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The Looming Transit Breakdown That Threatens America’s Economy


Categories of maintenance needs, in billions of dollars, for America’s large transit agencies. Graph: RPA

While federal transit funding stagnates, the nation’s largest rail and bus systems have been delaying critical maintenance projects. Without sustained efforts to fix infrastructure and vehicles, the effects of deteriorating service in big American cities could ripple across the national economy, according to a new report from the Regional Plan Association [PDF].

RPA focuses on ten of the nation’s largest transit agencies — in Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Between them, these agencies face about $102 billion in deferred maintenance costs. To bring the systems into a state of good repair will require about $13 billion in maintenance spending per year — more than twice the current rate of investment.

These regions house about one-fifth of the country’s population and produce about 27 percent of the nation’s economic output. They also carry about 60 percent of the nation’s total transit ridership, up from 55 percent 20 years ago. That’s a reflection of how transit has become increasingly important in these regions, with passenger trips growing 54 percent over the same period.

That level of ridership growth can’t be sustained if the transit systems aren’t maintained properly. RPA cites a 2012 report from San Francisco’s BART that says if the system is allowed to deteriorate…

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Let This RPA Vid Explain Why We Need More Rail Tubes Under the Hudson

The Regional Plan Association produced a nice explainer video on why the region needs to build more rail capacity under the Hudson River, the risks facing the existing train tubes, and what will happen if one of them has to be taken offline for repairs before another tunnel gets built.

The situation with the tunnels has heightened urgency because New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the ARC rail tunnel project so he could pay for roads. Not that New York’s Andrew Cuomo has been much help either: When pressed by reporters last summer, Cuomo abdicated responsibility for the century-old rail tubes.

Eventually, Christie and Cuomo said their states would foot half the bill if the feds picked up the rest, but no one really knows how much the project will cost.

The video is part of RPA’s campaign to prod state and federal leaders to action on expanding Hudson River rail capacity. Senator Cory Booker will participate in a related roundtable tomorrow.


RPA: Growing Outer Boroughs Need New Generation of Transit Investment

Subways, focused on service to and from the Manhattan core, have seen a 23 percent ridership boost since 2003. Over the same period, bus ridership, which forms the backbone of outer-borough transit, has fallen 6 percent. Image: RPA [PDF]

Subways, focused on service to and from the Manhattan core, have seen a 23 percent ridership boost since 2003. Over the same period, bus ridership, the backbone of outer-borough transit, has fallen 7 percent — even though population and jobs in the outer boroughs are growing at a faster rate than in Manhattan. Image: RPA

With the boroughs outside Manhattan adding people and jobs faster than the city core, New York needs to reorient its transit priorities, argues the Regional Plan Association in a new report. The authors warn that increasing travel in the other boroughs will strain the local bus system and lead more people to drive, causing more traffic congestion and imposing the burden of car ownership on more low- and middle-income New Yorkers.

This trend is already apparent. You could call it a tale of two trips.

Trips to and from the Manhattan core are shifting away from cars, with almost 90 percent of commuters to jobs below 60th Street arriving by transit. Subways, the backbone of the network into and out of Manhattan, have seen ridership increase 23 percent since 2003. Major projects are underway to extend subways and commuter rail serving the Manhattan central business district.

By comparison, transit trips that don’t begin or end in Manhattan are slower and less convenient, and they’re getting worse.

While the region may be centered around the Manhattan core, the lives of many New Yorkers are not: 61 percent of NYC workers who live outside Manhattan also work outside Manhattan. Over the last two decades, the number of jobs in the other boroughs has grown twice as fast as Manhattan-based jobs. At the same time, buses — the workhorse of outer-borough travel — have seen ridership fall 7 percent since 2003.

To avoid a future of even more sluggish transit and congested streets, RPA suggests new rail connections, more Bus Rapid Transit lines, and improving access to existing commuter rail service for city residents.

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De Blasio Talks Planning and Housing But Not Transpo at RPA Assembly

Planning and transportation leaders from across the tri-state area met at the Waldorf Astoria today for the Regional Plan Association’s annual gathering, featuring panel discussions and a keynote by Mayor Bill de Blasio that was noticeably light on transportation issues.

