Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.
– Francis of Assisi (attributed)
I was born and raised in Rochester, the city that Susan B. Anthony used as her base of operations for her relentless nationwide campaign for women suffrage. How did she get everywhere in the nation from Rochester? By train, of course. Just blocks from her home, she and her famous “alligator purse” could catch a train directly to Washington, DC, at the station now occupied by Nick Tahou’s, Home of the Garbage Plate™. Downtown, she could catch a train to Chicago and points west, or to any city on the eastern seaboard. It is said that she had the national rail timetables memorized so that she could plan a trip almost instantly.
Today, despite a new train station aptly named for the late, great Louise Slaughter – who had the kind of career in elected service that Susan B. Anthony rode hundreds of trains to make possible – almost no one travels by rail to or from Rochester. The same goes for nearby Buffalo, despite its one-time status as the second-largest rail hub in the United States.
Why? Many reasons, but they all come down to neglect, short-sighted policies, an over-reliance on the private automobile, and a failure to conserve the infrastructure of tracks and stations that we once had. Now, except for the Northeast Corridor and Hudson Valley, rail service in New York State is too infrequent, unreliable, slow, inconvenient, and unpleasant to be mainstream. Disinvestment and loss of ridership have been a decades-long, self-reinforcing downward spiral.
For years political leaders have talked of high-speed rail in New York, with many schemes studied and false starts made, but the reality is that before we can attempt such a leap we have to restore a solid foundation from which to take it. But restoring a foundation so eroded is not a simple matter. Ultimately it will take billions in infrastructure investment to build new facilities across the state and make up for a half century of neglect. But just as important will be the “cultural investment” in re-creating a rail culture in New York that has been almost entirely lost in large swathes of the state for generations.
Why is that essential? Creating true high-speed rail across New York will take vast expenditures, and unlike the creation of the original, vast passenger rail infrastructure in the state, this time the costs won’t be borne by the railroads but by the people. But people support what they value and believe that they need, and as the car became king many began to associate passenger rail and commuter rail with the creeping, creaking transportation of the horse-and-buggy era.
It’s not going to be easy to get people upstate, especially west of the Hudson, out of their cars and onto trains again. As you said in your recent presentation to ABNY about the new Empire Station Complex in Manhattan, “You can’t say to people, ‘don’t take your vehicle’ unless you have a system they believe they can get on that is efficient, effective, and safe.” Your point may have been about transit, but it applies just as well to passenger rail.
In a way, our neglect of passenger rail in the automotive era became a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Vincent Scully said about Pennsylvania Station, “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.” And where once elegant, streamlined name trains whisked upstate Dorothys to the Emerald City while freight traffic respectfully made way, passenger rail now resembles a “clinking clanking clattering collection of caliginous junk” sullenly waiting its turn while miles of container trains carrying foreign-made goods go past.
When it comes to rail travel, nostalgia for the past is powerful and visions of future sugar plums dance in many heads. But before speedy passenger trains ever run once again across New York, perhaps on magnetic magic carpets or miles of specialized, precision track, rail transport first has to stop crawling. It used to know how to run, but before it can relearn that it first needs to get up off its hands and knees and walk.
Go big by going small
Getting rail transportation across New York to walk again won’t happen overnight, as much as we might want it to – and need it to. It will take a rehabilitation plan, years of physical therapy, and milestones along the way. The effort needs to restore convenience, reliability, and connectivity, so that rail once again becomes a viable option. Then, people will not only support but demand higher-speed service.
Leading up to the State of the State, you said you wanted a panel of experts to give you give you an innovative, transformative strategy. You said:
High speed rail is transforming economies around the world. We’ve been told that bringing this technology to our state is too expensive, too difficult and would take too long – that’s not an acceptable attitude for New York. When we developed our plan to repair the L Train Tunnel, the team of experts we assembled questioned every assumption and brought new creativity to a seemingly intractable problem. We not only found a way to repair the tunnel without shutting down service, we are doing it ahead of schedule. This kind of outside-the-box thinking will help us determine how we could deliver high speed rail for New York.
