Dec 7, 2006

This commuter rail plan is DOA

The commuter rail demonstration project (read: experiment) between Saratoga Springs and Albany that was announced yesterday is a predicted example of a good idea about to be wasted because of poor execution.

The idea of instituting a light rail system providing service into downtown Albany from the northern population-growth centers has been around for a decade. It makes sense, and one needs to look no futher than nearby Boston or New York City to see proof of the contributions that such an infrastructure investment contributes to regional economic growth - - not to mention the environmental benefits. We need it to follow these examples, and we need to do so ASAP.

But what these and other succesful metro rail systems all have in commmon is two fairly obvious characteristics:

1) They tend to get people to the general neighborhood of their work or play destinations in a fairly 'straight-line' fashion, without unreasonable detours to out-of-the way stops along the way.


2) Once the get to that neighborhood, the riders are usually within walking distance of the door of the building to which they are ulimately destined.

It seems that these two realities always get overlooked when the local rail initiative moves from a big picture discusssion the the actual drawing of a route map on a piece of paper. This week's announced plan falls into that scenario -- as have all the prior plans that have arisen in the past few years of this discussion.

The proposed route of this project once again makes the mistake of beginning its journey by heading southwest from Saratoga Springs instead of heading southeast, moving towards Schenectady (with a new stop in Ballston Spa) before it makes a left hand turn in the Electric City and heads towards a final stop at the Amtrak/CDTA center in Rensselaer. Here lies the problem.

The proposed route can not possibly be successful --if success if to be measured by significant ridership --- because it ignores both of the best-practice arguments made above. My rebuttal:

Point 1

Schenectady is, and should hereafter be considered, as an 'out of the way' stop for the purpose of developing this rail plan. The good people there will certainly take me to task for pointing this out, but the stark demographic reality is that Schenectady is no longer a top tier component of the Capital Region.

Whereas the former brand given to the area was the 'Albany - Schenectady - Troy Tri-City metro region, the municipal centers of influence have changed in the past two decades. In fact, we hear the Tri City phrase used rarely anymore, now replaced by the term Capital Region. Our regional psyche and focus have moved northward, with Schenectady unfortunatley dropping off the map, so to speak. This is not to disparage the revitalization efforts underway there. But if one insisted on retaining the Tri City brand, the convincing argument would be to redefine such as being composed of Albany - Troy - Saratoga.

A proper and meaningful commuter rail plan should reflect this new regional order. Simply put, few Saratoga residents have a need to be deposited in downtown Schenectady, and the valuable extra time it takes to route the train in that direction will not be well received by the ultimate judges of this experiment: the ticket - buying commuters that are trying to get to Troy or Albany.

Hence, the straight - line requirement is being violated.

Point 2

If we are all starting with the given assumption that the primary goal here is to get people in and out of downtown Albany -- with a possible (and worthwhile) secondary goal of doing the same in and out of Troy -- the question turns to whether or not that need is being delivered by the current plan. The answer here is a resounding no.

Neither downtown Albany nor downtown Troy has a stop under this new proposal. Its drop off , of course, is the mega center hub in Rensselaer. Needing to then catch a CDTA bus to head back across (or up) the river further lenghtens the journey and adds another hassle element to the experience.

In other words, the within walking distance to one's so-called daytime door requirement has also not been met.

The result of this experiment, if it even gets off the ground, will be poor ridership figures. That will be a shame, because such results will forever be used by the light rail naysayers when future projects are proposed -- even the good ones that in practice actually DO connect the three municipal components of the Capital Region and deliver the required passenger delivery service.

Making that happen is filled with significant hurdles -- I certainly realize the infrastructure shortcomings and freight service priorities that are inherent with the preferred route. But good old fashioned political leadership could make it happen.

Here's another point to consider: the former (and beautiful) Union Station on Broadway is sitting there, with limited utilization under its new corporate, out-of-own ownership. It still has train tracks running alongside its back door. Do you see where I am going here?

After all, this place was built in this specific spot for one simple reason: it was a convenient stop for people coming in and out of Albany.

Quite the concept, isn't it?

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