We are about to witness an epic struggle between those who maintain that a new Tappan Zee Bridge with transit is a local issue between two counties and those who regard this project as essential for the entire metropolitan region to flourish through the 21st Century.
Those organizations that should be deeply involved, like the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC), the Municipal Planning Organization (MPO) for our region, seem to have a “hands off” attitude toward this so-called “local” issue. The Regional Plan Association, Rudin Center, TriState Transportation Campaign, all identified with solving regional issues in the Metropolitan Area, remain distracted with mega mass transit projects located in Manhattan.
The most populated region in the country has only two bridges connecting it to the mainland of the United States, the George Washington and the grossly inadequate and failing Tappan Zee. To be sure there are two rail tunnels linking Manhattan to New Jersey, the PATH tunnel and the AMTRAK tunnel which is so overwhelmed that a second tunnel (dubbed the Access to the Region’s Core – ARC) is well in- to the planning stage. Even with two vehicular tunnels the links across the Hudson are stunningly inadequate to our mobile population and the newer demands of globalization. The answer – a multi-option new Tappan Zee Bridge and a full-length commuter rail that links the three-state existing system and five existing north/south rail lines. To be sure, this is the most expensive alternative but it is also the option that will work in the long term. The Bus Rapid Transit system and the Light Rail option are local solutions to a regional problem and therefore destined to fail. Any alternative that requires one to change modes in Tarrytown will keep people in their cars. Here are the reasons the full-length commuter rail is the only solution and why it will succeed.
The rising cost of gas is the first and most obvious reason to connect our rail system. Even though it is down from its recent high the future is obvious – the price of gas will gradually rise as demand outstrips supply. Economists have downplayed this trend but it is reality and we would do well to prepare for it. Commuters across the country have begun to alter their traditional car-dependent life pattern by using whatever mass transit is available. Bicycles, scooters, segues, carpools, shuttles and even flying are making their way into our emerging reality. If you would like to step out of your car for a few days and start riding the rail system, your bike or to even walk, you can get short term parking for your car so you can park in a safe place and are sure that nothing will happen to it while you’re out and about.
In many regions, particularly those southern states that over-developed, drivers are now mired in traffic congestion with no real alternative to the personal vehicle. This is where the northeast can shine in this new age if it has the courage to complete what will be a world-class regional rail system.
The aging of the population is a second powerful trend that will favor the development of the commuter rail. Statistically, you will be deprived of your car for at least eight years in your golden years because of a variety of personal and medical restrictions. Further complicating this trend is the rising need for the elderly to continue working well past the traditional retirement age because of inadequate or non-existent retirement funds. A well-connected rail network complemented by a bus/shuttle system will be essential to the region’s economy and social well-being as the population ages.
With more leisure time many seniors will be major transit riders for other reasons. Those wishing to travel across the country should be able to reach AMTRAK from Stamford, Connecticut without a car. By taking the projected east/west rail to the Hudson Line then north to the Croton Station, one has access to the entire country through the AMTRAK connection. Others could travel from White Plains to an international airport at Stewart (in Orange County) on a one-seat ride using the planned rail connection from the Port Jervis line in Orange County, thus avoiding the agony of traveling to New York City airports. Remember, we’re looking at the future, not just what travel patterns exist today.
Then there are the shoppers, nearly as numerous as commuters on this corridor. And a shoppers’ paradise it is with Woodbury Common, Nanuet Mall, the Palisades Mall, the Galleria and the Westchester in White Plains. All of these popular destinations, as well as the heavily-used Westchester County Center, are on this projected rail line.
Finally, we get to the commuters who are usually the first consideration in transportation planning, even though generally they comprise only 22% of the total number traveling 24/7. The ability of the workforce to move around freely and reliably is essential for a successful economy. Nearly half of the Westchester workforce lives outside the county resulting in the major source of congestion during peak hours. The only possibility for commuting reliability is travel by rail, proven by MetroNorth every day. Those traveling over the Tappan Zee Bridge are dominantly moving through the corridor, stopping at office parks along the corridor as well as the major draw, White Plains. Only 30% are heading for NYC, not Manhattan but the Bronx.
From the Connecticut end of the corridor, there is a large number of potential rail riders, those not heading for the city but to White Plains, New Jersey, Rockland and Orange Counties. The disastrous congestion on I-95 illustrates the problem vividly — the lack of an east/west rail option that could be accessed from Stamford with a compatible commuter rail. All the north/south rail lines will contribute riders to the east/west line and vice versa.
To summarize, the commuter rail is the only option currently being studied that can take us comfortably into the future, no matter the life-changing trends that are looming on the horizon. It is the regional solution for a regional problem, linking the five existing north/south rail lines into a world-class rail network.