Recommendations to implement high speed rail across the State, which have not changed much over the last two decades, have consistently estimated that projects would take decades and be unaffordable. This team of experts will review these past studies, and strategies that countries all over the world have used to build thousands of miles of high-speed rail, to ask every question and find the best way to build high-speed rail in New York.
What the experts may find is that, counter-intuitively, crawl-walk-run (CWR) is that transformative strategy. (It would also lend itself to your endearingly quirky style of graphics should you decide to embrace it.) Given how the state has talked in the past about a great leap forward in passenger rail, while the reality is that across most of the state it doesn’t even walk but hobbles on crutches, CWR would indeed be transformative.
Think about it this way: in your recent presentation to ABNY about the plans for the Empire Station Complex in Manhattan, you said, “Sometimes you have to go big.” And indeed, your plan does that by making an essential conceptual leap: recognizing the need to expand across 31st Street, to acquire a block of Midtown, and to think in terms of a district rather than just a facility. Yet at the same time, that leap is solidly grounded in the reality that the underlying issue – literally – is not buildings but track capacity. Note: readers can view the Governor’s ABNY presentation on video here:
or download his PowerPoint (BIG PDF) here.
Let’s not allow complex future dreams to stop us from taking bold and tangible steps today.
– Rick Cotton, former aide that Governor Cuomo dubbed his “Czar of Infrastructure,” now Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
In much the same way, the essential conceptual leap with high-speed rail in the Empire Corridor is that we can’t go big until we first go small, with a consistent program of tangible improvements that make things better now and position us for something far better in the future. That leap is solidly grounded in the recognition of reality.
Another lesson along these lines from the Empire Station Complex plan is just how essential it is to lay the right groundwork first. To get positioned for the great leap you presented this month, you first built the new West End Concourse and expanded the Long Island Railroad Concourse and created the new East End Gateway. That helped improve passenger movement in Penn Station from a crawl to a walk, and now you can start the big project to make everything run. High-speed rail across the state will take a similar approach.
When Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton worked for you, he said in a letter to the New York Times, “Let’s not allow complex future dreams to stop us from taking bold and tangible steps today.” Although he said this about your administration’s plans for the Empire Station Complex, it could just as well apply to upgrading rail service on the Empire Corridor.
To get us “taking bold and tangible steps today,” what would a CWR program look like? At its simplest, annual investments following a well-developed plan driven by a consistent funding source and beginning with projects that are ready to go. It would become a cycle of planning, engineering, bidding, and construction of upgrades and improvements to rail infrastructure and capacity statewide. It would continue as long as necessary to return functioning rail travel across the state, taking us confidently from crawl to walk. All the while, planning can happen in the background for true high-speed rail, which would take us, when we are ready, from walk to run. That would put us on the straight, ever-upward trajectory you showed in your ABNY presentation:
None of that should be confused with playing small ball. These would be real improvements and investments that will make things noticeably better right away. In a very real way, CWR would begin to build high-speed rail now, not a decade or two from now, because every investment would be taking us there. This would be a radical shift from the state’s approach to date, which has been to promise a brave new world of magic-carpet travel in some distant sci-fi future, while offering nothing better in the near term.
To be clear, none of these “walk” investments would be wasted. Even after some kind of transformative, truly high-speed rail on the Empire Corridor arrives, it will supplement and complement, rather than fully supplant, other shorter-range and slower-speed options.
How can we make rail travel walk again across the state, and prepare it to run? How can we get about the business of, as Rick Cotton said, “taking bold and tangible steps”? Several ways, I believe – each of which would be both bold and tangible (not in ranked order, although with the first being essential to the rest):
1) Regional rail readiness planning
When we finally achieve real high-speed rail, it will likely make only one or two stops in each region, in the same way most regions have only one or two major airports. For regions west of the Hudson, it will be the first time in over a half-century that passenger rail will need to figure prominently in regional transportation planning. That planning is something we can and should get in the works now. Each region should explore how high-speed rail would affect land use and development patterns in the region, and how it would fit into the regional transportation system.
