Rhode Island and an Incipient Critique of Commuter Rail

My post from last year about the woes of Rhode Island’s Wickford Junction park’n’ride investment enjoyed a brief renaissance last week when Streetsblog linked back to it. How convenient, then, that Wickford Junction was in the news again this week when Rhode Island state legislators used it as a reason not to provide state funding for the (probably much more useful) long-awaited infill station in Pawtucket/Central Falls.

Let’s get one thing straight: Wickford Junction and Pawtucket/Central Falls are completely different scenarios. Pawtucket has regular service throughout the day (albeit at crappy frequency), while Wickford Junction…doesn’t. And then there’s this:

Wickford Junction

The physical setting of Wickford Junction station

pawtucket setting.PNG

The physical setting of future Pawtucket/Central Falls station

Wickford Junction is completely cut off from development of any kind, while Pawtucket station would be located in one of the densest areas in all of New England. Comparing them, in other words, is pointless at best. No wonder Providence blogger Jef Nickerson, in his own words, “went ballistic” when the legislature approved funding for a garage in downtown Providence after ignoring the train station.

I want to dig a little deeper into this, though. Let’s consider quotes such as this, from Patrick Anderson’s Providence Journal article linked above:

The free-market Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity has put the station plan in its cross-hairs, adding the funding bill to its “five worst” list for the year and saying it aligns with a “submissive philosophy” that Rhode Island should be considered a suburb of Boston.

Although the Center for Freedom and Prosperity critique of the station is unnecessarily couched in parochial provincialism (and, likely, in deep denial of the benefits that closer links to the booming Boston economy can bring to Rhode Island), it almost unintentionally touches on a serious critique of the “commuter rail” mode: it serves one kind of trip, and one kind of trip only. The libertarians substitute a critique of the station for what should be a critique of the mode of transit, perhaps because the answer to the question “how does commuter rail become useful to all users?” is “more service, not less.”

When framed this way, the critique not only becomes more sympathetic, but reminds me of another anecdote I turned up in the process of researching my master’s paper. When the Providence Foundation studied intrastate commuter rail from Woonsocket to Providence in 2009, the project team met with planners along the route to gauge interest in the potential new service. All showed interest, except for the town planner in Lincoln, where a station was proposed in the hamlet of Manville. The reasons given were fascinating, and a little bit sad:

The proposed Manville site is located near a low-income neighborhood, where residents could typically be expected to benefit from additional transit services. However, commuter rail – with its peak-oriented services – may not be a good fit for these residents who tend to work at jobs with nontraditional schedules. Moreover, the town planner in Lincoln indicated the most town residents were not interested in a new commuter rail station. (p. 71)

Justifiably or not, Lincoln’s town planner believed that commuter rail, as a mode, is not for “us” (us being anyone working in a job that is not white collar or 9-to-5). That’s not too far off from the idea that investing state money in a commuter rail station would only increase Rhode Island’s dependency on Boston, if we assume that “Boston” here stands in for white-collar jobs with little access for middle- or working-class Rhode Islanders. It may not be entirely apparent to the people I’m quoting here, but I believe the pattern indicates the very tiny glimmer of a kernel of a coherent, trenchant critique of the commuter rail paradigm.

Rhode Island has ambitious plans for commuter rail, both expansion of Boston-oriented MBTA service and intrastate, not to mention random private ideas for Providence-Worcester service. That’s admirable for a state of Rhode Island’s size, and the Providence Foundation study projected very positive results for Providence-Woonsocket service.

projected results providence cr

Projected costs and operational figures from the Providence Foundation study

That being said, I think the difficulty of gaining political traction for commuter rail in places like Pawtucket (which has been waiting for a station for decades, since its legacy one closed in 1981) and Lincoln reflect both the normal anti-transit animus of certain groups AND something deeper and more profound.

I devoted much of my master’s paper to developing the idea that American commuter rail has been socially and politically constructed as a luxury mode of travel for the middle and upper classes, one that serves only a niche subset of trips. In many other countries, mainline rail systems–often branded “regional”–operate frequently all day and on weekends, allowing use for numerous kinds of trips to numerous destinations. Perhaps, to build political momentum and promote a system that can be truly useful to a broad swath of Rhode Islanders, state leaders should consider something not less, but more ambitious–a regional rail system along the lines proposed by Peter Brassard over at Pedestrian Observations several years ago. Maybe  even that wouldn’t quite redeem Wickford Junction–but it might be the only plan that has a chance to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking in Networks, or Transit’s Political Challenge

Last week, New Jersey governor Chris Christie made headlines (in a small segment of the population at least) by poo-pooing entreaties to extend the Camden-Trenton River Line to the Statehouse, telling riders to “Use Uber” instead.  Now, the River Line is seemingly mediocre transit; despite forming a strategic link between two depressed cities, and connecting to strong transit options on both ends, its farebox recovery is atrocious (although it has shown some returns for the region).

