Albany–the McConnell-Corning machine that ran the city from 1921 to 1983 was famously reluctant to take federal housing money, wishing to avoid any kind of oversight–the Prentice Homes were built with state assistance and federalized  in the mid-1980s, after Erastus Corning’s death in 1983.  As if to symbolize just how out-of-site, out-of-mind the residents of the Prentice Homes (many of them refugees from neighborhoods leveled for Nelson Rockefeller’s singular monument to his own ego) were, the new project was sited next to the Delaware & Hudson Railroad’s Kenwood Yard, and immediately adjacent to the new I-787, which opened around the same time as the Prentice Homes, and probably before (I’ve been unable to nail down an exact opening date). Least-valued people on the least-valued land: it’s a time-honored American public-housing tradition! In any case, the area looks like this today:

Ezra Prentice Homes at center; Kenwood Yard at right and I-787 at top margin, from Google Earth.

Ezra Prentice Homes at center; Kenwood Yard at right and I-787 at top margin, from Google Earth.

Last week, County Executive McCoy doubled down on his public concern about the Prentice Homes’ adjacency to Kenwood Yard, which has become a terminal for oil trains transported from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota by current yard owner Canadian Pacific. As McCoy pointed out in his press conference,, the backyards of some of the Prentice Homes literally do back up to the yard. Indeed, McCoy went so far as to for the first time suggest evacuating the Prentice Homes entirely, as reported by the Times Union‘s ace city/politics reporter Jordan Carleo-Evangelist:  ‘”Just because we put it here doesn’t make it right,” McCoy said, citing potential health risks from fumes and the threat of a catastrophic explosion. “We can make it right by moving it.”‘ Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, however, was none too happy with McCoy’s surprise, drastic plan, suggesting that the city needs “solutions that do not require people to uproot their lives.”

Is the threat from an oil train blowing up severe enough to justify evacuating the Prentice Homes? I argued in my previous blog post on the subject that the chances of such an explosion are miniscule given the kind of oil involved and the slow train speeds. Oil-by-rail may be the excitement of the day, but it’s long-term air pollution that’s the true threat to public health at the Prentice Homes.

The health impacts of living adjacent to a freeway like I-787 are well-known, even in the popular imagination. The easternmost of the Prentice Homes are actually probably outside the real danger zone, but some of the buildings are as close as 200 feet to the roadway, well within the 500-foot buffer recommended by best practice. Most of the buildings are within 1,000 feet of the freeway, and all within 1,500–distances that represent outer, lesser rings of threat from air pollution.

The challenge of diesel locomotive pollution from Kenwood Yard is less well-known, and more complicated.  Pollutants from locomotives are known to cause an elevated cancer risk in neighborhoods immediately adjacent to yards, as well as for railroad workers. A recent EPA study found that “levels of black carbon, an indicator of diesel exhaust, spiked up to 104 percent higher than the norm for urban areas during early mornings and evenings when winds blew across the freight yard toward a residential area” in Chicago. Kenwood is a small yard relative to the massive facilities often studied in California and Chicago, but it does host idling locomotives, and as we have already seen the Prentice Homes have no buffer from the tracks. Freight rail, though, is an environmental good on the regional level; trains are a good deal more energy- and pollution- efficient than trucks for moving freight, and encouraging freight to move by rail to the maximum extent possible is good public policy. Even if it were possible for local officials to do so (since railroads carry interstate commerce, they are federally regulated, and policy options for local officials are limited), shutting down Kenwood entirely would probably result in an overall growth in emissions and congestion across the Capital Region. That the yard poses a polluting threat to the health of those who live right next to it, though, is pretty inarguable.

McCoy’s right that the Ezra Prentice Homes were built in the wrong place. Sheehan is also right that moving residents–some of whom have no interest in moving–is a drastic and potentially overly hasty measure. Aside from the brewing political struggle, there is, to me, something quite disconcerting about the spectacle of (white) politicians suddenly trying to make a reputation  for themselves in the name of protecting residents of a public housing project who have been breathing freeway and locomotive fumes for almost 50 years. The Prentice Homes were the result of a mayoral administration that didn’t care about African-American constituents (who, then and now, were the majority of Prentice residents) and a gubernatorial administration that heartlessly seized the land of tens of thousands of residents in the name of one man’s ego. They were sited in just about the worst place imaginable from a public health perspective–cut off from the rest of the city by six lanes of roaring traffic, and wedged in between two polluting transportation facilities. And it’s only now–after 47 years of neglect relieved only by periodic renovations, rather than serious consideration for the health of residents–Albany’s politicians are freaking out about a threat to the Prentice Homes that by any objective standard is incredibly remote? I, too, would rather not see oil trains sitting on Albany’s waterfront, and sitting in Kenwood Yard. They’re an unwelcome reminder of our wasteful past, and yes, a potential danger. But forgive me for thinking that our elected officials should be dealing with the existent ongoing threats to public health, rather than trying to build their reputations on the backs of citizens whose needs have been neglected for the longest time.