One way to do that would be to task each REDC with creating a Regional Rail Readiness Report, in collaboration with MPOs in the regions that have them, that recommend infrastructure changes and investments necessary to re-establish rail travel as a viable option in the near term and prepare for high-speed rail in the longer term. REDCs could then incorporate projects from those reports into their regional plans and annual funding requests.
Even regions like the Southern Tier or Long Island that might not be on a high-speed rail line, at least initially, still need to do planning for not just a future where much of the state is served by high-speed rail, but for a nearer term where rail becomes viable again as a way of getting people around locally and regionally and inter-regionally. Those regions without high-speed rail may still want to connect with high-speed rail in another region via lower-speed passenger rail, or commuter rail, or even excursion rail. Also, due to geographic considerations, regional high-speed rail hubs and regional airports are likely to be separated by miles yet need to function together as part of a seamless regional and statewide transportation system, so this would be a good time to consider creating airport links by light rail or commuter rail.
A regional approach is also essential because this time around, unlike past high-speed rail efforts, local knowledge and expertise need to be baked in from the beginning. Several years ago a consulting firm that was preparing a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for high-speed rail on the Empire Corridor came to Buffalo to get public comment. The consultants didn’t seem to be working with any local partners and seemed to have little if any local knowledge, so they struggled to process the input that people gave them. That can’t happen this time around. In rethinking the process for moving forward toward high-speed rail in New York, we need to plan simultaneously at both the statewide and regional levels.
Keep in mind that regional rail readiness planning can also be done with extensive public engagement, to help get people excited and get their creative juices flowing. We saw that happen with the 2017 Buffalo station study. As I wrote here three years ago this month, people from all walks of life spent the day at City Hall sharing ideas and enthusiasm. We also saw that outpouring of creativity and engagement with last year’s Skyway study.
If people know their involvement will be followed by real, tangible improvements – even if incremental – they’re more likely to get involved than with a giant project not likely to happen in their lifetimes. So regional rail-readiness planning can tap into that reservoir of enthusiasm and local knowledge. Outside experts have a role to play, but often the most important reservoir of expertise is in the deeply place-based knowledge of those who have lived in a place or region for decades, and it is essential to tap it.
2) A relentless pursuit of intermodalism
Apologies, Governor, but the best I can say about the new Buffalo train station project you championed is that it, well, went off track. It began promisingly enough, with a committee chaired by Bob Shibley, Dean of the UB School of Architecture and Planning, who knows how to apply those two subjects to Buffalo’s built environment like no one else. The committee had the clout and the chops to resist immense public pressure to pick another site, and successfully fulfilled its mandate to determine the best location for an intermodal facility, which is the “crossroads” area of downtown.
But after that, everything went downhill. A piece I wrote at the time the station plan was unveiled lays out the problems with the project, the most fundamental being that it’s not intermodal. Instead, it’s a stand-alone, single-use facility that largely ignores its urban context. It makes no effort to integrate with the surrounding buildings. Bus integration was treated as a “nice to have” rather than essential. And most egregiously, it doesn’t do the simplest, most essential thing: link Metro Rail and passenger rail in the same facility.
It’s as if someone at a high level decided, essentially, “well, just give them something like Rochester has.” But producing cookie-cutter stations and single-purpose solutions is what Amtrak has been doing all along – one reason their stations are derided as “Amshacks”. We’re not going to get where we need to be by doing the same old things. It’s especially disappointing in light of what you said to ABNY in your recent presentation, “The number one rule of architecture and design is never put aesthetics before function.” Yet that’s just what your Buffalo station project did: replaced a stand-alone, isolated facility with a more attractive stand-alone, isolated facility.