That being said, it’s clear that the River Line’s Trenton terminus is in a less-than-ideal location. Although it connects well with SEPTA, NJT, and Amtrak trains, I think it’s fair to assume that most River Line riders are local, rather than making connections to destinations along the Northeast Corridor. And to reach many of the government jobs in downtown Trenton, those riders will have to walk a decent distance or transfer to a collection of buses branded as “Capital Connection.”

The Trenton Transit Center is on the far eastern end of the heaviest job concentration in Trenton.

trenton jobs

From Census LEHD

So: even if the River Line is mediocre transit, extending it a few more blocks into downtown Trenton isn’t a waste–it’s a key network connection that holds potential to be highly useful to lots of riders. And that’s where my take on the potential extension differs from Gov. Christie’s. Where the governor sees a question of expanding an underperforming transit system–that is, in a sense, rewarding underperformance–I see an attempt to redeem that same system with a relatively minor expenditure based on the principle of network connections. Indeed, is it possible that the statehouse connection could be the key to unlocking the River Line’s overall potential?

Much the same logic has been at work in Massachusetts, where Governor Charlie Baker has posed a dichotomy between “core operation” and “expansion,” as told to Politico:

“It just so happens our capital investment is in its core operation and not in expansion. But we see what happens when you spend all your money on the shiny new thing and forget about the fact that you have a core system that you need to invest in, to maintain, to enhance, and to modernize”

Baker’s commitment to this dichotomy has played out mostly in his administration’s skepticism toward the Green Line Extension into Somerville and Medford, and to a lesser extent on the North-South Rail Link. Baker has a point, of course, that MBTA and the state of Massachusetts have shown little capacity for effective project management, and there is a crying need to fix the maintenance and State of Good Repair backlogs facing the existing system.

But, like Christie, Baker fails to understand that the Green Line Extension and NSRL represent not “expansion” for its own sake but targeted infrastructural investments on the principle of building a transit network. Indeed, NSRL would enable the transformation of the MBTA commuter rail system from a collection of disconnected dead-end lines into a real network. In the dichotomous lingo that has taken effect in Boston, NSRL represents neither reform nor revenue, but reform through revenue (or really, investment), which, when needed, is the core logic of network-based thinking. It would take the system from this:

pre NSRL

Existing MBTA commuter rail network, from the North-South Rail Link website

to this:

post NSRL

One vision for a post-NSRL network, from the NSRL website.

To illuminate the conceptual challenge in convincing politicians to think in terms of networks, let’s turn to Jarrett Walker’s well-timed (for my purposes!) post from yesterday on core vs. edge debates. Of course, core/periphery fights are not precisely the same issue as opposing “expansion” that actually represents a key network link–but both represent a failure to think in terms of networks. In Jarrett’s words:

Once more with feeling: Transit is a network, which means that its parts are interdependent.  You cannot think about it the way you think about libraries or fire stations, where putting one in a certain place clearly benefits the people there, because the whole network affects everyone’s ability to get everywhere.

This is the key concept that, it seems, Christie and Baker have failed to grasp. Certainly, there are transit expansions that benefit only a discrete set of people within a region; many (politically popular) commuter rail and light rail extensions into low-density areas fall into this category. But many “expansions” have utility well beyond their own immediate area. The key is for decision makers to be able to differentiate between different kinds of “expansion”–and, in fairness to Christie and Baker, the political incentives are largely set up to make this differentiation hard.

Politicians face pressure to “give” everyone (that is, all geographic areas) benefits from government spending, which–and this is where we return to the parallels with the core/periphery problem–incentivizes spreading money around inefficiently rather than investing in geographically central yet regionally (networkily?) beneficial links. Would Christie or, especially, Baker, be more willing to risk some political capital on an “expansion” if it were seen as a key network link rather than a luxury whose benefits accrue to one particular area? Maybe, maybe not. But those of us with a stronger grasp of the concepts behind the transit can work on educating, those nonspecialists whose first instinct is to respond to the loudest voices.

 

 

Don’t Talk About the North-South Rail Link without Context

Boston’s North-South Rail Link is in the news again. And while blog readers know I think the project should have been finished a century ago, and anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I’m a big fan of the idea, I’m a little frustrated with the way dialogue about it seems to be going.

The current round of NSRL discussion was set off by former Massachusetts governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld, who penned an op/ed in the Boston Globe arguing against the Baker administration’s plans for expanding North and South Stations and for building NSRL instead. Perhaps Dukakis and Weld are working through some of their own culpability for not getting the project built as part of the Big Dig, as originally planned; regardless, I certainly agree with them that expanding the dead-end terminal stations is utterly foolish and wasteful.

