Category Archives: Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Robert Moses – Against Mass Transit

Did you ever wonder how the mass transit situation in New York got so fouled up? A lot of the answer is from an unusual man named Robert Moses.

An in-depth look at this man can be found in a book called “The Power Broker” by Robert A. Caro. Robert Moses (sometimes referred to as “RM”) was born in 1888. His parents were well-to-do merchants. Although he was born in New Haven, his family was from New York City and moved back when he was a youngster. Moses graduated from Yale in 1909. An example of his arrogance involved the swimming team. A consistent benefactor of this team was Ogden Mills Reid. As a matter of fact, he paid almost all of the expenses of this team as Yale was then concentrating its funding on such projects as the Yale Bowl. Moses had organized a “minor sports association” in which each minor sport at Yale would share equally in donations. Moses approached Reid and got a contribution but didn’t tell him it was for all minor sports and not just swimming. When challenged by the team captain for deliberately misleading Reid, Moses offered his resignation the first of many times in his life. This time it was accepted. Other times it was refused by many mayors and governors. The next time his resignation was accepted was by Nelson Rockefeller almost sixty years later!

It can be argued that Robert Moses shaped New York in its present form. He built every major highway except the East River Drive, all seven bridges completed since 1931, Shea Stadium, Lincoln Center and the now-empty New York Coliseum. In addition, he cleared the obstacles to acquiring the United Nations land and built huge numbers of public and private housing units (Coop City for example). But he didn’t do much for mass transit.

Between 1924 and 1968 he held immense power. The base for this power was a public corporation named the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. In addition, he held several other titles such as New York Power Authority Chairman; New York State Parks Commission Chairman; New York City Construction Coordinator; New York City Planning Commission Chairman.

He controlled his empire from an unobtrusive building on Randall’s Island below the Triborough toll plaza. As a matter of fact, his authority administered all of Randall’s Island. The TBTA had its own flag; fleet of cars, trucks and boats; and private army of “Bridge and Tunnel Officers”. It had its own source of revenue in the coins dropped into toll booths.

Moses had a secret veto on all public works projects in New York City and had more power than the mayor. He kept secret files which he used to discredit his opponents.

He was the long-time New York City Parks Commissioner. When he took the job there were 119 playgrounds in the city. When he left there were 777. Outside of the city, he built power dams at Massena and Niagara Falls as well as many parks and parkways on Long Island. Since he built both Jones Beach and all roads leading to it, that explains why there is no mass transit to it.

In the 1930’s the Regional Plan Association proposed improved mass transit. Robert Moses didn’t listen to them; instead he built 100 miles of new parkways which filled up as soon as they were opened. RM was responsible for the West Side Improvements and wanted “the great highway that went uptown along the water”. He completed a long-stalled 5-mile elevated expressway from the southern tip of Manhattan to 72nd Street. He also built 6 1/2 miles north to the tip of the island. He then built a park on the river and the Henry Hudson Bridge.

The West Side project involved moving the New York Central Railroad. Details of this were set up in a 1927 agreement between the railroad and the city. The 30th Street and 72nd Street yards were built to replace track further downtown. Before 1929, the city had spent $25 million and the railroad $84 million. The Depression had halted all work but RM found money for the railroad by tapping the state grade crossing elimination fund.

The Bronx-Whitestone Bridge which was built in 1936 made no provision for mass transit. Earlier bridges in New York (not built by Moses) had subway lines as well as roads. Some of these are the Brooklyn, Queensboro, Manhattan and Williamsburg. Many of the parkways he built were designed with bridges too low to accommodate buses. This was very intentional as Moses wanted to make them for cars-only and to exclude trucks.

Between 1930 and 1950, rail commuters declined while highway commuters into New York increased. Every trainload of commuters shifting to automobiles required parking space about equal to the effective parking capacity of one side of Fifth Avenue from Washington Square to Sixty-eighth Street (3 miles).