 

 

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Berkshires Rail Service Still Not a Winner, or, the Importance of Interdependence and Cooperation

Last week, the state of Massachusetts announced the purchase of the Berkshire Line, running from Pittsfield south to the Connecticut border, from the freight-hauling Housatonic Railroad.  The hope is, apparently, to restore through passenger service from New York City to Pittsfield, which hasn’t existed on the line since the 1971, but was once considered a staple of the Berkshires resort economy. But is it a good idea?

In the official statement, on the deal, MassDOT Secretary and CEO Richard Davey claimed that ““Studies have shown that a Berkshire County rail connection to New York City would be a winner, with more than one million rides annually.” For some perspective, that’s over 2,700 rides a day, or 1,300+ in each direction. The NYC-Berkshires travel market was once fairly large, and remains somewhat so, but there’s certainly no guarantee  of any kind of mass return to transit in the corridor. In any case, the MassDOT purchase covers the line only from the Connecticut border to Pittsfield, leaving Massachusetts dependent on Connecticut’s willingness to invest in its segment of the line.

Indeed, even if rail transit returns to the Berkshires, the Housatonic line seems an unlikely candidate for that restoration; it is so poorly suited to through passenger traffic, in fact, that even the dedicated foamers over at railroad.net are very skeptical of the success of any restored passenger service. The entire line is so curvy that railfans estimate (see above link) that even with massive infrastructure investment trip times from NYC to Pittsfield would never get better than 4 hours–and even that seems optimistic. And the required investment would be massive–the line is single-track, completely unsignalled, and has been allowed to deteriorate to the very bare minimum necessary for freight service (and far too often less) over the years. Indeed, as early as the 1930s, New York-bound travelers abandoned what was then the New Haven Railroad’s Berkshires Division in favor of driving to New York Central’s parallel Harlem Line; today, that legacy continues as many Berkshires travelers take Metro-North to Wassaic (the current terminus of the now-truncated Harlem Line) and drive the remainder of the trip to their weekend or summer homes. Meanwhile, the middle portion, from New Milford to Canaan, CT, is so devoid of population that it was in fact entirely abandoned from 1972 until the Housatonic restored service in 1983.

In short, the idea that thousands of passengers a day will ride a slow train to the Berkshires via Danbury seems a little far-fetched to say the least; the train trip from Grand Central to Wassaic is about 2:15-2:30, and it’s another 45 minutes by car to Sheffield, 50 to Great Barrington, an hour to Stockbridge or Lee, 1:10 to Lenox, or 1:20 to Pittsfield, yielding trip times in the 3:15 range for the southern Berkshires and around 4 hours for Pittsfield. Driving all the way is faster, of course, depending on traffic around NYC itself. Restored Berkshire Division service seems unlikely to be able to match these times.

Luckily for advocates of smart infrastructure spending, it’s very clear that plans for through passenger service depend entirely on Connecticut’s willingness to spend money on its section of the line. That seems quite unlikely given the very few passengers who would be served; why should Connecticut spend money just to benefit NYC-Berkshires weekend commuters? In the meantime, Massachusetts paid relatively little for its section of the Berkshire Line, so waiting to see what happens with Connecticut’s portion doesn’t seem like such a raw deal. Advocates of NYC-Berkshires rail service, though, are probably left wanting more.

There is, however, another option. Traditionally, New York Central handled Berkshires traffic, as noted above, via the Harlem Line, with a connection to the Massachusetts-bound Boston & Albany division at Chatham, NY. With the abandonment of the upper Harlem Line, that connection is gone, but another route exists: via the Hudson Line. Today, NYC-Albany Empire Service trips are officially scheduled anywhere between 2:20 and 2:35, but much faster times are possible even with current equipment; I’ve been on a train that did the trip in 2:10, and that’s with the artificially low speed limits imposed by Metro-North’s commuter-rail oriented signalling and track maintenance south of Poughkeepsie. Two-hour trip times are definitely possible, and 1:45 is probably within the realm of possibility for an express (say, stopping only at Poughkeepsie). Meanwhile, the eastbound Lake Shore Limited is scheduled from Albany to Pittsfield in 1:04, only ten minutes slower than driving, meaning that a total NYC-Pittsfield trip time in the vicinity of 3 hours is eminently achievable. A trip to Pittsfield via Albany would require going out of the way a little bit (Albany is north of Chatham), and probably a reverse move or a cross-platform connection at Albany; the alternative would be to skip Albany and send trains directly to Pittsfield via a new connection from the northbound Hudson Line to the eastbound B&A at Castleton, yielding even shorter NYC-Berkshires trip times.  Either of these alternatives beats the hell out of pouring money into the Berkshires Division, even if CSX demands double-tracking of the B&A (which really isn’t that busy) as compensation for more passenger trains. Lastly–and far from least–any improvements to the Hudson Line made to facilitate Berkshires Service will also benefit the much more numerous Empire Service passengers. Rather than existing in a nostalgic vacuum, we can target investments in NYC-Berkshires service in a way that also helps many, many other travellers. It just requires a little interstate cooperation, always an interesting question in the fractious Northeast–and the topic of my post about a unified Northeastern rail authority.