I also, however, agree with some of Gabrielle Gurley’s rejoinder in Commonwealth Magazine, which argues that Dukakis and Weld’s piece failed to factor in the realistic politics of taxation and spending in Massachusetts, or present a realistic plan for building the very expensive tunnel. Gurley’s piece is far from perfect–she lumps NSRL, a project that would massively increase system efficiency, with South Coast Rail, a boondoggle that continues in the T’s long tradition of overengineered, efficiency-sucking outward expansions–but she does have a point that the politics of spending on large infrastructure projects are tricky at best. Boston has had some traumatic experiences with massive infrastructure projects, and the T’s problems with project management are both well-known and ongoing.

Dukakis is nothing if not determined, though, and he wrote back to Commonwealth, arguing the Gurley’s math had failed to take operational savings and new ridership into account:

And third – a point your piece totally misses – because the thousands of new passengers will produce approximately $120 million dollars a year in new passenger revenue and $80 million in maintenance savings. And that doesn’t even factor in the “value added” that will come from private leasing and development along the route, some portion of which can be captured as additional revenue.

Those combined funds will support a 20-year bond issue that can pay for the project. That is why it will be far easier to win public support for the project and why your column today totally misses this key point.

Dukakis’ numbers (he seems to assume a project cost of $4.4 billion) may or may not be accurate; it seems to me that he states them with far too much certainty for a project that hasn’t been extensively studied in at least 10 years. What bothers me is that both he and Gurley treat NSRL as if it’s a a standalone project. It’s not, and it can’t be.

Currently, the entire MBTA commuter network–even the Providence line that runs under Amtrak-owned catenary–runs traditional (for America) commuter rail trains consisting of a diesel locomotive and towed coaches. Diesels won’t work in a long tunnel, for obvious ventilation reasons, so any NSRL will of course be electrified. Some past studies have assumed that the MBTA and Amtrak would switch to using dual-mode locomotives on some or all lines once a tunnel is built, but that’s kind of nuts; while New Jersey Transit uses dual-modes in regular service, they’re heavy, slow to accelerate, and inefficient. Realistically (and desirably in terms of service efficiency, quality, and reliability), large-scale or complete electrification of the MBTA network must accompany NSRL.

And that’s a good thing! Electric trains are faster, quieter, and more reliable. Electrifying the whole network and treating it like a regional rapid transit system would be a huge boost to mobility for the Boston area. But it also adds considerable expense to the NSRL project. Alon ballparked a figure of $1.5 billion for complete electrification in his post on the topic. Amtrak’s New Haven-Boston electrification was contracted at $2.3 million per double-track route-mile, though Paul (and others) think the final number was higher. $3 million per route-mile seems reasonable; you might save some on single-track sections (although the underlying infrastructure is the expensive part), and save in other places. Using the $3m/mile number, and excluding the already-electrified Providence Line (though that line, as F-Line points out, would need upgrades to the electrical infrastructure because of Amtrak’s cheapness), I come up with a number lower than Alon’s, just under $1 billion: (information from here)

Line Route-Miles Cost @ $3 m/route-mile
Newburyport/Rockport 34.9 104.7
Gloucester Branch 16.8 50.4
Haverhill 32.1 96.3
Lowell 24.5 73.5
Wildcat Branch 3 9
Fitchburg 48.8 146.4
Worcester 44.3 132.9
Needham 9.3 27.9
Franklin 27.4 82.2
Stoughton 4.6 13.8
Fairmount 9.2 27.6
Middleboro 35 105
Greenbush 17.3 51.9
Kingston/Plymouth 24.2 72.6
Total 331.4 $994.2

At a minimum, we can say that complete electrification will add $1 billion to the cost of NSRL, and quite likely more. There are ways to reduce that number; most transit pundits think the Needham Branch should be converted to an extension of the Orange Line, and you might not bother electrifying Kingston and Greenbush because of low ridership. On the other hand, Amtrak might want to electrify the all the way to Portland and convert the Downeasters into Regional extensions.

Lest anyone accusing me of scaremongering, I will clarify that electrification of the MBTA system is something that should happen regardless. This is especially true of the South Side network, which persists in the bizarre situation of running aging, slow, unreliable diesels under catenary on the Providence line. It’s about bringing an aging system into the last century. But it needs to be part of the conversation on NSRL–both because of the additional costs and because making the case for NSRL should be only part of making a comprehensive case for modernizing the whole MBTA system. 