The Van Wyck Expressway was built where 13 tracks of the Long Island Railroad cross Atlantic Avenue in Jamaica. While construction was underway, 1100 daily train movements (one of the busiest in the world) were maintained. One can’t help but wonder why a rail line from this point couldn’t have easily followed the parkway to Kennedy Airport. Cost to construct when the road was being built would have been reasonable – today it would be prohibitive.

You might have remembered the name Hortense Gabel from the Mayor Koch/Bess “Miss America” Myerson scandal in the late 1980’s. Hortense was by then a judge who had a flaky daughter that Bess hired in order to get a favorable divorce ruling. But years before, Hortense had been one of the most vocal opponents of Moses. She had organized groups in the 1950’s that began to pressure to limit the vast powers of Robert Moses.

There was an attempt in 1955 to use Triborough and Port Authority funds to modernize the Long Island Railroad, build a subway loop to New Jersey, build a new Queens subway and build the famous but still-born 2nd Avenue Subway. At central locations in Queens and Nassau Counties, multilevel parking garages could have been built atop commuter rail stops. There could have been a new East Side Long Island RR terminal and even a new rapid transit line along the median strip of the Long Island Expressway. The New Jersey tunnel loop would have not only given access to Manhattan where commuters really wanted to go from the Battery to Fifty-ninth Street. It would have prevented the current mess on New Jersey highways, trans-Hudson vehicular tunnels, the West Side Highway and Manhattan streets. The Nostrand Avenue Subway in Brooklyn could have been extended and the even-today bottleneck in train service between Brooklyn and Manhattan at DeKalb Avenue eliminated.

RM’s proposed highways were designed to help automobile-owning families. In 1945 two out of three residents of the city did not own automobiles. Subway fare increases hurt these people. While highways were being extended into areas of the city where they might or might not be needed, subways were not being extended to where they were vitally needed. His monopolization of public funds for highways made subway construction impossible. Even for car-owning families, no subway meant the hardship of having to drive into Manhattan – and park – and pay bridge tolls. It is also said that Moses’ transportation policies helped the poor stay trapped in their slums (“ghettoization”).

In the 1950’s, millions were spent on highways in New York City but only a fraction of that on mass transit. In 1974, New Yorkers were still riding on tracks laid between 1904 and 1933 – before Moses had come to power. Not another mile was built under Moses. Since shortly after World War I, the city had been promising to build a Second Avenue Subway to serve the East Side. Plans have sat in city engineer’s desks since 1929. The city repeated its promise when the Second Avenue El was torn down and again in 1955 when the Third Avenue El went. A Second Avenue Subway coupled to a dedicated East River tunnel could have been extended to Queens to provide subway lines to residents who were miles from the nearest station. The result was, and is, an overcrowded Lexington Avenue IRT line. Subway cars were not replaced (at one point, much of the fleet was a half century old) and a policy of “deferred maintenance” began to take its toll. Fortunately, the subway system had been well engineered and previously well maintained – but eventually it deteriorated.

The last great project Robert Moses was involved in was the 1964 World’s Fair. It was a financial disaster and, again, no gains for mass transit. In the meantime, the Long Island Expressway was built without provision for rapid transit. As each section opened, it was jammed to capacity (“The world’s largest parking lot”). For an extra 4 percent of the cost, it would have been possible to acquire the land to build a rail line.

New York City Mayor Lindsey and many others tried to throttle Moses, but only Nelson Rockefeller was successful. “Rocky” was one of the most dynamic and forceful governors New York ever had. Moses had always used financial protection of creditors as a defense against any takeover of “his” Authority. But his principal bondholder trustee was the Chase Manhattan Bank. Chase Manhattan was the only major bank still controlled by one family – the Governor’s! Rockefeller brought all the region’s transportation elements together under William Ronan and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

When “RM” came to power, New York City’s mass transit system was the best in the world. When he left, it was the worst.

Read more stories about Robert Moses



Metro-North New Haven Line in the Winter

It’s old wiring, and some of the catenary support towers are original century-old installations.