So we can get passengers from New York City to Pittsfield in 3 hours or so, very competitive with the 2:53 driving time posited by Google Maps. Where do they go from there? Though Pittsfield is easily the biggest town in in the Berkshires (around 45,000), it is neither the wealthiest or the biggest tourist draw. Getting to Pittsfield is easy; distributing passengers where they actually want to go in the Berkshires is the harder part. And that’s where Massachusetts’ purchase of the Berkshire Line comes back into the picture. Rather than using it for intercity travel, the state should begin rehabilitating the line with the goal of establishing a frequent semi-rural transit service served by DMU equipment, like I proposed for the Pioneer Valley a while back. Essentially an express bus service serving the downtown cores of each of the smaller towns in the Berkshires, such a service could provide unprecedented car-free mobility to tourists–important in a region where many of the visitors come from New York. Travelers will be able to take a quick intercity trip to Pittsfield, hopefully helping that city in its economic revival, and then use the DMU service to move between the various small towns whose charms form the Berkshires’ appeal. Ideally, the “Berkshires Service” would extend north to Adams, North Adams, and potentially Williamstown as well as south to Sheffield, but 11 miles of the line north of Pittsfield (a former B&A branch, unlike the ex-New Haven trackage south of Pittsfield) have been abandoned and turned into a rail trail with a truly unspellable name, and it’s usually difficult to get trailized right-of-way back. Who knew that local state rep William “Smitty” Pignatelli might have actually stumbled on the right answer when he said of the purchase “Without knowing the commitment from Connecticut, we’ll end up with passenger trains from Pittsfield to Sheffield and that’s it”?  To which I say, “And that’s how it should be!”

In short: target investments where they can do the most good for the most people, even if that involves cooperation between states. Identify the right mode for your line, don’t just promise vaguely to bring back trains. Identify the quickest travel times, even if they don’t involve historic routings. And please god, take the tracks away from the Housatonic Railroad as soon as humanly possible (go look at the rogues’ gallery of derailment stories above if you haven’t yet!

UPDATE 7/30/14

This article in the Berkshire Edge offers some more details about the thinking of the people involved in dreaming up the new Berkshire Division plans, mainly from the perspective of Housatonic Railroad management. It sounds like Massachusetts is determined to stabilize the line’s infrastructure just to keep freight trains running, regardless of whether passenger service ever happens. The freight business on the line may be marginal, but there’s value in keeping trucks off the of the narrow, windy roads of the Berkshires, and the current situation, where the line was going more or less unmaintained, was unsustainable. In the meantime, someone fed the Edge a number of $200 million to rehabilitate the line all the way to a connection with the Harlem Line at Southeast, NY via the little-used Beacon Line, which seems ludicrously low, especially since it includes rehabilitating even more mileage that’s not currently used for passenger service (though service to NYC via Southeast would probably be faster than the Danbury Line). The paper estimated the cost of sidings, signalling, stations, and grade crossing and bridge rehab at $80 million (unclear whether that’s included in the $200 million number), which seems just as unlikely.

Project managers have identified four station sites–the existing Amtrak station in Pittsfield, and in Lee, Great Barrington, and Sheffield. Obviously, I’d advocate for a service that operates and stop more frequently, but 10-mile station spacing is even a little much for commuter rail–I think they could add a couple more stations. Meanwhile, the ridership numbers seem even higher than usual: “[Domina] pointed out that according to the 2010 ridership study conducted by Market Street Research of Northampton, the median ridership would be 2 million one-way fares within five years of commencing the commuter service. Of those, 1,086,874 fares would be associated with trips either to, from or within Berkshire County; 340,000 between Danbury and New Milford, Conn.; and 573,126 to other destinations in Connecticut.” Housatonic President John Hanlon claims that the service could be operationally profitable, though it wouldn’t be able to cover its capital costs. All of this seems pretty pie-in-the-sky.

Update 2, 7/30/14

Check out this thread on ArchBoston for even more information. I’d been searching for a New Haven-era timetable for the Berkshire Division, and commenter F-Line (a presence on the Railroad.net forums as well)  tracked one down. 5:20 Pittsfield–Grand Central trip times. Yeah, I stand by my position that Berkshire Division intercity passenger service would be a waste.

Infuriating, Regressive NIMBYism in Chicago

This is the story of a particular lot on the North Side of Chicago, specifically on the border of Wicker Park and Bucktown. Sadly, it is also a story of political cowardice, bad development priorities, and democracy corrupted–and a warning sign for the future of Chicago.

Last spring, I interned at the Center for Neighborhood Technology on North Avenue in Chicago. I worked there several days a week, and also held down a part-time job with a web-based tutoring company around the corner on Damen. When walking from the Western Avenue bus to the latter job, I would pass by a particular, oddly-shaped empty lot defined by Wabansia, Leavitt, and Milwaukee Avenues, with the Blue Line elevated tracks running through the middle. From ground level, it looks like this:

The primary use seemed to be as a dog park. One the one hand, I wasn’t surprised that the lot was undeveloped; the idea of living underneath rumbling, screeching L trains running on a century-old structure brings the Chicagoan’s mind immediately to Elwood’s apartment:

On the other hand, this is a prime lot, one of the last easily developable ones in the middle of arguably Chicago’s hottest residential area. Until today, though, I had no idea just how indicative the saga of its proposed redevelopment was of the problems confronting Chicago’s vision of sustainability, livability, and affordability in the 21st century.