Bill de Blasio wants to talk housing, but not as much about transportation infrastructure. Photo: Kevin Case/Flickr

Bill de Blasio talked housing today, but not as much about transportation infrastructure. Photo: Kevin Case/Flickr

The mayor’s speech was a bit of a coming-out to the city’s planning community. “Planning is not a luxury; it’s a necessity,” he said, later quoting Daniel Burnham to the crowd of regional planners. “I think of environmental sustainability in the same breath as economic sustainability.”

“We haven’t fallen into the trap of thinking that we can expand ever-outward,” de Blasio said. “Here in New York City, we have to be smart. We have to be efficient.”

Not surprisingly, the mayor made income inequality the fundamental theme of his speech, but he also noted the limits of local action in the face of a federal government he described as absent. “It’s better addressed in a regional manner, and better still in a national manner or international manner,” he said. “We’ll do it locally, until the day comes when the paradigm shifts.”

Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg came to today’s event, but that issue was mostly absent from de Blasio’s speech. Aside from lamenting the federal government’s slow fade from transportation investment, the mayor did not outline his vision for how transit links to inequality and environmental sustainability. Vision Zero went unmentioned, as did the long commute times facing some of the poorest outer-borough residents.

Instead, de Blasio talked up his administration’s goal of building and preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing in 10 years, calling the plan to achieve that goal, which is due next week, “extraordinarily ambitious.”

Although transportation didn’t take center stage at today’s event the way it might have in previous years, when congestion pricing or DOT’s bike and pedestrian programs took the limelight, it did feature in a number of breakout sessions, including one on traffic safety and another on transportation funding. And today’s assembly was a stark contrast from last year’s, when RPA heaped praise on the Tappan Zee Bridge project.


Honoring the Tappan Zee, and Other Highlights From the RPA Assembly

Today, the Regional Plan Association held its 23rd Annual Assembly, gathering many of the region’s transportation and development players under one roof. Unlike recent years, when the buzz was about congestion pricing or DOT’s bicycle and pedestrian programs, this year’s program didn’t have much to excite livable streets advocates.

This afternoon, the Regional Plan Association chose to honor one of the men responsible for the transit-free Tappan Zee Bridge. Image: Thruway Authority

Instead, one particular project had the spotlight during today’s luncheon, when RPA gave a lifetime achievement award to Thruway Authority Chair Howard Milstein. In his acceptance speech, Milstein praised Governor Cuomo and the Tappan Zee Bridge project. “It should serve as a model for public works projects across America,” he said. Apparently without irony, Milstein added that one of the guiding questions for the transit-free project was, “What will best serve the people who rely on this thoroughfare every single day?”

“We recognized the importance of ensuring our project was environmentally sustainable from the start,” Milstein said. In announcing the award earlier this month, RPA Chairman Elliot “Lee” Sander praised the replacement bridge’s expansion of vehicle lanes across the Hudson River.

Although Milstein’s speech was an event centerpiece, the program was headlined by Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, who spoke briefly about transit-oriented development in Stamford, where he previously served as mayor, and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who concluded her speech with a full-throated endorsement of the Low Line project, a plan to create an underground park in the former Essex Street trolley terminal below Delancey Street, near the base of the Williamsburg Bridge.

A late-morning forum on the future of Penn Station focused mostly on the immediate political hurdles facing the effort to relocate Madison Square Garden. The arena’s special zoning permit is before the City Council for renewal, and MSG is seeking an indefinite permit. A coalition of groups, including RPA and the Municipal Art Society, are proposing a 10-year renewal instead, to allow the city, state, and property owners to embark on a process that would eventually relocate the Garden and reconstruct Penn Station. A City Council vote is anticipated in June, according to MAS President Vin Cipolla.

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Brooklyn Greenway Milestone: City Announces Full Implementation Plan

A cross-section envisioned at one point along the greenway. Image: NYC DOT

The Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway started out as a glimmer in the eyes of a few dedicated volunteers 14 years ago. Now it’s a comprehensive city plan to build out a ribbon of parkland from Greenpoint to Sunset Park.

At the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative’s annual benefit yesterday, DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan announced the release of an implementation plan for the full 14-mile greenway, which will serve as the backbone for car-free biking and walking along the borough’s waterfront. The plan consists of 23 segments that can be fed into the city’s capital construction pipeline.