Electrification, of course, comes with additional costs. The biggest is rolling stock. By my count, based on Wikipedia, the current MBTA commuter rail fleet has almost 67,000 seats split among 457 or so coaches. Depending on configuration, Metro-North’s M8 EMUs seat about 110 people, meaning you’d need over 600 equivalent units to replicate existing MBTA fleet capacity. At $2.54 million per unit for the initial M8 order, that’s over $1.5 billion to buy EMUs. Things could get a little cheaper; Metro-North is clearance-limited by the Park Avenue Tunnel, whereas MBTA uses a large number of bilevel coaches and NSRL would presumably be built to clear them. The newest (only?) US bilevel EMUs, Metra’s Highliners, cost $3.6 million per unit, and seat 128 (not that great a capacity improvement over single-level coaches, because Metra’s gallery-car setup sucks–MBTA bilevels seat up to 185). MBTA could also choose to buy electric locomotives to haul the existing coach stock.

The final major expense that might accompany NSRL is the cost of building high-level platforms at all, or almost all, MBTA stations. Many already have them; it’s just good practice. Most of the MBTA network sees little or no freight traffic, so clearances really should not be considered an issue. Having level boarding is especially important at outlying stations when all trains are running through a constrained central segment such as a tunnel, and thus must keep to exacting slots. I count 132 stations on MBTA lines that might need high-level platforms; I’m too lazy to look up how many already have them like I did for the Morris & Essex Lines, and how many stations have 1 as opposed to 2 platforms. Cost estimates for high-levels vary; somewhere in the ballpark of $5 million per platform seems reasonable, while MBTA’s fairly simple new Fairmount Line stations cost $6.9-$9.4 million each. If each of the 132 stations costs $5 million for a high-level platform, the total cost would be $660 million; if it’s more like $9.4 as on Fairmount, it would be $1.2 billion. The actual number would likely be somewhere in the middle. 

For the record, Dukakis’ estimate of $4.4 billion in tunnel construction costs seems reasonable if (a HUGE if) the project is managed correctly. Though he and Weld failed to get the tunnel included in the Big Dig, despite it being included in the initial plans at various points, the construction did leave “slurry walls’ underneath the freeway tunnel that make future tunneling easy. The real complication is the need to construct portals for various lines, winding them between many layers of infrastructure. Including my estimates here, the costs of a modernized MBTA rail system would be:

$4.4 billion for the NSRL tunnel

+

$1 billion for electrification

+

$1.5 billion for new rolling stock

+

$900 million (roughly splitting the difference) for high-level platforms

=

a total of $7.8 billion for complete modernization. 

That might be optimistic; one cannot count on the T to manage projects well, and the projected electrification costs may well be low. But it should be fairly comprehensive.

I’ve just spent 1,300 words talking about how expensive it would be to build NSRL and the other improvements it requires. The final number is truly massive, almost twice what Dukakis seems to assume in his recent writing. And yet, I’m doing this as a fan of the NSRL project. Why? Because not acknowledging the true price of the project also risks obscuring its true benefits. Seeking to win over opponents by minimizing the projected cost of NSRL isn’t going to work; Americans are too paranoid about government spending for that.

It’s very easy for skeptics to point to a multibillion dollar price tag and compare the NSRL project to disasters like the Big Dig. But there’s a key difference: the Big Dig represented a choice for path dependence, for continuing Boston’s dependence on highways at massive cost. It was the natural next step for the highway network, representing a relatively minor improvement in functionality–and a major improvement in aesthetics. But it didn’t provide a new function the road network had never provided before. By contrast, NSRL would be revolutionary, not evolutionary. It’s not “just a tunnel,” and if you’re having the discussion on the grounds that it is, you’ve already lost. Proponents of NSRL need to talk about it in terms of its potential to truly transform the entire system, and that means detailing all of the additional functionality that NSRL can provide–and acknowledging its cost.

Notes on Boston-Springfield Service

Readers of this blog know I have a particular interest in intercity rail in New England stemming from growing up in New Haven. So when Eitan Kensky sent me a February presentation I hadn’t previously seen from the Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative (NNEIRI, not to be confused with the Northern New England Regional Rail Association, or NNEPRA, which runs the Downeaster), I was seriously intrigued. There have been numerous efforts over the years to revive the Inland Regional service that Amtrak and predecessors once ran between Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Hartford, and New Haven, and this document presents the general outline of the group’s current vision for the return of such service. Much of the research seems to have been done by contractors HDR, and the predominant vision is clearly that of MassDOT, with secondary input from Vermont and other stakeholders.

NNEIRI study area map

NNEIRI study area map

Massachusetts has, of late, been focused on two major goals for non-Northeast Corridor intercity rail: a link to Montreal and restoration of Inland Regional service. The current study (logically) links these two together. Tough previous service to Montreal has run along the Central Vermont line, turning off the Boston & Albany at Palmer to serve Amherst before heading north through Vermont, the current vision has Boston-Montreal service using the recently rehabbed Connecticut River Line from Springfield to Greenfield before continuing north. It’s a little bit longer, but serves Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield instead of just Amherst, and takes advantage of the state-owned Conn River trackage.