To understand the promise of this lot, you have to understand just how well-located it is. We already saw the L tracks running through the middle of the lot from ground level; here it is from above.

The Blue Line runs through diagonally, with stations just two blocks away in either direction at Western/Armitage and North/Damen. Milwaukee Avenue, running diagonally parallel to the L tracks, hosts the #56 bus and Chicago’s most popular bike lanes. Two blocks to the west is the aforementioned #49 Western bus; a block and a half to the south runs the 72 North Avenue; two blocks to the east is the #50 Damen; and three blocks to the north the #73 Armitage. This is just about the most transit-amenable location imaginable outside the Loop. You can get almost anywhere in the city with at most one transfer (though on the local buses it might take you a while!) It’s a mile from the Clybourn Metra station. The area looks like this on the RTA system map, with the red star roughly marking the location of the site:

lot_area

It’s a transit paradise. And if all of that weren’t enough, the site is immediately adjacent to the Bloomingdale Trail, Chicago’s soon-to-open, more low-key version of New York’s High Line, which will include a dedicated bike path. And did I mention, it’s right across the street from a supermarket? The site has everything needed to support true urban living–dense, car-free, walkable, clean and sustainable. It’s a blindingly obvious site for a large apartment development.

Today, DNAinfo Chicago reported that the lot will be developed as 24 3-bedroom townhomes, each with an attached garage. After repeated protests from neighbors concerned about things like “increased traffic,” “too much density,” and the “desirability of the neighborhood,” and a re-mapping of wards that put the site under a new alderman, the development planned for the lot has been reduced over the past two years from 54 to 50 to now 24 units. Significantly, the project is now planned for sale rather than as rental. So the little corner site under the L will become home to a suburban-style development, planned to meet the needs of local NIMBY–Not In My Backyard–activists rather than the neighborhood or the city as a whole. And who were these people? Were they a representative slice of the neighborhood, or of the city? Well…there were 48 people at the first community vote taken, and a similar number at the second. I see no indication that more than 50-60 people were present at any of the meetings about the project. That’s not democracy, that’s a scam.

This lot could have been home to dozens or hundreds of people who would contribute their livelihoods, social engagement, and citizenship to Chicago, all while making very little impact on the environment or on the city’s creaking automobile infrastructure. Instead, with paranoia and illogic reigning (remember, it’s the provision of parking, not the people, that brings the traffic), the site will be developed at a minimal density and with residents of the development encouraged (by the provision of garages, among other things) to buy and use cars rather than making use of the immense transit, walking, and biking infrastructure available to them. Instead of getting rental units that would be subject to affordability requirements (however minimal they might have been) and that might have “filtered” down to less-wealthy residents as they aged, the neighborhood gained expensive townhouses unlikely to contribute much to the amelioration of its affordability problems. It’s absolutely infuriating for anyone who cares about a progressive vision of the future of Chicago.

Sadly, the case of the little lot on Winnebago Avenue is hardly atypical of Chicago. Daniel Kay Hertz has done a wonderful job illuminating the ways in which Chicago’s bifurcated housing market is a result of mistaken, often corrupted public policy. In particular, housing policies are often beholden, as they were in this case, to the whims of any neighborhood activists wealthy enough, or with enough time on their hands, to make their voices heard; these people abound in wealthy neighborhoods and are rare in poor and minority ones, which is why you get phenomena like that the fact that NO affordable housing has been built in Lincoln Park in 35 years. It’s not too hard to understand, as Daniel quickly did on Twitter, that the real motivating factor behind the neighborhood activists’ favoring of sale over rental properties (and, if we’re being honest, probably the entire opposition to the project) was social exclusion. Chicago has a deserved reputation for being the most segregated city in the country. And until the city and its leadership are willing to push back against the kind of NIMBYism that leads to these undesirable outcomes, it will continue to “enjoy” that reputation.

The NIMBY victory, of course, also has environmental ramifications. CNT, where I used to work, has researched in great depth how far Chicago lags behind other cities in encouraging transit-oriented development. The misuse of lots like the one on Winnebago brings enormous opportunity costs; every inhabitant who NIMBY activists push further from the L, of course, is more likely to use a car, thus contributing to all of the pathologies that the automobile brings. Chicago’s highways are locked up and its road network is creaking, and there is no foreseeable way to expand capacity, even if that were a desirable outcome. Chicago faces predicted doom on any number of fronts (crime, pension costs, education) but the threat that’s perhaps most immediate–and least exaggerated–is economic death by transportation strangulation.  Simply put, if the NIMBYs keep getting their way, the city has no future. It’s time to stand up to their greed and bring public policy back into the realm of the good.

