Cityview: Sweetening ISTEA

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It’s not an academic question. New York State is slated to receive that amount in transportation funding over six years, starting this summer. The latest federal transportation bill, which was facing imminent passage as City Limits went to press, gives New York more money for highway and transit aid than ever before.

Even more significantly, the legislation gives metropolitan New York the ability to control its own fate. Public officials can use this federal money to pursue a highway policy that will build us into permanent gridlock. Or they can fund projects that will help relieve our increasing traffic pressure, pressure that demands a high toll in road safety, economic efficiency, respiratory health and open space.

We need to recognize the costs of auto dependence and invest in smart ways of moving people and goods. Today, there are many innovative ideas under debate, from a cross-harbor rail freight tunnel designed to lessen dependence on trucks to “congestion relief pricing” tolls for cars entering the city during peak hours. Providing better public transportation in underserved communities is near the top of the list.

States and big cities have been able to use federal transportation aid pretty much as they chose since the 1991 passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), which relaxed traditional barriers between highway and transit assistance. New York could have used the opportunity to chart a course that built upon the region’s density, extensive rail and bus system, and still-vibrant pedestrian environment.

But New York’s ISTEA record is uninspiring. In our region, the most concrete impacts were funding for New Jersey Transit, like the Midtown Direct commuter rail connection. The biggest projects east of the Hudson were mostly ill-conceived road expansions that have already foundered. Public outcry, for example, led the state to call off its $500 million carpool lane for the Cross-Westchester Expressway, and the reconstruction plan for the elevated Gowanus Expressway has ground to a halt in the face of mounting public opposition.

For ISTEA2, we need to do better. One of the best ways to invest in the future is to bring better transit to neighborhoods that have few other options. For low-income New Yorkers, transit can mean access to jobs outside the community, significant savings from being able to survive without a car, and less auto traffic in the neighborhood–equaling cleaner air and safer streets. With the increases in subway and bus ridership from Metrocard expected to grow even more when monthly passes are introduced, transit is having a renaissance in New York. We should take advantage of this moment.

A start would be significant increases in bus service, which the Metropolitan Transit Authority has been steadily reducing for years. There needs to be state funding for more buses, more lines and new bus lanes to improve service.

Over the long term, New York must expand its rail transit system. There are some plans underway on that front. The MTA will eventually complete a tunnel link that will afford more rush-hour subway service to Queens via the E and F trains, transit life lines for much of the borough.

And the Second Avenue subway, begun in the 1970s but halted by fiscal crisis, is being discussed again for the benefit of residents on Manhattan’s East Side. At best, these communities are underserved and weary of the jam-packed Lexington line. And those living on the Lower East Side and Yorkville face a daily hike to get to the train.

The Transit Authority recently developed initial plans for an East Side underground line between 125th and 63rd streets, as well as a streetcar line running from near the South Ferry to Union Square. Some critics are holding out for a subway in that area as well, saying streetcars can’t handle the same volume as trains and aren’t well suited to the area’s narrow streets. But for either kind of rail to become a reality, the MTA needs to include a significant portion of the project in its next capital plan, which begins in the year 2000.

The Bronx would be well served by improvements to several stations on the Metro North commuter rail line. Residents near the Melrose Station are already demanding a rehab of their facility. Currently, many trains don’t even stop in the Bronx. But clean, modern stations and trains running both into Manhattan and out to White Plains and Stamford would give Bronx residents a car-free way to get downtown and out to the suburbs, where employers are now looking for workers.

New York should act quickly. For a time last year, it looked as though the road lobby and Sunbelt states, disgruntled over their shares of ISTEA, might succeed in setting the clock back, again reducing federal funding to an old-fashioned “highway bill.” To its credit, the Pataki Administration fought well to preserve New York’s share of the funds. It played a national leadership role in defending ISTEA’s dedication to less car-dependent transportation, cleaner urban air and locally responsive decision making. We should build on that success by committing New York’s transportation policy to the same principles.

Many pundits have characterized the fight for this transportation funding as “pork barrel politics.” This doesn’t have to be the case. Let’s make sure the projects we fund improve our city.

Jon Orcutt edits Mobilizing the Region, a weekly bulletin on transportation issues in the metropolitan region, for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

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