“This document marks both the end of the planning stage and the start of a new era,” Sadik-Khan said in a statement today.

The backstory of the greenway could some day form a textbook for grassroots livable streets activism. The founders of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative — Meg Fellerath, Brian McCormick, and Milton Puryear — hatched the idea in 1998. In 2005 their vision took a huge leap forward, when Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez secured a $14 million federal grant for the project. Following NYC DOT’s 2008 decision to adopt the greenway as official policy, the city’s planning and outreach accelerated, with BGI, DOT, and the Regional Plan Association organizing dozens of public workshops over the past few years to map out the greenway route. “Every step in the process was open and transparent and gave people an opportunity to express their ideas,” said Velazquez last night.

After a day when Republicans in Congress renewed their efforts to eviscerate and belittle programs for biking and walking, Velazquez framed the greenway project as a smart transportation investment. “It’s not only about providing public access, but connecting communities along the waterfront,” she said. “That is providing transportation options, so you can walk or bike, and burn some of those calories.”

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DOT Expanding Use of “Life Preserving Intervals,” With More to Come

One more tidbit from last Friday’s Regional Plan Association shindig: During the Q&A session at the “Cars vs. Bikes vs. Pedestrians” panel (a title that seemed unnecessarily provocative to moderator Trent Lethco, RPA board member and transportation consultant with engineering firm Arup, until he concluded that it “reflects realities”), I asked about leading pedestrian intervals.

An LPI, also known informally as a “Life Preserving Interval,” lets pedestrians enter the crosswalk before turning drivers get a green signal. It seems like a cheap and effective way to reduce injuries and deaths caused by turning drivers, but I wondered if there must be a hidden downside, since they are not more widely used.

Sam Schwartz answered first. He said LPIs were invented in New York, in the 1980s, and that they have a limited impact on vehicular capacity. Jon Orcutt said DOT has been adding LPIs at more intersections (watch the Streetfilm for LPI locations circa 2008) and “would like to get to the point where it’s the default.”


DOT: New York City’s Complete Streets Are Built to Last

The New York City Department of Transportation is nurturing a culture of safer streets that it expects to outlast the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, DOT policy director Jon Orcutt said at last Friday’s Regional Plan Association annual assembly.

Kent Avenue in Brooklyn, where DOT installed the city's first on-street, two-way protected bike lane in 2009. Photo: Ben Fried

Speaking at a panel on the politics of multi-modal streets, Orcutt described Bloomberg’s PlaNYC as a “mandate” not only to modernize city transportation policy, but to “reinvent the public realm.” Building on infrastructure improvements that came about prior to the era of Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, including East River bridge bike paths and the west side Greenway, DOT’s physically separated bike paths and other more recent innovations have made cycling more accessible, Orcutt said, and have helped double the city-wide bike count over the last five years.

“One of the ideas here,” said Orcutt, “is you don’t have to be an endurance athlete or some kind of risk-taker to ride a bike around town.”

Fellow panelist and city traffic guru “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz recalled the now-infamous yarn of how Mayor Ed Koch ripped up protected bike lanes on Fifth and Sixth Avenues in 1980, following a spate of fatal cyclist-pedestrian collisions and a visit from President Jimmy Carter. As the story goes, Koch, Carter and Governor Hugh Carey were riding through Manhattan in Carter’s limo when Carey, in reference to the bike lanes, said to the president: “See how Ed is pissing away your money?” The lanes were removed a month after they were installed.

Schwartz cited the late 60s experiment that closed Central Park to cars from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., undone after Abe Beame’s wife got stuck in Manhattan traffic, and Rudy Giuliani’s Midtown pedestrian corrals, still in place today. To Schwartz, these are cautionary tales that point to the fluid nature of city transportation policy.

But Orcutt made a convincing case that the current effort has taken root. Last year’s media-fomented “bikelash” had the unintended effect of arousing public interest in bike lanes when many New Yorkers might otherwise have been indifferent, he said. When opinion polls consistently showed overwhelming support for bike infrastructure, said Orcutt, the negative stories disappeared. The anti-bike propaganda push, he said, “sowed the seeds of its own demise.”