 

The Case for a Unified Northeastern Rail Authority

This post is more of a thought experiment than an in-depth case study–so you won’t find my usual assortment of links, maps (though having Google Maps handy might be useful), etc. Something a little quicker, and a little different. It’s inspired by some musing I’ve been doing, and by this post from a while ago at Pedestrian Observations.

It seems to me that the Northeast US should have one, unified authority to govern and coordinate intercity rail transit. Obviously given funding deficits and general political and bureaucratic dysfunction, that’s a little bit in the world of dreamland, but let’s play it out a little. A lot of ink has been spilled about regionalization as a solution to the woes of the Northeast Corridor, but I’m going to concentrate here on less prominent lines and services, which perhaps could benefit even more from interstate cooperation.

The Northeast–which I’m defining as the New England states, plus New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and DC (given Virginia’s current friendliness to, and success with, passenger rail, we could throw them in there too, but I’m not for now)–is currently experiencing something of a slow, unsteady renaissance in intercity passenger rail service. The last twenty years have seen a lot of dreams, and even a few successes: the electrification of the NEC from New Haven to Boston, and the acquisition of the (problematic to say the least) Acela trainsets; the opening of what is in some ways Amtrak’s standard-bearing corridor service, the Boston-Portland Downeaster; the ongoing renewal of the NYC-Albany Empire Corridor, including the leasing of the line from Poughkeepsie to Hoffmans from CSX; reconstruction of the Philadelphia-Harrisburg PRR Main Line; and the ongoing renovation of several other lines, in particular the tracks used by the Vermonter in its terminal state (and, soon, Massachusetts). Certainly, this is halting progress; but it’s something, right?

Here’s where it could be better. The problem with the relatively compact geography of the Northeast is that political boundaries cripple the ability to think regionally. Many of the projects listed above–and many of those that are in some stage of the planning/dreaming process– need to involve crossing state lines to achieve their maximum potential and economic impact. In many cases, the destination for a passenger service is just over a state border–making it no one’s political constituency, since no state wants to pay an equal share for a project that is located 80% in the territory of another state, while the politicians in the first state doesn’t want to pay for a project that will bring benefit to an area that doesn’t vote for them. In no particular order, here are some of the projects I’m thinking of:

–New Haven/Hartford/Springfield (NHHS) “commuter” (it’s really a hybrid commuter-intercity service) rail. This one’s almost done–signal work is underway, tracklaying should begin this year or next, and the whole shebang should open in 2016. So why the issue? Clashes over funding have already sidelined plans for a second track that would cover the entire distance between Hartford and Springfield, with arguments playing along the exact lines I described above–Springfield is just five miles or so above the CT border, so CT doesn’t want to pay much to serve it, and MA is much more interested in spending money to restore service from Worcester to Springfield, which…eh. (more on that later)

–Springfield–Northampton–Greenfield–Brattleboro. I covered the southern portion of this route here, but the bigger political conflict is that Brattleboro would really like to see service along this route, while MA has zero incentive to pay for an expensive extension that would lengthen the line considerably and serves a city that’s not real big to begin with.  

–Concord–Manchester-Nashua–Boston. New Hampshire is famously anti-rail and won’t ante up anything for what should be a slam-dunk service; MA is tired of I-93 being clogged by NH residents driving in from what are now exurbs of Boston, taking their paychecks back to NH, and leaving MA with the road repair bills. 

–Providence–Woonsocket–Worcester. My understanding is that RIDOT is planning on moving ahead with the Providence-Woonsocket stage of this as part of an in-state commuter system, but it would make a lot of sense to continue of the Blackstone River valley to Worcester, especially since there’s no parallel freeway. Of course, that involves crossing a state boundary. 

–Boston–Worcester–Springfield–Albany. Central and western MA residents have been begging the state for better rail service for years; Pittsfield’s pleas come across as almost desperate at times. Of course, that state’s rail arm is chartered as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, its service area not reaching the underserved areas of the state. And it makes no sense to go from Boston to Pittsfield without going on to Albany (of course Pittsfield’s demand is mainly from NYC, not Boston, so transfers from the Empire Corridor are more realistic). Of course, I have a personal stake in this line; I live in Albany and many of my friends (virtually all who aren’t in NYC) are in Boston. 

–NYC–Albany–anywhere in Vermont. Of course, this route already has one train a day, Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express to Rutland; the issue is that Vermont LOVES passenger rail but doesn’t have the funds for pretty much any capital investments (and what few tax dollars the sparsely populated state does have are earmarked for its landmark single-payer healthcare campaign). Rutland is an OK terminus, but Burlington is the biggest city and metropolitan area in Vermont and makes a lot more sense as a terminus (Ok, the Vermonter serves Essex Junction from the other side of the state, but that takes forever). A restoration of the line between Rutland and Burlington would be more than feasible and the line is suitable for fairly high speeds; but there’s no way Vermont can come up with the money alone. Finally, in my opinion, NYC-Montreal high-speed rail, should that come down the pipes at some point, makes a lot more sense via Burlington than via the western shore of Lake Champlain or I-87.