The ancient infrastructure is way past end of useful life even with Metro North’s excellent maintenance practices. You get more frequent breakdowns with old mechanical systems and the old supports than the newer installations on the line. Do not forget shoreline weather factor. Winter unleashes steady punishment on all shoreline-facing structures during peak storm season. The differences between light/fluffy snow and heavy caked-on snow or sleet/ice are dramatic shoreline vs. just a couple miles inland during most Noreasters, and there’s often a stiff sea breeze even in less-severe weather and even with Long Island Sound somewhat more protected from the worst of the Atlantic elements than other places. Pressure + time takes its toll more rapidly than with inland electrification, and if the weather alone doesn’t bring down a wire here and there it corrodes it enough that you get more pantograph downings on brittle stretches. There’s also a lot of new-growth trees along the ROW that were allowed to sprout and grow above catenary height during the deferred maintenance era. Lot of downed limbs from wind and heavy snow/ice, and MNRR has limited options for clearing a wide swath around the ROW when it runs through people’s backyards… the trees are a natural sound and sight barrier that the neighbors would go ballistic if cut down.

That’s the price the NH line has to pay for being the most congested passenger rail corridor in the country, running high-speed service on one of the oldest ROW’s and the single oldest still-operating electric installation in North America (other extant ones may have been older, but they completely scrapped and changed their type of electric collection method after early experimentation).

And with all due respect, the new, improved, high-tech crap doesn’t perform as well or as long as the old stuff did. It may run faster, when it runs, and it may look prettier, but the simpler the design, the fewer the problems.

See other short stories



Cities Embrace “Transit Hubs” To Boost Business, Jobs

Curbed Feb 27, 2017

Are transit hubs the new malls? Several major nerve centers of U.S. transportation—like Union Station in Washington, D.C., and Penn Station in New York City—are planning major overhauls that would transform them from pass-through structures into glittering corridors of restaurants, retail, and event spaces. Meanwhile, expanding local rail systems around the country are also sparking the development of new transit hubs, trying to take advantage of built-in foot traffic to boost business and job markets.

“[Transit hubs are] a way to [achieve] balance and attract people during off hours and use the structures that exist, which are an attraction in themselves,” real estate attorney B.A. Spignardo of Shapiro Lifschitz & Schram in Washington, DC tells Construction Dive.
The Santiago Calatrava-designed Oculus hub in lower Manhattan is a prime example of this next-gen transit center trend. The striking architecture just might entice travelers to stick around and peruse its 75,000 square feet of retail—unlike the cramped, underground labyrinth of Penn Station. But Penn Station has its own ambitious renovation in the works, including the integration of the more architecturally impressive Farley Post Office along with 112,000 square feet of retail.

Triboro rail idea revived by transit think tank

The Triboro rail line would run between Co-Op City in the Bronx and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, with seven stations proposed for Queens.

New transportation options are all the rage in Queens, as the proposed light rail line in Glendale and reactivating the Rockaway Beach Rail Line in central and South Queens have been popular talking points over the last few months and years.

So why not throw one more idea at the wall and see if it sticks?

The Regional Plan Association, the influential urban research think tank, has revived its long-discussed proposal to connect Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx with a commuter rail line called the Triboro, as the agency released an updated version of the plan in an eight-page report late last month.

According to the RPA, the Triboro would run 24 miles between Co-Op City in the Bronx and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, converting the freight-only rail right-of-way that connects the neighborhoods into a dual usage line that allows for commuter service.

In Queens — where the stretch of rail is owned by CSX from Astoria to the Fresh Pond Rail Yard and by the Long Island Rail Road from Glendale to Brooklyn — the train would run through Astoria, Jackson Heights, Woodside, Elmhurst, Middle Village, Glendale and Ridgewood before crossing the border.

The RPA has proposed seven stations in Queens, including:

• 23rd Avenue and 31st Street in Astoria, with an available transfer to the Astoria-Ditmars N and Q subway stop;

• Northern Boulevard and 64th Street in Woodside;

• Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, with an available transfer to the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue 7, E, F, M and R subway stop;

• Queens Boulevard between 73rd and 74th streets near where Elmhurst, Maspeth, and Woodside converge;

• Grand Avenue at Elmhurst Park;

• Metropolitan Avenue in Middle Village, with an available transfer to the Metropolitan Avenue M train subway stop; and

• Myrtle Avenue at Fresh Pond Road on the Glendale-Ridgewood border.