The predominant challenge to intercity rail in New England is that the trackage is in most places exceptionally curvy. The build alternatives envisioned for the NNEIRI service thus focused on regular-speed trains, with no ambitious plans for even moderate-speed (110 mph) options. It’s important to remember that “maximum speed” here means Maximum Authorized Speed, or MAS, rather than average speed. On curvy legacy tracks the trains are unlikely to obtain the maximum speeds for very long stretches, given FRA restrictions on tilt for conventional equipment (although the 90 mph MAS alternative does make brief mention of the possibility of acquiring tilt equipment).

Table of service alternatives

Table of service alternatives

A Boston-to-Springfield time of right around 2 hours would be extremely competitive with driving, which is about an hour and a half without traffic (yeah, right) and realistically usually at least a half-hour longer. It’s also about the same time as Peter Pan’s bus offerings, but a train would presumably offer a much higher level of comfort and reliability.

Costs would fall in the billion to billion and a half range for the bottom two alternatives, which seems on the high end for relatively simple double-tracking work within an existing right-of-way; I assume most of the capital expenses would be on the Vermont sections, since the B&A right of way is built to accommodate at least two tracks.

nneiri costs

Overall, the conclusion seems to have been that bumping MAS from 79 to 90 mph would result in considerable extra expense with little time saved or gain in ridership. The study team’s Draft Build Alternative is a modified Alt 2, with 79 mph MAS and slightly fewer trains:

draft build alternative

Eight trains per day would run through from New Haven to Boston, a kind of mini-Inland Regional service. These trains would function as extensions of the current New Haven-Springfield shuttle service. There would be one round-trip per day from Boston to Montreal, and another from New Haven to Montreal, while the Vermonter would continue as it currently operates, with an extension to Montreal. Springfield would get 9 round trips per day to Boston, and presumably the New Haven-Montreal train would have a timed connection with a westbound Boston-New Haven train at Springfield, giving Boston in effect two daily round trips to Montreal.

All trains are envisioned to make all local stops, which is interesting to me; I would have run the Inland Regional/shuttles as expresses in Connecticut, stopping only at Hartford. As it is, the additional 9 corridor trips will provided important added frequency to the NHHS/Hartford Line service that should be beginning in 2016. A 2011 NHHS document envisions full cross-ticketing between NHHS and shuttle/Regional trains, and the boost from NHHS’ 25-32 trains per day at launch to 34-41 including the corridor services is nothing to sniff at. However, that many trains would clearly require Connecticut to finish double-tracking the Hartford Line between Hartford and Springfield. That task isn’t itself all that complex but has been deferred to Phase II of the NHHS project (though it is included in Governor Malloy’s 5-year transportation ramp-up plan) because of the  considerable expense of rehabbing the Union Station viaduct in Hartford–which is, somewhat amazingly, believed to no longer be able to hold two trains at once–and the bridge over the Connecticut River.

Interestingly, study staff clearly believe that Springfield-Boston service alone would be a poor use of resources, labeling it “Low Ridership” and “Ineffective and Costly.” As Alex Marshall pointed out on Twitter, much of the envisioned ridership to New Haven is surely people from Worcester or the Metro West region who want a two-seat ride into New York City without doubling back into Boston to catch an NEC train.

Likewise, the study labeled plain Boston-Montreal service “Low Ridership,” while noting the potential for higher ridership in the New Haven-Montreal corridor. Despite decades of pleading for Montreal service, planners still seem to believe that Boston doesn’t quite deserve it. That’s not particularly surprising to me given how slow such service would be and how sparse population is along the corridors between the two cities. So for now, there will likely be just the one round trip per day, plus the possibility of a two-seat ride via transfer in Springfield, and that situation seems likely to stay the same for quite a while.

Other notes

Finish the Cross

As currently planned, the NNEIRI system looks like a sideways T, with the long axis pointing to Boston. I’m on record as a (self-interested) proponent of Albany-Boston service, and I think some of the improvements proposed here strengthen the case for finishing off a cross-shaped network with trains from Boston to Pittsfield and Albany. Double-tracking the Boston Line from Worcester to Springfield would leave less than 100 miles of single track from Springfield to Albany (it’s 102 track-miles, but there are existing sidings and stretches of multiple track). If trains can do Boston-Springfield in 2 hours, a time of 4 hours to Albany should be eminently achievable even without much in the way of speed improvements. With significant speed improvements (most of the line west of Springfield is limited to 40-50 mph, even though the trackage west of Pittsfield isn’t all that curvy or steep) a time in the 3:30 range–which my previous post identified as the time necessary to be competitive–should be achievable. That would open up the possibility of Boston-Toronto service via the Erie Canal corridor cities–a potential market for an overnight train?