–NYC–Delaware Water Gap–Scranton–Binghamton (I’d extend it to Cortland–a college town, and a connection to Ithaca–and Syracuse, but that’s just me). This one involves not two but three states. NJ Transit is starting the restoration of the first leg of the Lackawanna Cut-Off, and Chuck Schumer has been a major advocate for this service, but the political and investment issues (to say nothing of the route’s technical merits, though I think it would do well as far as Scranton at least) seem insurmountable. New Jersey has little incentive to participate because the trains would probably express through it.

–NYC–Bethlehem–Allentown. Same issues as the last route, but it’s a lot shorter, so it should be a much more successful service. I could see extending it to Reading and Harrisburg.

–Philly–Wilmington (OK, I’m cheating a little–this is more about existing service, and it’s essentially commuter/regional, not intercity). Wilmington and Philly-area transit advocates are campaigning for higher service frequencies to Wilmington, which should be a no-brainer. That advocates are asking the Delaware Department of Transportation to fund more trains run by the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority should tell us something, however. 

The projects I’ve listed are services that could be crucial to tying regions together (by something other than freeways, that is), but fall through the cracks because of jurisdictional lack of incentive and funding battles. Some of them are pure intercity services; others are being operated or built today as commuter rail and have the potential to be European-style regional rail services in the future. Many of them, really, are–or should be–hybrids, the kind of thing progressive (by US standards) experimentation that conservative state DOTs can be reluctant to invest in but a regionwide authority might have the horsepower to get done. 

What would a regional rail authority look like? I imagine it having some dedicated stream of funding derived from the tax revenues of all of the participating states. Presumably, governance would be by gubernatorial and DOT appointees from all of the participating states, plus mayoral appointees from all of the region’s major cities. I see a few open questions: 1) Would said authority take over the NEC from Amtrak? I’m fairly agnostic on this one, but given the dysfunction in Congress I’d lean towards thinking it probably should. 2) What relationship would the authority have with the commuter railroads that currently run on the NEC and several other intercity lines? Delays caused by commuter trains and commuter-favoring dispatching on tracks controlled by the commuter railroads are one of the major factors slowing down Amtrak trains today along the NEC in Massachusetts and Connecticut, along the Hudson Line, and elsewhere. Perhaps if the states felt like they had more control over the intercity operations, as opposed to dealing with nationally-chartered Amtrak, they’d be more interested in forcing cooperation. Maybe. 3) You’d have to figure out the place of intercity services that run entirely within in one state–think the Empire Corridor or Philly-Harrisburg–Pittsburgh– in the pecking order of projects. The idea that linking Buffalo and Utica and Rochester to NYC is beneficial to the regional economy as a whole is a hard sell to state governments. 

And, of course, the case against doing this at all is that the history of interstate compacts in the Northeast ain’t exactly rosy. The Port Authority (of NY & NJ) is, there’s a total consensus, a cesspool of corruption and patronage; the Delaware River Port Authority is almost as as bad. Meanwhile, within state government, New York can’t even get the constituent railroads of the MTA to cooperate with each other, much less Amtrak, on major infrastructure projects and operational improvements. So maybe the key improvement is political will and dedication to change, regardless of having an overarching regional structure. Or maybe not. Opinions invited. 

 

An Ambitious Plan for Regional Rail in Downtown Chicago

So I was going to save this post for later as part of a series on Chicago transit (good stuff coming!), but I set off an enthusiastic discussion on Twitter this afternoon about the concept of using a little tunneling to through-route regional rail and high-speed trains through downtown Chicago:

Click on the tweet or my feed to read the whole discussion. Since this seems to be what we Jews call in Aramaic inyana d’yoma, the matter of the day, I figured I’d do a brief bit now; maybe I’ll come back to it in more depth later.

Several urbanist/transit writers, most prominently Stephen J. Smith (now at NextCity) and Alon Levy, have been beating the drum about the massive potential of using what are currently regarded as “commuter” rail lines through city centers, effectively turning them into all-day-usable, frequent “regional rail” systems. Most of these analyses that I’ve seen have focused on East Coast cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The concept, though, has also taken root in Chicago; the Gold Line proposal has long made a compelling case for rapid-transitizing the Metra Electric District (no seriously, this is a no-brainer), and the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s ambitious CrossRail Chicago plan combines infrastructure preparations for true HSR with through-routing of commuter trains.

CrossRail Chicago is, to me, the single most ambitious and potentially transformative transit project Chicago has seen in a long time (short of the full Transit Future slate being built, of course). But why, I ask, stop there? The CrossRail plan still relies on renovating a couple of relatively low-capacity, vulnerable pieces of infrastructure: the two-track, sharply-curved, St. Charles Air Line, and the currently mostly-unused run-through tracks at Chicago Union Station. Trains would have to make several sharp turns to transition between legacy rights-of-way that weren’t intended to work together, meaning that they’d have to travel through downtown pretty slowly–something that might impact HSR trains severely (Today, Amtrak trains coming into CUS from the Air Line back into the station–I once sat on the connection on a late-running City of New Orleans for a full hour while the Metra rush-hour trains made their exit. To be fair, that connection would be upgraded under the CrossRail plan). But the CrossRail plan would only transform two of Metra’s numerous commuter rail lines into regional rail-type operations, and there’s only so much that can be done when through-running relies on two low-speed run-through tracks. Can we aim for something more ambitious?

