Tragedy in Park Slope, Death of Gateway and MTA Geniuses

Park Slope Tragedy

Last Monday in Park Slope at the intersection of 5th Avenue and 9th Street, a woman with a long dangerous driving record ran a red light and plowed into two families crossing the street. The driver attempted to speed away, but crashed into parked cars further down the street. Her dangerous and callous actions left two children, ages 1 and 4, dead and a pregnant woman with life-threatening injuries. The horrific scene occurred just steps from the Park Slope YMCA, where each day Mayor de Blasio arrives in a motorcade to briefly ride a stationary bicycle. This was not lost on concerned citizens and safe street advocates who rallied outside of the gym when the Mayor arrived the next day.

The deaths of two children in a crosswalk at the hands of a reckless driver reveals numerous shortcomings and inadequacies with our local government and with the way our society speaks and thinks about driving:

  • At an intersection in a densely populated neighborhood with a large number of children, street markings were worn, the pavement was in poor condition and no traffic calming measures had been taken.
  • The driver of the white Volvo had been cited 12 times in two years for speeding in a school zone, among other infractions, and yet had not had her license suspended.
  • The driver’s license has since been suspended, but Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez has stated that criminal charges will not be pressed. It is hard to think of another situation in which the deaths of two children would not lead to an arrest.

Further, the Mayor has proven that when it comes to reducing traffic fatalities, he is more of a hindrance than a catalyst of change. His daily 25 mile driving round trip on to the gym belies the City’s Vision Zero policy and weakens any message from his administration about making streets safer and less congested. It reveals that even in the most public transportation and pedestrian friendly city in the United States, cars are still given priority in planning issues and drivers will not be punished for threatening or taking a life from behind the wheel.

441-479_9th_Street_Park_Slope
9th Street in Park Slope

Death of Gateway

In between firing the Secretary of State, announcing likely harmful tariffs on steel and aluminum and downplaying Russia’s role in the poisoning of a double agent in London, President Trump took some time to pound a few more nails into the coffin for the Gateway Tunnel Project. Gateway, which was rated by the Obama administration as the most important infrastructure project in the country, was singled out by Trump, who said he would veto any infrastructure bill that includes Federal money for it. This follows on the heels of a statement by an amnesic FTA administrator, which I discussed earlier this year.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s aversion to the Gateway project is motivated not by sound reasoning of cost or necessity, but by scorn for Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. According to the New York Times:

Mr. Trump has told Republicans that it makes no sense to give Mr. Schumer something that he covets — funding for the tunnels — at a time that Mr. Schumer is routinely blocking Mr. Trump’s nominees and other parts of his agenda, the person said.

The importance of the Gateway Project, which keeps people moving through the most economically productive area in the United States, is clearly outweighed by the pettiness of the “Infrastructure President.” As a result, New York and New Jersey continue to move dangerously close to a necessary shutdown of one of two current tunnels with no back up or long term plan.

MTA Genius Competition

With newsworthy delays piling up and New Yorkers abandoning the New York City Subway for Lyfts and Ubers, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the start of a “Genius Challenge” to develop ideas for how the system could be fixed. Anyone with a good idea from students to transportation wonks was invited to submit their proposals for improving signaling, subway cars and system-wide communication. From thousands of proposals submitted, eight ideas were recently chosen. Seven came from multinational corporations such as China’s CRRC MA, an affiliate of the world’s largest subway car manufacturer. The eighth however came from full time lawyer and part time transit buff Craig Avedisian.

Avedisian’s winning idea is to significantly extend the length of subway trains so that more people would fit on a single train, but not every car would be able to platform at each station. Subway lines would operate on an A/B system: stations would alternate between those two letters and subway trains would alternate between A and B sections of the train to platform at their corresponding location. In practice, at an A station, only those in A cars could alight, while B car passengers would still find themselves in the tunnel dark. If this proposals sounds like it would complicate an already complex system with its express and local trains, frequent reroutes and inadequate signage at times, you are probably right.

This proposal is on its face so unwieldy, unwise and impractical that it warrants little discussion of its operational and technical implications. But, to indulge briefly, imagine first a mad dash of B car riders through the length of the train to reach the exits at an A station, who did not position themselves correctly. Further, consider how longer trains would necessitate the reconfiguration of the subway’s 100 year old signaling system to extend the buffers between trains, which would reduce throughput and increase wait times. We will certainly be lucky if Avedisian collects his large cash prize and nothing more is made of his idea.

Transportation Thoughts for 2018

current tunnel
New Jersey entrance to Hudson River Rail Tunnels (Photo Credit: Amtrak)

Gateway Cancelled?