The RPA estimates a daily ridership of around 100,000 people and a cost between $1 and $2 billion to establish, with major capital investments being the creation of stations, signals and rail cars.

“Transit improvements are typically focused on moving people in and out of Manhattan,” the RPA said in its report. “Yet today, more New Yorkers commute within the outerboroughs than into Manhattan, and the city is gaining more jobs in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island than it is in the urban core.”

The agency added that commutes for residents traveling to and from work between the outer boroughs, which already average over an hour, according to the RPA, would be slashed significantly if and when the Triboro opens, as trains would run every five to 15 minutes.

“The Triboro would link employment hubs for manufacturing and industry in Hunts Point, northern Astoria, Maspeth and Bay Ridge,” the RPA wrote.

When the RPA originally proposed the plan in 1996 as a way to connect Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, some of the its designs had the Triboro terminating either at Yankee Stadium or Hunts Point in the Bronx instead of Co-Op City.

Those plans never gained traction with the city, as its focus has been on the Second Avenue Subway and other projects like the 7 Line Extension.

The RPA’s new proposal isn’t winning over Queens rail gurus, either.

Little Neck native Larry Penner, a transportation historian and retired U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration regional office director, said despite being a “great concept” in theory, the creation of the Triboro simply isn’t feasible in the near future.

“There are a ton of ideas for Queens, but there’s only so much transit money going around,” Penner said in a Monday phone interview. “This is a low priority.”

Penner also sharply criticized the RPA for its cost estimate, saying the $1-2 billion price tag is “fantasy.”

“In my professional opinion, it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build each station,” he said. “The RPA’s cost estimate is very naive. To build this new system, you’ll need rails, power, maintenance. It sounds like it would cost a heck of a lot more than what they’re saying it would.”

When it comes to possibly securing federal money to pay for at least a portion of the Triboro, Penner said neither the city nor the state would ever do so considering the MTA had already applied for a $500 million grant from the Federal Transit Adminstration’s New Starts program —which appropriates $2.3 billion each year — to help with the Second Avenue Subway project.

“The MTA doesn’t like to compete against itself,” he said. “In effect, they would be competing for grant money against themselves with the Second Avenue Subway and they’re not going to have this compete with the subway.”

Penner isn’t alone when it comes to Queens opposition to the Triboro.

Over the past few months, Community Board 5 Chairman Vincent Arcuri Jr., a Glendale resident, has advocated strongly for both the reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Rail Line — which closed over 50 years ago — and the creation of a light rail system connecting Glendale and Long Island City.

But when it comes to the Triboro, he isn’t impressed.

“l think this is overkill, without need or benefit,” Arcuri said in an email on Tuesday. “The real need in commuter rail is from the Rockaways to Manhattan and Jamaica to Manhattan, where the need and ridership is.”

An MTA spokesman said the agency had no comment on the plan when contacted by the Chronicle.

However, the representative said funding is in place to begin planning the extension of Metro-North Railroad service to the Bronx — with stations in Co-Op City, Morris Park, Parkchester and Hunts Point, areas that would be served by the Triboro — through to Penn Station.

That project is expected to begin after the East Side Access project — which will connect the Long Island Rail Road with Grand Central Terminal — is completed in 2023.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale), who proposed a light rail line to connect Glendale and Long Island City last year, didn’t mention the proposed Triboro by name in a Wednesday statement, but said the city’s focus should be on addressing public transportation issues in so-called transit deserts like southwest Queens.

“It’s critical that this city invest in opportunities for efficient public transportation,” Crowley said. “Not only will it take cars off the road and ease severe commuting burdens, but in the long-term it will help our environment and create a better New York for the future.

“I believe that right now, at this moment,” she continued, “a light rail through transit-poor communities in Queens should be a priority so residents, the economy and New York City as a whole can flourish.”