Think about it this way: your administration’s new plan (BIG PDF here) for the Empire Station Complex in Manhattan is complex, ambitious, and well-thought-out. As impressive as its details is its deep understanding of the site and its urban context. Your team went to great lengths to make it “1 interconnected complex.” You went on to say, “We will call this new 21st century business-transit development district, ‘The Empire Station Complex.’”
Although not in the same way, the site of the Buffalo intermodal station is also complex. It includes legacy transportation infrastructure, the only light rail system in upstate, and the tallest building in the state west of Albany, that is currently being re-envisioned as the hub of an innovation and technology district. Although not in the same way, like Manhattan it needs not just a station but a station complex – one that is not just about transit but also about business and creating a transit-oriented district.
The point is that in Buffalo, and other places on the Empire Corridor, we need the same careful, considered quality of planning from New York State as you rightly gave to The Empire Station Complex – even if not on the same scale.
We need a policy from the highest level down to the regional level that any rail project must be absolutely as intermodal as possible, not to mention fitting into its urban context and helping advance local and regional priorities and plans. The regions need not just permission, but a mandate, to think outside the stand-alone station box. The good news is that’s not difficult to do, once the commitment to it is made. Almost every region of the state has a college or university that teaches urban planning and architecture. So much of the necessary expertise and local knowledge is already there.
Involve those folks from the beginning in developing regional rail-readiness plans, and keep them involved. Supplement and exchange their knowledge at regular statewide conferences on rail facilities planning that include new ideas, best practices, and case studies. That will put and keep New York on the cutting edge, where it belongs, instead of making the same mistakes and doing the same-old-same-old.
Show the way for this in Buffalo by re-engaging the UB School of Architecture and Planning to rescue the current station project and adapt what has already been built into a truly intermodal facility. Doing that will demonstrate the state’s commitment to intermodalism and excellence in planning in all rail facility projects going forward. Not only can New York do what it sets its mind to, it can also do it right.
3) More tracks in more places
The single most important investment in getting rail travel out of the crawl mode is adding dedicated tracks to existing rail corridors. Fortunately, our state has recent experience doing this in the Capital District (here and here). While three quarters of the $200M price tag of those projects was covered by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the next infrastructure bill – or the next presidential administration – could dedicate more funding to rail improvements. But as you rightly said in your presentation to ABNY, New York is not going to wait for Washington – and, in fact, is investing in adding tracks to the Long Island Railroad.
Much of the state west of Albany needs these second tracks, as well. A great place to start would be between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, where Patrick Whalen, Director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute has advanced a proposal for a second track to make service between the two cities more reliable, and allow Buffalo to be connected to Ontario’s GO Train commuter rail service between Niagara Falls, ON and Toronto. It would also allow for commuter rail between the two cities, which would influence tourist decisions to spend and extra day on the US side of the border.
Whalen’s approach to change, given in his favorite expression, “base hits, baby!” also aptly applies to upgrading rail travel in New York.
4) Commuter rail
One year ago this week, upstate New York received a wakeup call about commuter rail when daily service on Ontario’s GO train began between Toronto and Niagara Falls, Ontario. Just a few hundred feet away from New York State was daily commuter service to Canada’s largest city, and we had nothing ready on our side of the border to meet it. But not for lack of trying: Patrick Whalen, Director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute, has been pushing for commuter rail between Buffalo and Niagara Falls for years. Without the reliable, frequent service that commuter rail could provide, rail travel between Buffalo and Niagara Falls – two cities once connected by one of the earliest railroads in the state – is now largely non-existent.
Linking downtown Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and Toronto – three of the top destinations for those living in or visiting western New York – with commuter rail could go a long way toward a rail comeback in the region that would set the stage for high-speed (or higher-speed) rail. Commuter rail could also prove useful in other upstate cities, and similarly help prepare the way for improved passenger rail. For generations, commuter rail in New York has been almost entirely associated with downstate, disappearing entirely west of the Hudson except for brief, underfunded experiments like OnTrack in Syracuse.