The stereotype of Chicago’s commuter rail system is that it predominantly shares its tracks with heavy freight traffic. That’s certainly true of a couple of the busiest lines–UP-W and BNSF–but several Metra lines actually see little or no freight traffic. (For those not familiar with the Chicago rail network, CMAP’s map of freight trains per day on various lines is an invaluable resource.) Metra Electric trains share a ROW but not tracks with freights; meanwhile, freight is for all intents and purposes nonexistent on the UP-N and UP-NW corridors, nearly so on the Rock Island District, and at manageable levels on the Milwaukee District lines and the SouthWest Service corridor. That’s a lot of potential for rapid-transitization, probably more than the CrossRail proposal can handle. So how might we handle a full rapid transitization of the Chicago commuter rail network?

Here’s one idea:

What you’re looking at is a system of tunnels connecting the Metra Electric District, Rock Island District, and all of the North Side lines (UP-W, NW, and N, MD-W and N, NCS), with the focal point being an underground superstation under the CTA hub along Lake Street between Clark and Wells. Tunnels would curve north and west from the existing Millennium Station to run under Lake Street, passing under the existing CTA subways to a deep-level station, and reconnecting to the rail system west of the Chicago River. Meanwhile, a second set of tunnels would bypass LaSalle Street Station (or stop at new underground platforms underneath it), and run under LaSalle Street until joining the east-west tunnel under Lake.

Aside from enabling high-speed through-running through the Loop, this system would mollify what has always been one of the biggest complaints about Chicago’s commuter and intercity rail stations: that they don’t connect well with the city’s transit system. A superstation running several blocks under Lake Street could connect regional and intercity trains alike, including HSR, with ALL of the L lines that run through the Loop (I couldn’t get the transit layer to display in the new Google Maps editor, but they’re all right there). And it would bring commuters into the heart of downtown, closer to the densifying (and already very dense) River North area.

Such a project would, of course, be massively expensive (not my area of expertise–Alon, if you’re reading this, want to leave some estimates in the comments?), but I’d argue it’s a much better solution for future true HSR than using the geometrically-restricted and somewhat remote Union Station. Bringing through-routed riders into Clark and Lake is also far preferable to dumping them at Union Station. It’s probably in the realm of fantasy. But sometimes it’s fun to dream.

Notes

  • The connection between the LaSalle tunnel and the Lake tunnel is awkward, and I’m not sure where the LaSalle platforms would go. But that’s probably deal-withable.
  • I’ve tried to note what I think would be realistic portal areas for these tunnels. Arguably, you could get some of them closer and save some money by taking a few buildings, but the further the portals are from the deep-level station, the less steep the grades down will be, which helps speed.
  • Dennis Griffith suggested re-using one of Chicago’s under-appreciated lower level streets to bring trains to River North. That’s an intriguing idea, but I’m not sure how feasible it is (trains would have to cross other lower-level streets at grade, for one thing), and I’m not sure where trains would go on the other end.

Searching for a Good Albany-Area Amtrak Station Site

Albany has a train station problem.

Surprising, maybe, considering the beautiful and (by train station standards) more or less brand new (opened 2002) Albany-Rensselaer station, which typically ranks 9th or 10th out of all Amtrak stations in annual ridership. But true nonetheless.

A few days ago I got into a brief Twitter discussion with the illustrious Cap’n Transit about the state of the Albany train station:

This is, of course, an entirely theoretical discussion. Amtrak and CDTA, which owns the station, are heavily invested in the current Albany-Rensselaer station, and moving it at this point would be a waste of relatively recently spent infrastructure dollars.  In Albany, of course, politics plays into everything; the Rensselaer station is, to a large extent, one of the many fruits of that notorious porkmaster, former State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. It is, however, exceptionally difficult to get to by any mode other than driving, despite being only a mile and a half from downtown Albany (if you don’t believe me, just read the comments on this Times-Union blog post). CDTA buses arrive only four times an hour at most, and rather than coming into the station as originally planned they stop on the street outside, in a completely non-intuitive location. Walking what should be a decent distance to downtown Albany or the Empire State Plaza requires crossing the Hudson on the concrete hellscape of the Dunn Memorial Bridge, itself a monument to highway plans that would have done irreparable damage to Albany had they gone through fully.

So the location of Albany’s train station, not to put too fine of a point on it, sucks. The question of moving it may be entirely theoretical at this point, but it’s an interesting question nonetheless. If I were given significant power to physically reshape the Capital Region (like, say, Nelson Rockefeller in the ’60s), where would I put the crown jewel of the region’s non-automobile transportation system?

