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Mass Transit 2033: Rockland, “Waiting For Good-DOT”

by Harriet Cornell

Rockland County Legislature Chairwoman Harriet Cornell has informed Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Tappan Zee Bridge Mass Transit Task Force that she isn’t happy with the draft outline being used for the final report because Rockland’s transportation needs can’t wait until 2033.

Traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge.  ©2013 Alison Perry

Bridge access to Metro North’s Hudson rail line, Hudson Rail Improvements and other options for bus riders from Rockland are on the long-term recommendation list, priorities that won’t be considered until 2033 or later. Cornell, who is a member of the task force, addressed that committee about her concerns on Oct 25:

Please tell me that the listing of West of Hudson Rail Improvements and the Gateway Tunnel with Bergen Loop were mistakenly written as long-term recommendations, meaning that they will not be dealt with until well after 2033 which, according to the draft outline, is when the long-term projects are to start. If the intent is to consign West of Hudson improvements to 20 or 30 years from now, the draft outline is an insult to Rockland. That, together with dropping the Tarrytown connector, or keeping alive other design options for Rockland bus riders to reach the Metro North Hudson Line efficiently, demonstrates a total disregard for the Rockland to Manhattan market. The responsibility of the MTTF to Rockland is to address two travel markets: Rockland/Westchester and Rockland/Manhattan.

This is not a last minute recommendation from me. I submitted comments to the MTTF in April that spelled out exactly these objectives that the outline relegates to the shelf for 20 years.

I was filled with optimism at the first meeting of the MTTF—that the work would be to find ways to meet the needs of people now and into the future. I have been involved with issues of the Tappan Zee Bridge since 1998, when Governor Pataki mentioned in a radio interview that there would be a replacement built. I joined with my friends in Westchester like Drew Fixell and Sher Chorost, as well as Rockland elected officials to create awareness in the public of potential impacts and to try to gain support for independent studies on traffic, ridership, and environmental issues.. Later, when the initial Rockland-Westchester Task Force was created, much time and attention was given to transit, particularly to commuter rail. Having grown up in the Five Towns of Nassau County, seeing men and women walking daily to the LIRR train stations (both Hewlett and Woodmere were walking distance), and commuting to NYC one year after college, I was a fan of trains.

[pullquote]”If the intent is to consign West of Hudson improvements to 20 or 30 years from now, the draft outline is an insult to Rockland.”[/pullquote]But I wondered why attention wasn’t being given to existing train lines on the west side of the Hudson. Now that commuter rail over the Tappan Zee Bridge has been consigned to at least 20 years out, rail access to Manhattan from Rockland has gone and will continue to go through the State of New Jersey. That inescapable reality makes Rockland an orphan without loving parents: not fully embraced by New York, and not part of New Jersey. To deal with this difficult “orphan” status, I have urged creation of a fund to be dedicated to improvement of West of Hudson transit at every possible occasion over the years, at every public hearing run by the MTA or Metro North or DOT.

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It is patently absurd to consign viable short-term projects to a long-term heap.

For example Amtrak is on record stating that it intends to complete the Gateway project—and possibly the Bergen/Secaucus Loop—by 2025. This was underscored last month when Amtrak secured $185 million to preserve its proposed right-of-way through the Hudson Yards into the south side of Penn Station New York. Tom Prendergast, CEO & Chairman of the MTA, came out in support of Gateway II and the Secaucus Loop in mid-August, according to an article on August 15, 2013 by Judy Rife of the Middletown Times Herald-Record. Also, the MTA has already approved the removal of some Long Island Rail Road maintenance facilities west of Penn Station in Manhattan to facilitate the construction of a new box tunnel as part of the initial work required for the start of Gateway II.(This information is courtesy of Orrin Getz.)

Consequently, efforts must get underway to engineer and fund the Loop, presumably desired by New York and New Jersey, before the end of this decade.

Exploration of improvements for the Pascack Valley line could be undertaken immediately. I have initiated and held meetings with Metro North and NJ Transit. Together with their top officials and our Planning Commissioner, we visited every stop on the Pascack Valley Line to determine strategies for enhanced service. That tour confirmed that reasonably low cost facility improvements that would allow a fuller service are do-able and could be implemented in the short term.

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Upper Nyack Halloween display tweaking the Tappan Zee Bridge construction project (Photo Credit ©2013 Dave Zornow)

The West Shore commuter rail revival (so beloved in the past) could be explored by the Governor’s office tomorrow, not in 20 years. It won’t be a push-over, and it will take high-level negotiations but Commissioner McDonald volunteered to start the contacts. New Yorkers don’t take “no” for an answer!

For me to support a Final Report and not file a dissent, I have several proposals, all of which have been raised numerous times orally at meetings and formally in written comments:

  • That the report restate that the MTTF’s responsibilities to Rockland are to address two travel markets: Rockland/Westchester and Rockland/Manhattan.
  • That the Tarrytown access/connector or another variation of access from the bridge to the Hudson Line (a key element for serving the Rockland/Manhattan market) be included as a short-term study item.
  • That all of the West of Hudson rail concepts I have advocated should be in the short-term category to allow them to be accomplished then or studied for accomplishment in the early mid-term. The West Shore/CSX exploration should be started in the short term. Attention to the Gateway Bergen/Secaucus Loop needs to be in the short term. Weekday evening peak stops should be added to the Metro North express trains at the Route 17-Ramsey Park-Ride. The Pascack Valley line service improvements should be in the short-term.
  • That, at the end of this year, there should be a funded responsibility—probably assigned to NYMTC–to advance these improvement concepts in concert with Metro North, the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority and NJ Transit. Since Rockland is at the short end of a substantial value gap with the MTA, MTA resources could help support this.
  • With regard to the planning issues concerning the development of a Bus Rapid Transit system in the Tappan Zee Bridge corridor, I fully endorse the comments of Rockland County’s Commissioner of Planning and Transportation, Tom Vanderbeek.

Harriet Cornell is the Chairwoman of the Rockland County Legislature.

Photo Credit: ©2013 Alison Perry

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