The problem with not having commuter rail (or even light rail, except in the case of Buffalo) is that for most of upstate the primary way to get downtown and other important regional destinations is by car. Not only did that remove a culture of getting places by rail across much of the state, it also meant downtowns hollowed out for surface parking lots and cities saddled with the cost of building structured parking to try to keep their downtowns alive.
But as you know, Governor, from the recent work of your friend Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institute on innovation districts, fostering the innovation and creativity New York needs to be competitive requires dense, high-quality, walkable places in which a wide variety of people live, work, play, and mix. And, of course, those things don’t happen in parking garages or surface parking lots, and in a drive-in-drive-out culture. So the good news is that by returning to a culture of rail, we can also boost density (and property values) in our urban cores and support a culture of creativity and innovation in places that desperately need it.
And the further good news is that in many places existing rail infrastructure can be adapted for commuter rail without being prohibitively expensive. In Buffalo-Niagara, establishing commuter rail would take laying a second track alongside Amtrak. In Syracuse, OnTrack could be restarted – as Sean Kirst wrote – with some rolling stock and a bridge to the intermodal station. In Rochester, in 2005 I was one of the organizers of the “Chill the Fill” campaign (supported by your future Lt. Governor Bob Duffy) to block a short-sighted attempt to fill in the old downtown subway tunnel. That tunnel could be used to incubate a commuter rail or light rail service into the central business district.
And a bonus: commuter rail (and light rail) into cities can also be used not just to bring people downtown for work, but also for play. It can allow the use of satellite parking outside of downtown for downtown events that can otherwise overload the street grid and parking capacity near event venues. You can see this for yourself whenever the Sabres are playing a home game – park your Corvette for free at Lasalle Station and take Metro Rail downtown. But be sure you’re not wearing the opposing team’s colors, or I can’t guarantee your safety.
5) Excursion rail
New York State once offered unprecedented opportunities for rail excursions. Once, a New Yorker could take a passenger train from any big city in the state to Utica, disembark in a Beaux-Arts station of gleaming marble, and from there take a train into the heart of the Adirondacks. Their destination might be a hunting lodge, Adirondack great camp, or the Hotel Saranac or The Pines Inn (formerly St. Moritz) of Lake Placid – scenic and natural heritage that is part of what makes us New York.
Today, such opportunities are rare, and entities like the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, who still try to provide them, find themselves up against strong headwinds from those who want to curtail their operations and pull up their tracks. But why should the leisurely pace of excursion rail make a difference to those planning for a future of high-speed rail?
For one, strengthening and extending excursion rail opportunities around the state will help the effort to return a culture of rail to New York, while having more immediate, tangible impacts on the communities where it operates. In places where local economies have shifted away from manufacturing to tourism, excursion rail can contribute to the mix. In places where manufacturing remains, excursion rail operation can join freight operation to keep secondary rail lines operating. Keeping lines operating keeps them available for future use as lower-speed passenger-rail or commuter-rail feeders into a high-speed rail corridor.
In some regions, like western New York, it may also be possible to tie excursion rail into high-speed rail hubs (likely on separate track) so as to increase the mix of trains and passengers and options at the hubs, and the number of places connected to the hubs. In some ways, that would be like the Erie Canal was the backbone of a state canal system that once reached into nearly every corner of the state via lateral canals.
Buffalo, especially, could become a regional hub for excursion rail, all tied into the statewide passenger rail network. Between Niagara Falls and Rochester, passing by the famous Lockport locks, excursion rail on the Falls Branch could link all of the historic western Erie Canal communities. In the Southern Tier, excursion rail on the old Erie Railroad could be the backbone of a scenic and heritage corridor across the southern part of the state. That could set the stage for inter-city service in the Southern Tier for the first time in generations. Cornell University now has a New York City campus, but travel between the two campuses is so challenging that some are looking at a rail link cobbled together through Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Why shouldn’t those New York campuses be able to connect through New York?