Albany, of course, once had the downtown station that the Cap’n and I both wish could still exist. The building, in fact, still exists, and it is quite stately:

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Abandoned as a railroad building in 1968, Union Station has seen use as a bank headquarters, and after sitting empty for a while is now being converted into something called “the SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering’s Smart Cities Technology Innovation Center, or SCiTI.” Once upon a time, New York Central trains (Delaware & Hudson was the other major tenant) reached Union Station from Rensselaer via the Maiden Lane Bridge, like so:

Today (well, as of 1968), the Maiden Lane Bridge is gone, and the area behind the Union Station building, which once held coach yards and two levels of platforms, looks like this:

The approach to the old Union Station, like the rest of the Albany waterfront, has been entirely amputated by I-787, with the only remaining rails, the old D&H Colonie Main, relocated to the middle of the freeway, completely inaccessible from the street. The old platform canopy now shades (a little) a parking garage.

The issue with a downtown station, then, is that not only is the old site unavailable, but so are any other potential sites along the waterfront–that is, any site close to downtown Albany.  So, where CAN one put a station in Albany proper?

One possibility is near the  much dreamed-upon Central Warehouse (proposals for reuse have included an aquarium. Yes, an aquarium), just west of the Livingston Avenue Bridge across the Hudson, on the northern fringes of Albany. The station could occupy the site currently used by the burnt-out hulk, or the short straightaway a little to the west between Broadway and Pearl. The site looks like this:

This wouldn’t move the station very far, of course, but it would get it across the Hudson and into an area with better transit service. The area around the Central Warehouse is seeing a limited revival as part of a brewery neighborhood, but is clearly in need of significant revitalization that a train station could bring. That being said, it’s still pretty far from downtown (about 7/1oths of a mile), and there are a few engineering challenges: platforms couldn’t be very long because of the curves, and it’s not at all clear that the necessary four tracks could be squeezed into the existing right-of-way.

The truth is, though, if we’re looking for a station location that will attract the most ridership, downtown Albany may not offer the most potential in any case. The 2012 ACS numbers show only around 1,100 people living in the census tract that covers Downtown, and while the city has been doing a good job of trying to attract high-end residential conversions to the area, that process had been going very slowly. When I get off my bus coming home from school in the evenings (in Center Square, a little up the hill), I’m always surprised to see that I’m one of the last 2 or 3 people on the bus; non-commute demand to downtown is just exceptionally weak. The truth is that most Albany transportation demand resides uptown, in the dense neighborhoods along Central Avenue, and the more suburbanized areas near the uptown SUNY campus.

Is there, then, a fringe station location that might have something to offer? The idea of a station in suburban Albany is not new; one existed in the large suburb of Colonie for a number of years in the ’60s and ’70s (I can’t seem to find a source for an exact opening date), closing in 1979.  Technically called Schenectady-Colonie, since due to cost-cutting measures it replaced the downtown Schenectady station, this little stop sat about halfway down the passenger main between Albany and Schenectady, very much in the middle of suburban nothingness:

Needless to say, the Schenectady-Colonie station was a ridership disaster from the beginning. (click on the linked article–come for the vintage-1979 Turboliner picture, stay for the speed and trip-time promises that are remarkably similar to today’s!) After hemorrhaging riders for years, the Schenectady-Colonie station closed for good when enough government money became available to build the existent Schenectady station, which sits on the remains of the one that was torn down under Penn Central, and is now slated for replacement itself. In any case, the Schenectady-Colonie station building still exists; the building in this picture is clearly the same one visible at center if you zoom in the map above far enough.  Of course, no station will ever be built there again; it has zero access to public transit, is in the middle of nowhere, and sits smack dab in the center of a long tangent that allows trains to exercise their full 110-mph speed.

So is there a single location for an Albany-area station that I think might be better than the current one? Given the paucity of options, I’m not sure that anything short of a total rebuilding of the Albany waterfront that brings trains back and eliminates I-787 (something I’m for, by the way) can really do the job to full satisfaction. There is one site, though, that might, to some extent, bring benefits greater than the current setup. If it were up to me, I would put Albany’s intercity train station in the empty triangle of land described by Central Avenue, the tracks, and the borders of the Railroad Avenue industrial district, just across the city boundary in Colonie:

This site has room for four tracks, is adjacent to Central Avenue, the area’s main drag, with its BRT-lite BusPlus service (as well as local service), and offers potential for development. It’s also not far from the UAlbany campus, which is a major ridership generator. It’s also just past the top of the slow, curvy climb out of the Hudson Valley, and thus stopping there won’t cost trains as much time as slowing in the middle of the sprint from or to Schenectady. The site is also a brownfield, formerly home to a National Lead plant that was shut down by the state courts in 1984 for polluting; amazingly enough given its proximity to homes, the plant was found to have been using depleted uranium and other radioactive materials in its work, and so the site has for the last 30 years been under the stewardship of first the federal Department of Energy and then the Army Corps of Engineers. With its rather notorious history, the prospect of redeveloping the National Lead site as housing is probably unappealing. But the site is transit-accessible, central, and offers the prospect of being the lever that can bring the Central Ave. corridor in Colonie into a more urban future. If magically the prospect of moving the Albany train station becomes realistic, this location has my vote.