Boston Line Capacity

One of the major ongoing dramas in New England intercity rail has been CSX’ reluctance to share the ex-B&A right-of-way with passenger service. Given current constraints, it is somewhat understandable; it’s a steep, curvy line that has suffered from decades of deferred maintenance (yes, part of that is CSX’ fault, but the neglect predates CSX ownership). CSX runs 25-30 trains per day on the line, which approaches the capacity of a mixed-use single-track line, even one equipped with advanced (by freight rail standards) CTC signaling:

From NCHRP Report 773

From NCHRP Report 773, “Capacity Modeling Guidebook for Shared-Use Passenger and Freight Rail Operations”

Double-tracking the line, however, offers enormous potential, jumping the capacity from an estimated 30 trains per day to 75. In other words, CSX could double current traffic–a situation no one sees as being around the corner in New England–and there would still be 15 slots per day for passenger traffic. More realistically, a fully double-tracked B&A could easily accommodate 40 freights, the 8 proposed Inland Regional trips, 6-8 trips to Albany, and the Lake Shore Limited–a total of under 60 trains per day west of Worcester.  Of course, fully double-tracking the line requires the states of Massachusetts and New York to cooperate, and the Cuomo administration has shown little interest in efficient passenger rail.

Pessimistic SPG-NHV times

The table of travel times above envisions a trip time of 1:40 from Springfield to New Haven given all local stops. This seems somewhat pessimistic to me, as the current shuttles and Vermonter are scheduled for 1:20 to 1:30 over the same route; perhaps the longer time takes into account that a few stops will be added under the NHHS scheme, but those should be counterbalanced by improved track speeds; it’s not a big deal, but I’m somewhat confused.

Who’s going to operate it?

Most commentary I’ve seen has assumed that any extension of rail service from Boston to Springfield would be operated by the MBTA. Running the trains through to New Haven would seem to preclude that possibility. Amtrak would seem the most logical choice, but the northeast state haven’t been thrilled with it of late; Connecticut, for example has opened the NHHS service to a bid competition. The NNEIRI network is an extremely complex system, involving at least three states, plus the province of Quebec and federal authorities regulating border crossings, the private railroads owning the tracks, and various other stakeholders. So perhaps now is the time to revive my call for a unified Northeastern passenger rail authority.

 

 

The Windsor Gardens Experiment

In the Boston suburb of Norwood, MA, there is a commuter rail stop called Windsor Gardens. It’s a pretty unassuming place, a single low platform on a single-track segment of the Franklin Line that sees 13 inbound trains per day.

There is one thing that’s unusual about the Windsor Gardens station amidst the MBTA’s constellation of park-and-ride oriented suburban stations: it has no parking. Instead, Windsor Gardens is intended to serve the residents of its namesake apartment community, The Berkshires at Windsor Gardens, a relatively upscale 1960s-era development with prices in the $1,000-$2,000 range.  Though I haven’t been able to get an answer from the administrative office about how many people live in Windsor Gardens, the Norwood town history site notes that when opened it had “approximately one thousand units,” and the relevant census block, which includes a few additional houses, listed a population of 2,004 people in 2010.

Windsor Gardens at center.

Windsor Gardens at center.

The MBTA commuter rail system has some stunningly low-ridership stops, and one might expect that a station serving a single development, with no parking available for people who don’t live in that development, would be among them. Instead, according to the 2014 MBTA Blue Book (2013 data) Windsor Gardens ridership–inbound only, the way MBTA measures it–was 624 riders per day.

624 isn’t a huge number–the top-performing stations in the MBTA commuter rail system see around 2,000-2,500 inbound boardings per day–but it IS a big number in the context of a station that essentially serves one development and provides no parking for commuters. For the record, there appears to be no (legal, at least) pedestrian access to Windsor Gardens station from the east side of the tracks, and while it’s possible some commuters walk into the station from the subdivisions across Route 1A, that number seems unlikely to be large, and a private apartment community seems unlikely to welcome strangers tromping through it every day.

Windsor Gardens’ ridership numbers haven’t always been quite this robust; the Blue Book’s chart of ridership censuses over the last five years demonstrates:

April 13 Nov. ‘12 Nov. ‘11 Nov. ‘10 Feb. ‘09 Feb. ‘08 Jun. ‘07
 624   464  423  414   313  454   309

Ridership does appear to be recovering with the economy, and in 2013 it was twice what it was in June of 2007. Even then, a ridership figure of 300 inbound riders per day would have represented approximately 15% of the total number of people who can be assumed to live in Windsor Gardens. If ridership now stands at 624 per day, that would be around 30% of the residents of Windsor Gardens who ride the commuter rail every day–a truly astonishing percentage. And remember, those are numbers of residents, not numbers of workers; the percentage of workers riding transit would be even higher.