Excursion rail along the I-81 corridor south of Syracuse could be especially viable because it could provide long-distance rail excursions to Steamtown in Scranton via efforts supported by our two senators to bring commuter rail from Scranton, PA to Binghamton – two cities with historically close bonds. Eventually, that commuter rail could be extended to link Binghamton and Syracuse.
6) Getting New York State into the railroad business west of the Hudson
Rejuvenating rail travel in New York can’t be left up to Amtrak and the railroads – look how far that has gotten us. Fortunately, a new model was used recently and very successfully with necessary passenger rail upgrades in the capital region. DOT played an essential role in long-overdue upgrades to track infrastructure at Rensselaer Station and installing a dedicated track between there and Schenectady. This is a model that may need to be used across the state for rail projects that are needed to lay the groundwork for a revival of rail travel across New York – projects too costly and complex for local government.
In eastern New York, the state has been in the railroad business for decades. But west of the Hudson, cash-strapped local governments have largely been left to their own devices on rail matters like maintaining freight service to critical industries, having to cobble together patchwork quilts of ownership, operation, and funding. In some cases county IDAs take ownership of a rail corridor, perhaps without even owning the rail infrastructure that sits on it, then lease the corridor to short-line operators. But such arrangements can be vulnerable due to the number of moving parts and entities involved. How many IDAs know how to be in the railroad business? Ultimately, ownership by DOT or a NY rail corporation, with the necessary expertise and backed by adequate resources, could take the burden off strapped local government and help implement a statewide policy to keep rail corridors active.
Making this happen may take beefing up the DOT Rail Bureau’s footprint in the regions, which could have other benefits. Beefed up regional rail bureau capacity would be very helpful in developing plans and strategies to get regions high-speed-rail ready. It would also mean lessening the reliance on consultants for rail plans and projects, and rebuilding lost institutional knowledge.
It could also bridge the disconnect between railroads and the communities that host them. That disconnect has grown as ever fewer railroad employees on the ground are administered from ever-remoter locations, becoming almost a chasm. In too many cases local governments and authorities have little to no ability to even communicate with the railroads that run through their communities. To get the state rail-ready we’ll need to bridge this gap and get the railroads more responsive to the needs and aspirations of the communities they serve.
Other agencies like Parks and DEC may also have a role to play, especially in establishing recreational use of any corridors that need to be railbanked. In the case of the Adirondack Railroad Corridor, the DEC has an essential role to play in keeping the railroad active as a way to get more people into the Adirondacks sustainably – without the cars that have overrun some areas – while also establishing a multi-use trail alongside.
7) A New York State rail museum at (where else?) the Buffalo Central Terminal
On June 30, 2017 Buffalo saw the big reveal: results from a week-long Urban Land Institute study looking at the future of the iconic Buffalo Central Terminal. But as we wrote at the time, the results were disappointing to many. A pillar of the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood, Matt Urban Hope Center Director Marlies Wesolowski, asked, “Where is the transportation museum for the children?” She wasn’t the only one wondering. One of the biggest opportunities in reusing the Central Terminal, as we wrote here at the time, is as the location for a major rail museum.
Why? New York State, unlike many other states, some with far less rail heritage, has no state rail museum. That means we have no entity to curate New York’s rail heritage – including rolling stock – which was as significant as the canal system in building New York into a global powerhouse. Buffalo would be the ideal location for such a museum not only because we were once the nation’s second-largest rail hub (behind Chicago) but because there is simply no better candidate for such a museum than the Buffalo Central Terminal complex. Not only would it be ideally suited, but there are substantial portions of the Central Terminal complex that would be difficult to use in any other way. A rail museum would mostly use the extensive complex of outbuildings and platforms, leaving plenty of the complex for other uses.