As the city has added 200 miles of bike lanes, Orcutt said, communities are lining up to request public space improvements. With bike-share to launch this summer, some 10,000 sites were suggested for 600 stations. Pedestrian plazas are popular with business groups that understand the value of foot traffic, and more applications have been submitted than DOT can accommodate. “People are coming to us and asking for these things,” said Orcutt.

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Quick Hits From the 2012 RPA Regional Assembly

The tri-state area’s transportation and infrastructure leaders are gathered at the Waldorf Astoria today for the Regional Plan Association’s annual gala. For a few years now, the proceedings at the Regional Assembly have been haunted by the death of congestion pricing and bridge tolls in Albany, and lately the complete gridlock in Washington over a national transportation bill has weighed heavily as well. With large-scale transportation projects like the ARC tunnel falling by the wayside and funding streams for infrastructure getting weaker every year, there’s not much new stuff in the pipeline, at the regional scale, to get excited about (unless you get excited about boondoggles).

On the local scale, things are looking brighter. As NYC transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said at a morning plenary, “the innovation is happening in cities.” New York’s expansion of the number 7 line using value capture financing and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s ambitious 30/10 transit plan were repeatedly cited as examples of how cities might move forward using new funding models.

Mayor Bloomberg headlined the morning schedule and briskly ran down his transportation and planning agenda, citing past achievements and future goals. A few notable quotes from his talk:

  • “Bike lanes and pedestrian plazas have made our streets safer and livelier for everyone. Buildings in Times Square and Herald Square have more rent coming from the first floor than the entire rest of the building, because there’s so much foot traffic.”
  • NYC quality of life “will get even better this summer when we launch a bike-share program that will be the largest in the Western Hemisphere.”
  • Bloomberg noted that the city has accomplished most of the goals laid out in its long-term sustainability plan, PlaNYC 2030, in 2007. “The only things that haven’t happened yet are those that needed Albany” to move forward, he said, a not-so-oblique reference to congestion pricing. “There’s a lot left to do to put our regional transit system on a sound financial footing.”

Despite all evidence to the contrary, the mayor maintained that Governor Andrew Cuomo “understands the needs” that Albany must address. Bloomberg also singled out Cuomo’s major transportation appointments — Joe Lhota at the MTA and Pat Foye at the Port Authority — as great choices.

Lhota, who sat on the morning panel that included Sadik-Khan and two former Port Authority chiefs, revealed a few interesting tidbits about the future he sees for the MTA.

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HUD Grant Will Lay the Groundwork for TOD in New York and Connecticut

From Suffolk County to New Haven, the communities of New York and Connecticut are planting the seeds for a serious investment in transit-oriented development in the years ahead. Funded by a $3.5 million grant from HUD’s Sustainable Communities program, nine cities, two counties and six regional planning organizations have come together to develop regional plans for tying sustainable transportation and new development. Those plans are the first steps toward an impressive array of projects across the region, from new rail stations to new zoning codes around existing transit hubs.

The New York and Connecticut region have the best transit and rail network in the country, explained Robert Yaro of the Regional Plan Association, which is administering the collaboration, but also the largest income gaps and most expensive housing. For the region to continue to prosper in the 21st century, he said, it needs to embrace its transportation system as the backbone for continued development, including affordable housing.

By mid-century, said Adolfo Carrion, the regional HUD administrator and former director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, the country will need an additional 200 billion square feet of development to house its growing population and economy. “It has to be vertical,” said Carrion. “It has to be reliant on mass transit.”

For that to happen, local government needs to lay the groundwork now, so that when the economy recovers from recession and the real estate market again kicks into high gear, dense and transit-oriented projects are built. This grant makes that kind of planning possible.

In New York City, for example, the Department of City Planning will develop strategies to encourage transit-oriented development at Metro-North stations in the Bronx and at the East New York LIRR station. “Growth in New York City in the right places actually takes cars off the road,” said Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden. The Bronx was selected due to its strong growth in recent years, she added. “The logical place for the Bronx to grow more is along its Metro-North corridors.”

In East New York, fantastic transportation resources are paired with major economic challenges and strong community organizations to partner with. The area near the train station will become what Burden called “a really complete neighborhood, live/work, mixed-income, mixed-use, that’s really walkable, bikeable with strong mass transit.”

In Stamford and Bridgeport, the grant will fund feasibility studies for new rail stations, which could catalyze the redevelopment of entire new neighborhoods.

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