The typical “rate of return”–how many residents actually ride transit to commute–on transit-oriented development is hard to calculate, but best guesses are that they average around 25%, with TOD around rapid transit skewing much higher, and around commuter rail much lower. With between 15-30% of residents riding transit every day, Windsor Gardens would appear to be an exceptional success by the standards of commuter-rail oriented TOD. It would also appear to be a demonstration of the power of proper land use near transit stations to generate transit ridership–and of the idea that TOD can be built, and still generate significant ridership, without massive amounts of parking.

Windsor Gardens as an apartment community isn’t what we’d think of as “true” TOD today; it’s a single-use residential community set in an area that’s not walkable and highly auto-oriented. I assume that virtually everyone who lives there owns at least one car per household, just to get to the grocery store and school. But even a development approaching 50 years old can demonstrate that if you make it convenient enough, you can house suburbanites in a transit-oriented way.

The Historically Referential Parking Garage?

On Friday G and I took a brief (Shabbat-shortened) trip into Boston. Not wanting to be constrained by the infrequent commuter rail schedules, we drove from Sharon in to Quincy/Adams station on the Braintree branch of the Red Line, conveniently (for us) located just off of I-93. The cavernous parking garage was most empty when we got there around 10:30 (though, curiously, it was much fuller when we got back around 2:30). In many ways, Quincy Adams represents the worst of modernist, auto-oriented park and rides–it has 2,538 spaces, of which almost a quarter sit empty on a given day, and is completely inaccessible by foot for some of the dumbest reasons I’ve ever heard, as Andy from mbtainfo.com pointed out to me on Twitter. Nevertheless, Quincy Adams worked well for our purposes, and going there gave me a the opportunity to note something remarkable (if perhaps not intentional) about the architecture of the aforementioned 2,500-space garage.

First, an illustration of the car-orientedness of the area around the station, from DHK Architects, which has done some work on the garage:

Here’s a picture I took from the internal walkway a story up from the ground connecting the two halves of the garage.

Phone picture, 12/26/14

Phone picture, 12/26/14

Seem familiar? Here’s another view, from ground level:

To me, the towering dual garages, with an open atrium in the center covered by a high ceiling or window, immediately call to mind the famous, Cass Gilbert-designed Building B at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. Check it out:

The Brooklyn Army Terminal’s rail stop is perhaps most famous for having once hosted Elvis Presley as he departed for his stint in the Army; two former LIRR coaches once used in an Elvis movie sit inside the atrium. Today, the glass covering the soaring atrium is sadly gone (though the atrium being open to the air has allowed a sukkah to be built inside!), and the tracks inside the building are, I believe, no longer connected to the national network, even as cross-harbor freight traffic has again picked up. But plenty of grandeur remains inside Building B, which is now occupied by various private commercial concerns. I highly recommend this photo essay from Scouting NY, one of my favorite sites.

I’ve been unable to find any proof that Boston architect Valdis Smits, who seems to have designed the Quincy Adams complex, intended the comparison to Building B. But it seems too much to be coincidental. The soaring atrium of Building B is a famous, epic motif, one instantly recognizable to a certain community of architects, planners, and transportation geeks. Both Building B and Quincy Adams fulfill(ed) a multimodal role, aggregating people from a wide geographic range and concentrating them into a more efficient mode of transportation. It’s possible that Smits’ inspiration was another building; commenters on the Scouting NY piece note that Gilbert’s design for Building B is very similar to the Ford plant in Highland Park, Michigan, and that Gilbert designed other buildings along similar lines. But for me, the inspiration and reference was clear the moment I walked into the atrium of the parking garage. Perhaps even the worst of Modernism still has the power to express something of meaning.

Think I’m crazy? Know something about this? Comment!

Ridership and Parking Utilization on the Providence/Stoughton Line

Inspired by a vocal discussion on Twitter last night

Park-and-Rides are one of the most controversial topics in planning and transit circles. Some contend that such facilities encourage unnecessary car use, while others believe that in the right circumstances they can reduce car usage. One example of a notoriously unsuccessful Park-and-Ride facility that came up on Twitter last night is the massive garage at the extreme southern end of MBTA’s Providence/Stoughton line, Wickford Junction, Rhode Island. Opened in 2012 at a cost of $44 million, the station includes a massive, 1100-space garage that is supposedly aesthetically modeled (on the outside, presumably) on the historic Lafayette Mills building nearby. Suburban American kitsch is the best kitsch.

Via RIDOT on Flickr, here’s the garage as completed….