Establishing a state rail museum at the Central Terminal would do far more than just tell the story of New York’s rail heritage, which is as significant as our canal heritage. It would boost the effort to re-establish a culture of rail in New York, and also provide an iconic attraction and destination for rail travel in the state. Buffalo has one of the nation’s top tourist attractions, Niagara Falls, in its backyard, and the name of the game in tourism is giving people visiting the falls a reason to stay another day. The Central Terminal could help do that as the building itself is one of the few attractions in the region nearly as iconic as the falls. A state rail museum at the Central Terminal would have the potential to compete with Steamtown, the nation’s top rail museum.
While all the potential and raw material is there (rail heritage organizations in the region already own a core collection of rolling stock), leadership is the critical ingredient necessary to bring it all together. Funding from the state for a feasibility study (perhaps from the $5 Million you allocated for the Central Terminal in 2018) plus appointment of an advisory committee could go a long way toward making this happen.
While boosting western New York tourism and helping revive a statewide culture of rail are worthy ends in and of themselves, a state railroad museum would also accomplish an important public policy goal. Rail collections are very difficult and expensive to acquire, maintain, and display, and the few organizations across the state that try to do so struggle mightily with tight resources and a shrinking volunteer base. A state rail museum could provide technical and curatorial assistance, and perhaps even small grants to those organizations as affiliates. When necessary, it could also step in to acquire collections in danger of being sold out-of-state. As rail travel bounces back across the state, the state rail museum could also provide historic displays at each of the rail hubs across the state, educating everyone using the system about New York’s rich rail heritage.
8) Preserve what we have at all costs
In putting New York back on a rail footing it’s fun to think about new technologies and new projects and new services. But it is also essential to preserve what we already have in existing rail service, existing rail infrastructure, and rail corridors – even abandoned ones. Why? To supply the connecting traffic necessary to support high-speed rail, we need to be looking at feeders of all kinds, from low-speed, regional passenger rail services to commuter rail to light rail to excursion rail. Taking strong measures to preserve what we have will make that much easier now and in the future.
That means preserving services like OnTrack in Syracuse, which, as Columnist Sean Kirst wrote in 2016, might be coming into its own now if it hadn’t been shut down in 2008. That means keeping bridges and track in place wherever it exists, for example on the Adirondack Railroad corridor which, with the right funding and operation, could reliably take visitors from the Utica rail station into the heart of the Adirondacks while co-existing nicely with a much-desired trail alongside.
Preserving what we have may take new state legislation placing very strict limits on rail abandonments, on rail infrastructure removal, on the sale or breaking up of rail corridors, and on construction of permanent structures on rail corridors – even abandoned ones. All those things should be as difficult to do as alienating parkland. If we’re looking for a renaissance of rail in the state, we may find we need some of those neglected corridors again. If not for rail, then for alternative transportation options like greenways and multi-use trails that would complement rail in a green, sustainable, intermodal transportation system for the state.
9) Expand electric rail north and west
When our multi-talented founding father Gouverneur Morris, author of the preamble to the Constitution, became one of the first members of New York’s Canal Commission in 1810 he had a big idea: power the entire Erie Canal with Lake Erie water. Good idea, but how? He proposed to carry Erie water east all the way to the Hudson River on an inclined plane – a fantastic vision, but impractical. Although engineers were able to disabuse him of his notion, some of it did become reality: the canal was indeed operated by Lake Erie water all the way to Rochester.
One hundred fifty years after Morris’ idea, the Niagara Power Project did, in a way, fulfill his vision of sending the power of Lake Erie water all the way across the state. The idea of using this power to move New Yorkers back and forth across their state is especially appealing in this era of climate change. Rail transportation is inherently greener than individual mobility, and electrification of rail could give New York the greenest transportation system in the nation. Because rail rights-of-way are access controlled and well maintained, they might even provide an ideal test bed for superconducting (lossless) power transmission, which has seen small-scale proof-of-concept installations over the last decade.