Christopher Barca, Associate Editor

Comparing the Big Dig’s costs to mega projects around the world

Tunnels, highways, and rail lines cost billions no matter where you build them.

Facts and figures are based on an article in the BOSTON GLOBE.

The price tag for Boston’s Big Dig ballooned from $2.6 billion to nearly $15 billion. And it was eight years behind schedule by the time it was done. How does that compare with some other mega construction projects around the world?

Gotthard Base Tunnel, Switzerland

Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle

  • Cost: $3.1 billion. Earthquake-damaged highway to be replaced by a tunnel. Under construction.

D.C. Metro Silver Line extension

  • Cost: $7 billion. New 23-mile rail line to Dulles International Airport. Under construction.

London’s Crossrail

Second Avenue subway, New York City

The Chunnel, English Channel

  • Cost: $21 billion. A 31-mile rail tunnel connecting England and France. Completed in 1994.


Cuomo orders higher security measures on mass transit

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week signed an executive order that gives New Jersey and Connecticut law enforcement jurisdiction on New York’s public transportation services and facilities.

The order is aimed at allowing security and counterterrorism officials in both states to assist New York in ensuring public safety at locations traditionally targeted by terrorists, according to a press release issued by Cuomo’s office.

“With the busy holiday season in full swing, we are taking every precaution necessary to mitigate potential terrorist threats and keep people safe,” Cuomo said. “This order gives our partners in New Jersey and Connecticut greater ability to help patrol and protect our mass transit networks. Together we will continue to remain vigilant, and I urge all travelers to stay alert and safe throughout the holidays.”

The holiday season tends to be a time of heightened alert and risk of terror attacks as hundreds of thousands of commuters travel between New York, New Jersey and Connecticut each day via mass transit systems, including inter-state rail, bus and ferry systems.

Increased manpower and overall law enforcement presence will allow governments throughout the region to protect public safety and provide an additional reassurance to commuters, Cuomo’s press release said.

The order was issued on Dec. 8 and will remain in effect for 30 days.

Rockaway Beach Rail Line in New York City

Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Park) and federal and city politicians last Thursday called on the MTA to conduct a feasibility study on utilizing the Rockaway Beach Rail Line and other rights-of-way in the five boroughs.

“There is no greater asset to our transit network than existing rights-of-way. With the Rockaway Beach Rail Line and the other underutilized rights-of-way throughout the city, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make lasting improvements to our transportation network and meet the demands of our growing populations,” Goldfeder said during a meeting of the City Council’s Committee on Transportation. “As Queens residents, we are not asking for more than others, but rather for a fair share, to give our families the opportunity to thrive and grow.”

Goldfeder was joined by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan, Brooklyn), a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and a supporter of restoring the abandoned rail line.

“Restoration of the Rockaway Beach Line would not only provide much needed fast and efficient train service to the Rockaways and southern Queens but would enable a true one-seat ride to Kennedy Airport from Manhattan,” Nadler said in a statement.

Goldfeder was testifying in favor of a resolution proposed by committee Chairman Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan), which calls on the MTA to “conduct a comprehensive study of unused and underutilized railroad rights-of-way in New York City for the purpose of evaluating the feasibility of increased passenger service along such corridors.”

In a statement, Rodriguez indicated support for the Rockaway Beach Rail Line to be studied, among others in the city.

“With the MTA struggling for capital dollars for maintenance nonetheless expansion, it is incumbent on our city to evaluate the best and cheapest way to expand our public transit system: unused and lightly used rail,” he said. “Lines like the Rockaway Beach Line are ripe for development with minimal city and state funding, all we need to do is tap into these resources.”

During his testimony, Goldfeder pointed out the abandoned rail line would cost less to restore than the construction of the decades-in-the-making Second Avenue subway line.

“Phase I of the Second Avenue subway project will cost $4.45 billion to build less than 2 miles of track. By contrast, reactivating the Rockaway Beach Rail Line could cost as little as $1 billion to create 3.5 miles of new train lines on the existing right-of-way,” the assemblyman said.

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