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ridotnews/7024336895/in/photolist-gzomVm-nHRdSt-gzoRik-bGHyBv-btNL87-bGHyCP-bGHyB6-bB1Hmv-fcKxb2-fdfL2F-jpWUCw-bB1HoV-bo6R33-bB1HqH-bQ8mot-bB1uiP-bo6BX7-bo6C1m-bo6BWh-bB1ukc-bQ8nwt-9CYAmB-bQ8qMv-bBdL6S-bQkRiB-bQkRnT-bQkRoD-bBrbNb-bBrbSw-bBrbLw-bBrbFC-bBrbHY-bQkRpa-bBrbEy-bBrbHb-bBdFxm-bBdxKQ-bQ8i4x-bBdC8o-bBdwN5-bBdEhG-8imtV1-bBdyNN-8iif8M-b9Ap7H-jpWUW7-bo6BYA-bo6C2y-bB1unF-bQ8oJX

And under construction in 2011.

Wickford Junction Station 4

The payoff for all of that investment? A massive, staggering number of riders–a full 159 inbound boardings per day in 2013, as you can see in the handy-dandy ridership map provided by the MBTA in their 2014 Blue Book.

There are few words for the amount of fail that the Wickford Junction project represents. To (perhaps) justify the investment, the station would need to attract nearly seven times the number of boardings it currently sees every day. And that’s to say nothing of the in track, trains, and crew costs that were necessary to extend commuter rail operations that far south in the first place. The overly rosy projections for Wickford Junction ridership date back as far as the 2003 Environmental Impact Study RIDOT conducted for the commuter rail extension, which contains the following helpful predictions:

2003 EIS

2003 EIS

Given the dire situation in Wickford Junction, then, I was intrigued by the situation along the rest of the Providence/Stoughton Line (and by the system as a whole, but hey, let’s start with one line, that’s easier to get a handle on). Here’s a spreadsheet with ridership numbers and parking capacities at all of the stations between Wickford Junction and Hyde Park (I decided it would be silly to look at Forest Hills and Ruggles, where things are complicated by the presence of the Orange Line). Ridership data is from the map above, parking data is from the MBTA website.

Since the sheet doesn’t display well on WordPress, full link is here. In graphic format, the patterns look like this:

Thanks to my partner G for Excel help!

Thanks to my partner G for Excel help!

A few things jump out.

1. The Rhode Island stations south of Providence are obviously a hot mess. If money had to be spent on extending MBTA service down there, the way to do it wasn’t to build fancy stations and then only run a few trains per day. Frequency matters. That should have been obvious from the beginning, but it’s exceptionally clear now.

2. Providence is a nice example of an urban station that doesn’t feel the need to provide huge amounts of parking to attract riders. New Haven could learn a lesson.

3. At the highest-ridership suburban stations on the line (South Attleboro, Attleboro, Mansfield, and Sharon) parking capacity is only about half of boardings, suggesting that many people do indeed walk or get dropped off (these station don’t have much in the way of feeder bus service–Sharon I know for sure has zero).

4. Stoughton and the Canton stations are an interesting case. Parking capacity doesn’t come close to matching the number of boardings–but according to the MBTA’s data, each station has 40% or more of its spaces available on a given day. Stoughton and Canton are relatively walkable despite a dearth of feeder bus service; presumably, many people walk or are dropped off at these stations, and others park for free on town streets to avoid MBTA parking charges.

5. Despite its entirely car-dependent location, Route 128’s parking remains underutilized by several hundred spaces, even taking combined MBTA and Amtrak ridership into account.

Conclusions

A few lessons seem apparent. First, MBTA and the agencies it works with have a problem with overestimation of parking demand–and in that, they’re certainly not alone among American commuter rail operators. Not every lot along the Providence/Stoughton line is underused, but the more monumental ones (Wickford Junction, T.F. Green, Route 128) certainly are. Operators and planners should let the demand for parking come to them, rather than trying to anticipate how it will develop. By all means, reserve space for a garage if necessary, but don’t built it until demand makes itself known. And for god’s sake, tell the locals to charge for parking too, or they’ll take away all of your paying parkers! And remember, even at the best-utilized park-and-ride stations on this line, it certainly appears that around half of riders don’t park to ride the train.

Second (and this may seem obvious, but MBTA and friends don’t seem to have grasped it) the quality of the built environment around the station matters. One of the CityLab articles I linked to at the top argued that distance from the city center should be the determining factor in the decision to build a Park and Ride facility; I’d substitute characteristics of the local built environment. Providence/Stoughton stations that are embedded in relatively walkable areas–Providence, Stoughton, Canton Center, Canton Junction, Hyde Park–exhibit very weak parking demand. Old New England towns don’t exhibit a linear progression from urban to suburban, and planners should pay attention to that. I don’t have much of a problem with Park and Rides in very suburbanized areas, but we shouldn’t be expecting people to drive half a mile from home to the station if they can walk it.