Developing a high-capacity electrical grid for passenger rail could be crucial in preparing for high-speed rail, as all high-speed rail technologies are electric. Because such a grid could have many other, more immediate benefits beyond just powering trains, your Future Grid Challenge may want to look at how electrified rail west of the Hudson could be part of our modernized statewide power grid.
10) Fix the subway(s)
Sorry, Governor, I know you get that a lot. I don’t mean it as a dig. And I know that in your State of the State address you announced a plan for $58 Billion in investments in MTA – as you rightly pointed out, the largest investment in the NYC rail transit system since its creation. And in your State of the State address in Buffalo three years ago, you announced significant state support for a substantial light rail extension. Both of these rail-transit initiatives are important to getting New York ready for high-speed rail, in connecting more local passengers directly to their region’s primary passenger rail hub.
So in terms of investment in rail transit, the state is on the right track. But additional investments should be considered – especially upstate – to help set the stage for high-speed rail. In Buffalo, additional rail transit lines identified in regional transportation plans would help connect passengers to the regional passenger rail hub. In other upstate cities, there may be opportunities to initiate light rail (or commuter rail) projects that would help reduce the auto dependency that has been endemic to upstate cities for generations and revive a culture of rail use.
Such investments in rail transit upstate would also help transform land use patterns to reduce sprawl and rebuild the density that would help support passenger rail. The more people can access center cities by high-capacity transit like light rail, the fewer acres need to be devoted to surface parking, helping free up land for downtown revitalization.
Regional rail readiness plans can identify opportunities for new rail transit corridors and needed investments in existing rail transit systems. But perhaps most important strategically is that such planning explicitly shifts our focus – and our transportation funding – from building and widening roads and urban expressways to building and extending and improving rail transportation.
Perhaps, as your predecessor Hugh Carey declared 45 years ago, “the days of wine and roses are over,” it may be time for you to declare that the days of adding lane-miles of asphalt are over – and that the state will be shifting its transportation priorities and funding to smarter, more sustainable ways to get people and goods around New York.
Why we can afford to do this and why we can’t afford not to: closing the Amtrak deficit
Not many people in New York know that their tax dollars directly support Amtrak. How much? As Patrick Whalen, Director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute, wrote in 2017,
NYSDOT – meaning the taxpayers – already covers Amtrak’s losses in the state. So if Amtrak’s cost of operating in NYS is $104,330,000 and they sell $60,000,000 in tickets, the state pays Amtrak the shortfall, last year to the tune of $44,330,000.
So wait, if we reduced delays and passenger counts went up, Amtrak’s losses would go down, then the state would ship fewer of our tax dollars to Amtrak.
What that means is by planning a series of incremental improvements with a consistent level of annual investment, we can get New Yorkers west of the Hudson onto trains again and reduce the “Amtrak deficit.” Best of all, we can do all of that while setting the stage for a leap to higher-speed rail. Reducing and eventually eliminating the “Amtrak deficit” actually helps make these improvements pay for themselves over time.
To make real progress that will meaningfully change people’s transportation choices, the program of investment must be not only well planned, but also consistently funded, year after year. A well-planned program funded consistently can also attract private sector investment as well as leverage funding from the local and federal levels. As you said in your presentation to ABNY, government competence may fluctuate, but this needs to stay on track.
High-speed rail in New York has been like the promise of nuclear fusion: it’s at least a decade away and always has been and always will be. Meanwhile, what people want is to see real, tangible steps, each of which makes things better now and also leads toward something far greater.
Done right, in less than a decade New York could become the state best positioned to move smartly to high-speed rail. At that point, our best path to exactly what type of high-speed rail would be much more clear. Then, that leap could be taken with much more confidence and much more public support than any such project would have now.
That would be such a contrast to the top-down, over-sold approaches that have repeatedly derailed in other states that New York would become the model in how to actually get high-speed rail done. As with previous infrastructure innovations, New York would lead with confidence and become recognized as the gold standard.
Finally, Governor, whatever anyone else says, I dig your poster.
Note: readers can view the entire 2020 State of the State address here.