The Incrementalists

New plans to modernize our aging rail intrastrcture
are modest, in the extreme.

“We are at a modest place,” declared Christopher O. Ward, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, at a recent symposium. That modest place sounded cozy, like a Quaker meetinghouse or a surf shack. Unfortunately, what Ward was referring to was the latest attempt to convert the overcrowded, underloved Penn Station into the somewhat less crowded and potentially more lovable Moynihan Station by shifting some of the action across Eighth Avenue to the monumental Farley Post Office.

Back in 2007, this undertaking was theoretically going to give birth to two new daylight-filled train halls, a relocated Madison Square Garden, and millions of square feet of retail, office, and hotel space. But that $14 billion soap bubble, a product of relentless deal-making, popped a few weeks after then governor Eliot Spitzer slunk off the public stage. Now we’re in the first phase of a new approach, taking, Ward says, “a very small, but tangible, incremental step.” The work of Phase I, budgeted at $270 million, will take place largely underground, lengthening platforms and widening concourses. It will allow commuters to enter and exit through a new set of doorways, permitting them to go underneath Farley but not inside of it. The stunning train hall featured in so many renderings has been postponed until Phase II, if there is a Phase II.

Actually, the modest place Ware described is the whole United States of America, this vast country of ours, which seems so much smaller than the rest of the developed world when it comes to transportation infrastructure. It’s one of those things you can’t help noticing whenever you travel. I recently took the train to Newark airport. Or more accurately: I took the trains. Getting to Newark from Lower Manhattan is a time-consuming, three-seat ride: subway, New Jersey Transit, and goofy little airport-bound monorail. The worst of it was trying to find my way to New Jersey Transit’s corner of Penn Station in the middle of rush hour. What can I say? A small, incremental step is unlikely to help here.

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Apparently we’re now a nation that takes only incremental steps. When I arrived at my destination, Copenhagen, I had a choice of two different one-seat rides to downtown: a reg-ular train (the same line that will also whisk you to Malmö, Sweden, across the impressive, decade-old Øresund Bridge) or a metro line that began service only eight years ago and is part of a larger system still under construction. Either way, the trip cost about five bucks and took around 12 minutes. Easy to use and comprehend, even for a jet-lagged foreigner. (Have I mentioned that China is in the midst of building a network of bullet trains that will extend 9,700 miles by 2020? And that this project has given the Chinese the expertise to export their high-speed-rail technology?)

Still, there’s reason for guarded optimism (or what passes for it these days). Last year the Obama administration distributed about $2.1 billion in the form of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants to dozens of geographically diverse infrastructure projects. When you read the descriptions, you begin to dream of how the country might be reinventing itself … incrementally. New Haven, Connecticut, got $16 million to convert a highway that divides the city into an urban boulevard that meets “complete street standards,” meaning it will have bike lanes and is pedestrian friendly. Salt Lake City got $26 million toward the construction of a new streetcar line. Oregon received $2 million toward building a string of electric-vehicle charging stations along I-5. And then there’s the $2.4 billion that the administration has just pumped into passenger-rail projects around the country, some high speed, some conventional.

Unfortunately, the TIGER-funded project that best represents the present is the $950,000 planning grant for the downtown Madison Intermodal Terminal, intended to serve a new high-speed rail line connecting Chicago to Minneapolis/St. Paul via Wisconsin’s major cities. One small problem: Wisconsin’s newly elected Republican governor, Scott Walker, campaigned on a no-train platform and announced his intention to use the state’s $800 million in rail money for road repair. Among Republicans, sadly, there’s a perceived political advantage to stopping any White House–funded project. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pulled the plug on the $8.7 billion rail tunnel that would have doubled the number of trains New Jersey Transit could pump into midtown Manhattan. Construction was already under way. And Ohio’s new Republican governor, John Kasich, thumbed his nose at federal funding for rail projects in his state. “That train is dead,” said Kasich of a line that would have linked Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.

“We’re talking about nothing short of transforming transportation much the same way the interstate highway system did under President Eisen-hower,” wrote Secretary of Transporation Ray LaHood on his official blog. “Can you imagine if Ohio or Wisconsin or any other state had said,
‘No, thanks—we don’t think that highway thing is going anywhere?’”

No, actually. Perhaps because the feds provided 90 percent of the funding for the interstates. Or because much of the highway system
was built before the federal government was commonly regarded as
an invading foreign power. My issue with our current approach to infrastructure is that we’re funding a grab bag of pilot projects rather than building any sort of network. High-speed rail will connect Tampa and Orlando, Chicago and St. Louis, and maybe San Francisco and Los Angeles. But if we were really serious about reducing our use of fossil fuels and changing how Americans get around, we’d be building something exactly as big as the interstate highway system. Of course, we might not have the money at the moment, but I think the real problem is that the federal government is afraid of acting like a federal government,
all top-down and overbearing.

Petra Todorovich, the director of the Regional Plan Association’s America 2050 project and an advocate for high-speed rail, doesn’t buy my argument. “High-speed rail is viable in different regions around the country. That’s the way we’ve proposed that a system be built out in
the United States, because long-distance corridors are very expensive
to build and to maintain, and they just don’t make sense when compared to the speed of air travel. High-speed rail is best suited for corridors of up to 600 miles.”

Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, disagrees, pointing out that air travel isn’t practical for everyone. “The entire population doesn’t live near airports,” he says, adding that he’d like to see a high-quality coast-to-coast rail network. “Trains have the ability to serve both long and short distances in the same trip, in a way that no other vehicle can.”

All I know is that the only thing worse than taking the train to Newark is taking the train back from Newark. After a few days riding the Danish trains, I found the shabbiness of our rolling stock painfully obvious. And the New York metropolitan area’s transit system, as beat-up as it is, is pretty much the best this country has to offer. This should be the place where we all understand the economic value of investing in infrastructure. And most of us do. But not Governor Christie.

In the wake of the Hudson River rail-tunnel debacle, New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, may emerge as the canniest opportunist of them all. Senator Moynihan wanted to relieve Penn Station’s overcrowding and general misery by moving it a scant block west, across Eighth Avenue. Bloomberg would address those same problems by moving the station even farther west. His response to the death of the tunnel was to propose that the 7 subway line, currently being extended to Manhattan’s Far West Side, be stretched all the way to the rail hub in Secaucus, New Jersey. It’s a signature move in our incremental approach to infrastructure. What it does, aside from buffing the mayor’s image as an nonpartisan pragmatist, is shift a percentage of the commuters that would ordinarily pass through Penn Station to the less crowded, blandly pleasant (skylights!) Frank R. Lautenberg Station, located out in the swamps of Jersey. So it’s like we’d be get-ting added space in Penn Station, without the Moynihan plan’s sunlit grandeur. The Bloomberg Tunnel, like the radically downsized Moynihan Station, will someday be a symbol of America the Modestly Incremental.

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