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March 26, 2006

The MTA's "Big Dig"

We all know what happened when Boston decided to bury its downtown elevated interstate highway, known as the central artery. What was intended to be a seven year, $2.5 billion project became a ten year, $14.6 billion engineering nightmare.

Well, heads up fellow commuters and taxpayers! The MTA has similar designs on our beloved Grand Central. Nicknamed the “East Side Access” project, the goal is to bring the Long Island Railroad into Grand Central.

The plan would see use of the lower level of the 63rd Street subway tunnel, allowing some LIRR trains from Queens to enter Manhattan and then follow a new, very deep tunnel under existing Metro-North tracks beneath Park Avenue. Trains would terminate fourteen stories under Grand Central on eight tracks with up to 24 trains per hour. Exiting passengers… an estimated 162,000 per day… would be whisked upward on high speed escalators, to the west side of GCT, with an underground concourse complex stretching from 43rd to 48th streets.

Estimated cost for the project… $8 billion… about the same as rebuilding the entire World Trade Center complex. Actual cost, factoring in inevitable delays, cost over-runs and typical under-estimation by politically sensitive designers… who knows, maybe double that? And for what gain?

The only reason for the East Side Access project is to give LIRR riders better access to midtown. Is the subway ride from Penn Station to GCT really all that bad? Imagine what we could do with $8 billion to improve commuter rail service in the tri-state region.

What would an almost doubling of passengers in GCT (by adding LIRR to existing Metro-North riders) mean for Connecticut commuters? Well, if you think the station’s crowded now, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. And just imagine the already jam-packed Lexington Avenue subway station with even more riders!

The currently under-utilized GCT would quickly be maxed out for trains and platforms, making much-needed expansion of service to Connecticut a real problem.

True, diverting some LIRR trains into GCT might free-up “slots” in Penn Station for Metro-North trains (which would travel there by way of the Hell Gate bridge), but don’t count on it, what with New Jersey Transit, Amtrak and LIRR also vying for more trains in Penn Station.
And speaking of NJ Transit, their plans for a new tunnel under the Hudson River also dream of extending trackage from Penn Station north to Grand Central as well, adding to the fray. But that’s another story.

If all of this concerns you, don’t get your knickers in a knot. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. The money’s already been appropriated and the project should be finished in 2012.
What role did Connecticut play in this boondoggle? Zero… nada… zilch. The MTA didn’t ask our opinion or seek our approval. Though Connecticut Dept. of Transportation is Metro-North’s biggest customer, we still have no seat, no vote and no say on the MTA Board.

For more info on the East Side Access project, see http://www.mta.nyc.ny.us/capconstr/esas/index.html

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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 15 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

March 08, 2006

"Highway Service Areas"

Most of us don’t think twice about the decrepit service areas on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway. Their nasty fast food and over-priced gas are best avoided by knowing locals. But a major study is underway by CDOT to rehabilitate these service and rest areas, and they want your views.

I recently attended a focus group which examined the shortcomings of the 31 facilities, most of them in southwest Connecticut. The complaints I heard echo commuters’ gripes about Metro-North: facilities are too old, the bathrooms are dirty and there’s not enough parking.

And what kind of first impression of our fair state do these 1950’s eyesores (built to double as bomb-shelters) give to tourists, now the fastest growing sector of the state’s economy? Even the NY Thruway seems more inviting.

And what about the truckers who ply our interstates and need to take a break? A 2001 CDOT study showed there are 1,200 truckers who must park roadside at night, even on I-95, because there’s no place else … and do so with the complicity of the State Police.

What’s the impact of these service areas on the towns that “host” them?

Darien, which hosts the two busiest rest areas in the Northeast (and the most profitable McDonald’s franchise in the US!) on I-95, and two smaller service areas on the Merritt Parkway, is a case in point.

Police say the Darien I-95 service areas are the town’s crime hot-spots. When the volunteer EMS unit “Post 53” answers a nighttime call at the service areas, they must have a police escort. Neighbors report prostitution and drug needles along the small fence surrounding the rest area… not to mention the environmental impact of run-off into neighboring streams or the air pollution from idling trucks’ refrigeration units (again made possible because State troopers look the other way).

There’s gotta be a better way. And a few ideas that came out of this CDOT sponsored study might give us all some hope.

Like the idea to use I-95 air rights to build a mall-style service area above the highway with parking on either side. Newly designed service areas would have better food, trained greeters to guide tourists to the local sights, maybe even WiFi access, weather and traffic information. Some even suggested farmers markets and solar-powered plug-ins for parked trucks. Or on the Merritt, where service areas are in the National Register of Historic Places and cannot be changed, how about picnic tables and dog-walks?

There will be public meetings on all these plans in the coming months. But you can review what’s being discussed and chime in with your ideas now at www.ctrestareas.org . While CDOT admits it only has funding for the study and may never implement its suggestions, maybe we should err on the side of optimism and give them a few ideas.
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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 15 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com