Just before the New Year, the Federal Transportation Administration denied that a funding agreement made between Governors Christie and Cuomo of New Jersey and New York and the Federal government for covering the costs of new train tunnels between the two states ever existed. Though the FTA under the anti-transportation Trump regime alleges that such an agreement is ‘fake news,’ the Obama administration had indeed promised to pay for half of the Gateway project, with NJ and NY making up 25 percent each. Christie and Cuomo had made positive progress in recent weeks towards fulfilling their states’ costs. However, without major contributions from the Federal government, it will be hard to pay for the estimated $25 billion price tag.

gateway
Map of Gateway Program Projects

This denial is par for the course for the Trump administration, which seems to be in a competition with itself to see whether it can make the country implode from the inside or be destroyed from the outside first. The Gateway Project encompasses infrastructure work that is vital not just to the economy of the New York Metropolitan region, but the entire country. Without two new tunnels under the Hudson River , NJ Transit and Amtrak train throughput will be cut from nearly 30 trains into and out of Penn Station per hour to just 8 overall, when one of the existing tunnels is inevitably closed for Sandy-related repairs.

I have little optimism that the current administration will come to whatever senses it has and agree to fund this vital project. Hopefully the existing tunnels (and all of us) survive the remainder of the Trump years.

rh houses
The Red Hook houses, Brooklyn’s largest NYCHA campus

Subway to Red Hook?

One of Governor Cuomo’s State of the State Proposals for 2018 is for the MTA to study transportation options for Red Hook Brooklyn, including the possibility of an underwater subway tunnel from Manhattan. For starters, building better transportation for Red Hook, one of the most transit starved neighborhoods in Brooklyn in spite of its relative closeness to job centers, is a great and long overdue idea. However, sending the MTA in the direction of an underwater subway tunnel from Lower Manhattan is silly for many reasons.

First, as a recent NY Times article described in great detail, the MTA pays more per subway track mile than any other transportation agency in the world by far. With Gateway tunnel proposals eclipsing $20 billion, an even longer tube from Manhattan to Brooklyn would be wildly expensive. Second, only 10,000 people live in Red Hook, which for its geographic size and by New York standards is small. The cost of building one subway stop there is just too high. Third, pairing a one stop subway line with massive commercial and residential development would eventually result in higher prices for thousands of public housing residents in the neighborhood and place more people and investments in a place that is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise.

Red Hook undoubtedly deserves better public transportation options. The neighborhood was condemned to isolation when the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel was constructed and not much has been done to right that wrong since. But, a new multi-billion dollar subway tunnel is not the answer. I don’t know exactly what that answer is but it could be along the lines of implementing real Bus Rapid Transit or even following through on the BQX light rail line. Indeed the MTA must focus on rehabilitating the assets it currently has rather than chasing the next gubernatorial pipe dream.

People walk between newly erected concrete barricades outside the 3 Times Square building in Times Square where a speeding vehicle struck pedestrians Thursday in New York City
People walk between newly erected concrete barricades outside the 3 Times Square building in Times Square where a speeding vehicle struck pedestrians Thursday in New York City, U.S., May 19, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Bill de Blasio’s Expensive Bollards

In response to a number of hideous terrorist attacks carried out in Berlin, Nice and New York City, among others, that made use of civilian cars and trucks to kill, Mayor de Blasio proposed a $50 million roll-out of bollards intended to mitigate threats to busy pedestrian areas. Though measures to protect citizens from terrorist acts is an important job for city government, it can come at a great cost. That is literally true in this case. In a city where $2-4 billion only buys 1 mile of underground rail tracks, $50 million apparently will be spent on only 1,500 bollards at a cost of around $33,000 per bollard. As many in the transportation community have noted, this is a ridiculous sum for very simple infrastructural elements. Though they are advertised as bollards of a more decorative variety, under the guise of anything but counter terrorism, this would absolutely be cost prohibitive.

As bloggers like Second Avenue Sagas have noted on Twitter, the Mayor’s office should have taken a more critical look at the costs of this project, especially in the aftermath of the NY Times expose on the high costs of MTA work. Further, bollards are generally placed within the pedestrian space that it is meant to protect. Bollards impinge on pedestrian space but do nothing to slow or control the movement of vehicles that they protect the sidewalks from. When cities install bollards, they are choosing a bullet proof vest over gun control. Though bollards can be useful for protecting sidewalk space (and are certainly better than concrete slabs), for $50 million I would hope that the city would look at ways that car traffic can be managed and calmed for everyone’s safety, rather than resorting to boxing pedestrians in.