Cap’n Transit is virtually alone in the transit blogosphere in opposing the Tappan Zee Bridge widening and replacement. Unfortunately, merely opposing a highway project, expensive as it is, is not enough; as we’ve seen in the failure of the ballot proposition to ban a highway tunnel in Seattle, opponents of highway expansion need to make it concrete and clear what transit alternatives there are. In the case of the Tappan Zee specifically, alternatives exist, but serve different markets, and it’s necessary to explain why the market that the Tappan Zee serves is not the most important to the region.
I propose a regional rail system instead, focusing on serving Rockland County and perhaps a few centers in Orange County. There are multiple lines crisscrossing Rockland County, with limited or no freight traffic, passing through old town centers that would make good regional rail stops and connecting to good alignments in North Jersey. For a regionwide perspective there are my original regional rail proposal and my more recent focus on connectivity from North Jersey to Lower Manhattan, but the important thing for the purposes of Rockland County is the question of which lines could be used. The Erie Main Line only goes to Suffern, but could collect passengers from the western parts of Orange County; the Northern Branch, including an abandoned northern end, goes as far north as Nyack; the Pascack Valley Line was abandoned north of Spring Valley but has an intact right-of-way as far north as Haverstraw; the West Shore Line goes north to Albany and has moderate freight traffic, easily accommodated in the off-peak if double-tracking is restored. There are so many options that the main question is which to activate just to maintain adequate frequency.
The main difference with any Tappan Zee proposal is that the existing rail lines go north-south, whereas the Tappan Zee is east-west. Fortunately, most existing movement is north-south. As can be confirmed by the 2000 census, Rockland and Orange Counties’ commute market toward Westchester and other suburbs accessed by the bridge is quite small: 18,000 to Westchester and Fairfield. The volume of commuters from those two counties to Bergen and Passaic Counties is somewhat larger (22,000), and that to New York City more so (27,000 to Manhattan, 14,000 to the other boroughs). And traffic over the bridge since 2000 has stalled.
Not only is the north-south or northwest-southeast market bigger than the east-west market, but also it uses the Tappan Zee when it could be diverted if there were alternatives. A breakdown of travel on the bridge reveals that 16% of eastbound travel is to the Bronx and another 15% is to the other four boroughs and Long Island; this could be done competitively by various transit options.
Thus, a transit option that emphasizes north-south connectivity and goes to Manhattan through Bergen and Passaic Counties is going to serve more people than adding more east-west connectivity. It could serve far more if North Jersey jobs clustered in Paterson, Hackensack, and other old city centers, but in fact they’re diffuse. It’s unreasonable to assume significant commercial transit-oriented development in North Jersey, though a few jobs in Paterson could still be captured; however, jobs in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens could be served well.
Finally, to serve Bronx and Upper Manhattan jobs from both North Jersey and Rockland County, the trains should be combined with good bus service across the GWB. For example, bus lanes on Route 4 could be a strong start, especially if the trains are timed to connect to the buses. More speculatively, there’s a subway bellmouth allowing an extension of the C along the GWB, and relative to the cost of tunneling it should be inexpensive to extend the C as an elevated line toward Paterson over Route 4; the drawback is that the C is slow and would poorly serve the Bronx.
Although Rockland County is very sprawling, it has just enough old cities to anchor regional rail at the residential end. The effect is magnified if we can assume some TOD – for example, developing over the many parking lots currently in place in Nyack near the legacy Erie station – but as with commercial TOD, this is desirable but not very likely with the current political structure. Fortunately, American commuter rail works very well as a shuttle that extends auto-dependent commutes into cities that have no room for more cars; as a narrow alternative to constrained highways, it often succeeds, and would be a no-brainer compared to a bridge as expensive as the Tappan Zee.
The cost of reviving and electrifying the four lines proposed in my regional rail post (Erie Main, Pascack Valley, West Shore, and Northern Branch) is quite small compared to either the cost of bringing them to Manhattan or that of rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge. The cost of bringing the lines to Manhattan is substantial, but done right it would be much lower than the Tappan Zee Bridge’s $8.3 billion excluding any transit component.
If costs could be brought down, a new crossing, slightly farther north of the existing bridge, could work well for rail. The transit mode selection report discusses commuter rail on the new bridge, and the concept would be similar except that there should be more stations to serve local traffic better. A rail-only bridge would leave the Hudson Line north of Tarrytown, allowing west-of-Hudson commuters to access this job center and also ensuring no loss of frequency to the station, and then cross to Nyack. It would have to be underground in Nyack because the Palisades rise too steeply from the water, and would surface just west of the urban area. If all trains serving the line are EMUs, rather than diesels or even dual-mode locomotives, then the grade could be sharp enough to limit tunneling to the urban area of Nyack; the TMS report, which only considers diesels, proposes 2 miles (3.2 km) of tunneling, but EMUs climbing 4% grades could cut this by more than half.
The advantage of the east-west option is that it would serve Westchester jobs; while the commute market from Rockland and Orange Counties to Westchester is as mentioned not large, it clusters along I-287, especially in White Plains, and is thus somewhat more rail-serviceable. In addition, although the chance of commercial TOD is small everywhere in the US, it is larger in Tarrytown and White Plains than in Paterson and Hackensack.
On the other hand, if the costs could be brought down, they would be lower for everything, including highways. The same factors that cause transit construction costs to be so high in New York (namely, overstaffing, and poor contracting practices) apply to highways equally. In particular, the decision about what mode to favor should only weakly depend on cost, since relative costs both within transit modes and between cars and transit are not too different from in lower-cost countries.
To cut costs to a minimum while still providing acceptable first-phase service, the initial network could include only the lines that could be brought to Secaucus, with some track modifications near the station allowing Erie trains to terminate at the station parallel to the Northeast Corridor tracks; this still involves a fair amount of concrete pouring, but much less than a new tunnel to Manhattan, and the transfer could be made as convenient as that at Jamaica. In addition, trains could be mixed and matched: that is, to let a few of the Erie trains serve Manhattan directly, some Northeast Corridor or Morris and Essex trains could be cut to Secaucus. The main disadvantage is that no such option is possible with the West Shore Line and Northern Branch, and so it would be more useful in the western part of Rockland County than in the eastern part.
The selling point of the regional rail alternative is that, despite job sprawl, Rockland County residents are still more likely to need to travel to Manhattan than to Westchester. Thus, the promise of a one-seat ride to Manhattan on frequent train service, or at least a two-seat ride with the same quality of transfer offered to Long Islanders, could carry some political weight. One does not drive into New York out of love of driving; one drives into New York out of necessity, and making this less necessary could reduce some of the political will to spend billions more than required on widening a bridge.