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February 26, 2012

Rethinking The Tappan Zee Bridge


Why is a column that usually writes about Connecticut’s transportation problems suddenly interested in The Tappan Zee Bridge?  Because the pending rebuilding of this bridge across the Hudson River will have a major impact on our lives, our economy and travel patterns.
The mighty Hudson River is what separates New England from the rest of the country.  Sure, you can cross over or under the water by car on any number of bridges and tunnels in New York City, but north of the George Washington Bridge there are few options.  And for freight trains, there are none, short of going all the way to Albany.

When it was originally envisioned in 1950, the new trans-Hudson bridge was going to be built by The Port Authority between Dobbs Ferry and Piermont NY.  Instead the Thruway chose the wider, but shallower section a few miles north between Nyack and Tarrytown.  Opening in 1955, the bridge was soon followed by the Cross-Westchester Expressway (now I-287) in 1960, forever linking access to Connecticut from the west.  (A planned extension of I-287 over Long Island Sound as the Oyster Bay – Rye Bridge never came to pass.)

The Tappan Zee, like our old Metro-North railcars, has been repaired, patched and kept going long beyond its 50-year life expectancy.  Maintenance costs over the past four years have cost $389 million. The old, seven lane bridge is literally falling apart and was highlighted on a recent History Channel documentary about our nation’s crumbling infrastructure as a disaster waiting to happen. Think collapse.

Even the White House recognizes the urgency of replacing the bridge, putting The Tappan Zee on a list of 14 projects to receive expedited federal approval.  And while NY state has opted for a design / build replacement… where the winning bidder designs and builds the new structure, rather than working from a state-created blueprint… the $5.2 billion project may get underway this summer.

The real question is, what kind of vehicles will use the new bridge?

While most of the traffic (170,000 crossings per day recently, ten times the original traffic in 1955) is private cars, the bridge is also a crucial truck crossing, especially for cargo bound for Connecticut.  There are also commuter buses from Rockland County connecting to Metro-North.

Many say the new Tappan Zee should also carry trains, or at the very least offer dedicated BRT (bus rapid transit) lanes, but neither is in the current plans.  This is a huge mistake.

An east-west rapid transit corridor, rail or bus, running from Rockland County across the new bridge, then down the median of the Cross-Westchester Expressway (I-287) and connecting with I-95 and the New Haven line of Metro-North / Amtrak, would be a game changer.  So much of our mass transit runs on a hub and spoke system, into and out of New York City, while we lack an east-west connection.  To miss the once-in-a-century opportunity to accommodate mass transit on a new Tappan Zee Bridge would be a tremendous loss.

But as with the much discussed MTA plan to run Metro-North into Penn Station, the future of the Tappan Zee (and with it, Connecticut’s link to the west) lies in Albany, not Hartford.  New York will again decide our fate with no input from those of us in Connecticut.

Much has been made of late about what to do with the old bridge after the new one opens.  The latest plan is to leave the bridge open as a pedestrian and cyclist walk-way, much like the repurposed Highline on Manhattan’s west side.  Demolition would cost $150 million, they say, so why not turn the old bridge into a cement park?

It’s a shame that so much discussion has focused on this petty, parochial side issue when the real question about building the new structure to handle more than cars and trucks seems pushed aside.

For more on recent public hearings on the bridge rebuild, click here.

February 12, 2012

Next Stop Penn Station?


There’s discussion again about bringing some Metro-North trains directly from Connecticut into New York City’s Penn Station.  But will it happen? 

As with many good ideas that seem so easy, this one also has been studied thoroughly and found to be problematic in a number of respects.  Governor Rell floated the idea in 2007 but it went nowhere, aside from an experiment by NJ Transit to run trains from New Haven to the Meadowlands.  Here are the reasons that daily commuter service isn’t yet possible:

INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT:  As any commuter on Metro-North can tell you, we don’t have enough seats for existing service to Grand Central let alone expansion to new stations.  It’s standing room only in rush hour and on weekends.

ELECTRICITY:  Our existing fleet of MU cars cannot take a left turn at New Rochelle and head over the Hells Gate Bridge onto Long Island, then hang a right, in through the tunnels into Penn Station.  The old cars’ overhead power catenary system operates under a different voltage than Amtrak.  And in third rail territory on Long Island, even our new M8 cars use a different kind of shoe to contact the third-rail power source.  The 2009 experimental direct train from Connecticut to Giants Stadium in New Jersey was actually run with New Jersey transit railroad equipment which was only available because it was on weekends.

CAPACITY:  Even if we had the cars with the right electrical equipment to make it over the Hells Gate Bridge and through the tunnels to Penn Station, there’s no room in the station… that the station is full-up serving Amtrak, the Long Island Railroad and NJ transit.  If and when the $6.3 billion East Side Access project bringing some Long Island Railroad trains into Grand Central is completed (many years from now), says the MTA, there might be room for Metro-North trains to access Penn Station.

CUT LIRR SERVICE?        Recently the MTA has hinted they might run some Metro-North trains into Penn Station, but it would have to cut Long Island RR service.  You can imagine the push-back that got, pitting one set of commuters against another.  (See more on our Facebook page).

Whatever the decision, it won’t be made by us here in Connecticut.  Once again, Connecticut is being told by the New York MTA what our transportation future will be.  Connecticut still has no say in the matter… not even a voting seat at the table, either on the MTA or the Metro-North boards.  

Connecticut may be the MTA’s largest customer, hired by CDOT to operate Metro-North trains in our state, but when it comes to important decisions, like expanding rail service to Penn Station, the MTA is clearly in control.

Years ago Governor Rell acknowledged the inequity in this position, and promised to fight for a seat on the MTA board.  But nothing happened.  Nor has Governor Malloy said anything about this unfairness.

So, just why is a New York agency still in charge of Connecticut’s transportation future?