Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Keep it simple

John Egan hit the scene last winter with a smash. The man known for putting Albany International Airport on the map --even though many whom use the terminals would dispute the use of the word international --talked a tough game about reconstructing the state’s flailing rail system.

High-speed mag-lev trains, travel nodes and a 25-year plan that would get it all done. Yes, John Egan talked a big game. And now he’s apparently talking big again, resurrecting the nearly decade-old plan to connect upstate’s once formidable city hubs with a light rail system.

As it did once before, New York’s rail system is a prime identifier of the state’s level of ingenuity and industry. Once a magnificent network that guided the Empire State to its moniker before the mass proliferation of the automobile, many years of neglect have today left it lacking in just about every regard; the calamity of trains that clatter through sparsely few area of the state are overpriced, under-conditioned and are more prone to getting stopped for long spells than they are of ever being on time.

Egan’s plan for this train wreck: keep it simple and don’t reinvent the wheel. The public must again be convinced of the potential contained in the few viable tracks that remain laid across the region. That’s exactly what he’s hoping to do with a light rail, which would connect Saratoga Springs to Schenectady, then take a B-line through Albany until coming stop at Hollywood Joe’s palatial station in Rensselaer.

The idea being to connect the so-called Tech Valley’s major nodes in the tri-city area to the rich homes of Saratoga County, creating a sustainable commuter network that could eventually fund future investments into the system. It’s a simple, but lofty notion at the same time.

As most will remember, a similar plan that Rep. Gerald Solomon spent his last dying days constructing was derailed posthumously by his handpicked successor. Lame duck Congressman John Sweeney --then a Republican heavy-hitter straight who had just helped President Bush to the White House --made it his business to divert any federal funding for an almost identical plan because the trains wouldn’t run through his district; the Northway did, and thus was the benefactor of the congressman’s favoritism in Washington.

Nevertheless, Sweeney is gone in just a few weeks and Egan’s most recent announcement is at the very least a baby step in the right direction. If it’s successful, the light rail system could become a connecting line to a high-speed line between Rensselaer and Manhattan, which would be akin to plugging the Capital Region into the charged socket of the Big Apple’s economy. A lofty expectation? Yes. But an impossible one? No. The wiring is all there; someone just needs to turn the breakers on.

Critics will say Egan’s vision is no different than a host of other plans that have either faced fierce resistance among stubborn legislators or have become the dumping ground for special interest funding to projects that go nowhere. Others will be quick to note the public’s love affair with the “freedom” that their vehicles provide them.

Yet as the spigot of fossil fuel reduces to a trickle, the failures of highway transportation could create a perfect storm to give wind to Egan’s vision. Who could knock having a few cocktails during a half-hour traffic-free trip to the Spa City from Albany at peak season? Better yet, who could knock a train that travels from New York City to Buffalo in under two hours. After all, that’s Egan’s endgame.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, imagine the money we can spend on this boondoggle - all poor little Horatio wants for Christmas is a new train...

please get a clue... all you green sneakers lack fiscal sense...

Trains are very expensive and no one rides them - how many trips are there a day from NYC to Montreal?

A trip from no where ville on the outskirts of Saratoga Springs in an light industrial - medical park to the inner sprawl of an also ran city of Rensselaer is a trip to anywhere I want to go and I think most of the Yuppies in Saratoga Springs would agree - what does Renselaer have for them? now imagine the trip on the 40 plus year old trains which Egan is after - he knows this will not work. If the route is directly through the urban blight of Schenectady.

Sweeney had the right plan and now CDTA is doing a great job running the Northway Express. They pick up people where they live (along the Northway) and they drop them off where they work (Empire State Plaza). It would be one thing is the train rain from downtown Saratoga Springs to downtown Albany but it does not. You have to drive to the train (in the middle of no where) and then transfer off the train (in a neighborhood that we all like to frequent) to a something (maybe a bus - maybe a taxi) to get to Albany.

When will people start to understand that the tracks (other than freight traffic) have gone the way the canal tow paths - they are good for bike trails and not much else. Also there are very few tracks in NYS due to our great taxing structure.

The truth is that the passenger train is the 2nd priority - freight is the first priority on the rail - so your passenger trip will have to wait for the Fort Edward Sludge Train to pass - courtesy of the green sneaker bunch.

So in summation, Horatio I hope that you find a train in your stocking on Christmas day and not waiting at the station. If you want to get to Albany try the Northway Express and lets turn the tracks into trails.

6:37 PM  
Blogger Horatio Alger said...

Green sneaker? I've been called a socialist before but green? That is indeed a first. I'll admit however to having a bit of a soft side for Mother Nature and her good friend Terra.
Anyway, you are correct in some of your assumptions that an old train will be a tough sell on the public. And the problem with trains in general in the United States is that they are infrequent and cost a lot to ride. Why would anyone ride from Manahattan to Montreal, knowing there's only one train headed that direction and there's a good chance it will be an hour late, if not more.

This said, the train system here will go the way of the canal system if there's not a fundemental change in the way planners and politicians create these systems. They need to be subsidized much in the same way roads are presently subsidized And were you to take a gander at either Europe, China or Japan --christ, just look at bloody New York City --you'll see there is still plenty of life in laying tracks. As for afordablity, there is no cheaper bang for the transportation buck than on trains. They're easier to maintainence, fuel and operate than a fleet of buses and millions of miles of highway.

Egan is thinking about the future. Inevitably, the Northway isn't going to work. It's a failure that is in the making. Just look at the clusterfuck that betook the highway during the funeral procession of Trooper McKenna last summer. The normal weekend traffic coupled with the mourners virtually turned the highway into a parkway, if you catch my drift. This sort of problem will continue to grow expotentially untill something is down to relieve this pressure. There's no solution in adding more buslines.

True, the stations as they exsist today wouldn't do much to serve commuters. Then again, they haven't been used as such in nearly a century, so there is bound to be some adjustment needed. But this is adjustment that can be made after the system is financed and running. There needs to be a new segement of tracks laid between Albany and Schenectady anyway. The present two tracks are overloaded with freight traffic and have been failing at quite a remarkable rate.

Needless to say, the plan for a commuter rail is a start; it's to give the moneyseekers a vision of future ambitions. That ambition is to again connect the major urban centers of New York with passenger rails that work, meaning they serve a purpose to get people from where they live to where they want to be. Scoff at his work all you want now, but just wait for the future. New York can either catch the train or be left waiting in the station.

6:56 AM  
Anonymous Dan said...

Anonymous above really misses the mark. New York State, in concert with Amtrak, has done everything possible to ruin train travel in this state, yet it still has a loyal following. I can't even get a cup of coffee anymore on the train to NYC, and Horation Alger mentions the delays and other inefficiencies. I do appreciate the fact that Senator Bruno and others are making efforts to improve the Albany-NYC run, even though those efforts have run into delays. If train travel is so dead, as anonymous claims, why is it doing so well in Europe, Japan, progressive American cities, and so many places within 150 miles of NYC, including the Albany to NYC run? Is excessive pollution, reliance on expensive fossil fuels from the middle East, constant highway construction and gridlock the logical preference for our future? Certainly not.

Horatio wrote the stations as they exist today won't do much for commuters, and he's right. Going to Rensselaer via Schenectady really doesn't have much appeal to me, but an efficient and modern commuter train around the region does. Why is that so out of the question? To steal a line, if we can envision it, we can certainly build it. Let's start small - perhaps downtown Albany to the uptown SUNY campus.

Anyway, I wrote on a related topic on my new blog, and it can be read at www.funsaratoga.com. Thank you for the discussion.

9:32 AM  

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