Inefficient Success

Before COVID among the — if not the — hottest topic in New York area transit infrastructure was the Gateway project. With dire (if questionable) predictions of massive capacity cuts from an impending Hudson River Tunnel closure and a constant drumbeat about the centrality of the tunnels to New York-New Jersey commutation, you would be forgiven for thinking that the tunnels leading into Penn Station comprise the busiest transit crossing of the Hudson River. I say “forgiven” because, of course, they are not.

Carrying over 35,000 bus riders under the Hudson River and (mostly) into the Port Authority Bus Terminal during the AM peak hour, the bores of the Lincoln Tunnel hold the crown of busiest Hudson River transit crossing, trouncing the NJT Rail tunnels to their south by a healthy margin of 11,000 peak-hour riders. Indeed, the Lincoln Tunnel is among the busiest of any Manhattan transit entry points; only the Manhattan Bridge’s four subway tracks carry more people. But their story isn’t one of success. The buses that travel through the Lincoln are a testament to our transit planning failures, and threaten to cost our region untold billions in the years to come.

Origins

In New Jersey, buses using the Lincoln Tunnel arrive from across the northeastern quadrant of the state, feeding from a dense transit grid in the inner suburbs and from tendrils reaching far into the the state’s interior. These routes are enormously significant to NJ Transit’s network. Trips serving the Port Authority Bus Terminal (PABT herein) consume thirty four percent of all weekday bus service-hours operated by NJT, and in many North Jersey counties, are the majority of bus trips available to residents.

If you slice and dice the data a bit differently, we can begin to gain an even clearer picture of these buses’ catchment. About half of all PABT bus trips stop in Hudson and/or Bergen Counties, with Passaic and Middlesex holding distant third and fourth places. This pattern is repeated if you look at route level data — a map of the top ten routes (by number of weekday trips) serving the PABT shows a dense cluster of routes in Hudson and Bergen, and the 139 bus reaching down into Monmouth.

Unsurprisingly, these service allocations track with the geography of bus use in North Jersey. While transit use in the region is strong overall, it is locally fragmented by mode. Rail is strongest in wealthy suburbs along electrified (read: faster) commuter rail corridors and along PATH. Bus use is most common in northern Hudson County and in Bergen (PABT-land) where rail options are either limited or slow, giving buses a time advantage.

I should note: not all of these bus use clusters are driven by the relative speeds of radial transit. Buses’ large share in the Oranges, for example, is likely driven by high rail ticket prices and low frequencies making it less accessible and useful to lower income transit riders. However, the split between places with electrified rail and those without holds in general.

Finally, it’s worth remarking on the density of the areas served by these buses. Manhattan’s economic gravity means that it’s possible to generate relatively strong transit use in areas with low intensity land use patterns, but, with the exception of some of park-and-ride routes, most Lincoln Tunnel bus ridership seems to be generated by riders from dense inner ring suburbs and secondary cities (I say “seems to be” because I am not aware of any public route-level NJT bus ridership statistics, so must infer rider origins from relative service levels). Indeed, the first, second and third densest municipalities in the United States all lie within the PABT catchment zone — those three being Gutenberg, Union City and West New York.

Failures

The PABT and associated NJT bus routes are an unquestionably successful pieces of transit infrastructure. By providing fast service from North Jersey to Manhattan, they likely divert thousands of car trips, and help support Manhattan’s (transit-friendly) regional economic preeminence. But I am here to tell you that while successful and beneficial, the network is, in fact, a massively underrated transit problem.

I see three motivating dynamics here: operating efficiency, service efficiency and capital efficiency. Let’s dissect them.

Operating Efficiency

Transit modes can be roughly stratified into capacity buckets. If you need a little bit of capacity, you use a van. If you need more, an infrequent (and perhaps small) bus. More, and you enter the province of frequent and/or articulated buses. Even more, and you’d probably want to look at light rail or light metro. Beyond that, you want subways, or regional rail. The way these buckets work is simple: in absolute terms, it costs more to operate a subway train than a bus, which costs more to operate than a van. However, it costs less to operate two buses than five vans (or five trains instead of thirty buses, and so on), so as your ridership increases, larger vehicles with more involved infrastructure become more economical by providing more capacity at a lower unit cost. These basic principles are generally borne out in US per passenger-mile transit cost data, despite the US’s issues with underutilized and poorly planned rail.

Lincoln Tunnel buses fall squarely in the capacity range best served by rail. Average loads per bus lie in the 40-50 passenger range that normally defines the upper limit of bus capacity, and their aggregate daily demand profile resembles that of a four track subway line. Yet the way we deal with these riders is by squeezing nearly one thousand buses per hour through the Lincoln Tunnel during peaks. Even at American (read: high) operating costs, commuter rail can deliver these passengers to Manhattan for less money, as NJT bus service costs $0.78 per passenger-mile to run, but rail costs only $0.47. Those savings could, in turn, be reinvested in service expansions across the NJT network.

Service Efficiency

That final point, about reinvestment, is key here. Setting aside the above-identified potential monetary redistribution, some future rail-based Lincoln Tunnel bus network replacement would free up a large number of bus service hours for use elsewhere — recall that thirty four percent of NJT bus service is spent on PABT routes. Instead of running routes oriented towards radial travel, we could give Northern New Jersey a strong BRT network, or a dense, frequent, Toronto-esque grid of local routes for little additional money. These (re)investments could (coupled with land use changes) begin chipping away at auto-dependence in intra-suburban travel, advancing environmental and equity goals. Getting Northern New Jersey even to Canadian levels of transit use in suburb-suburb travel would be a big win.

Spending service hours on a strong local grid is also a necessary complementary investment to rail. Part of what makes it difficult to work our way out of this bus problem is that Lincoln Tunnel buses cover Hudson and Bergen Counties quite comprehensively; you can get a PABT bus almost anywhere, at least during peaks (see earlier maps). Bergen County is not in any way lacking in rail corridors, but these lines are not nearly dense enough to put most places in the county within walking distance of a train; you need (frequent) local buses meeting (frequent) trains at timed and fare-neutral transfers wherever possible to extend the reach of the rails.

Capital Efficiency

By far the most important facet of the Lincoln Tunnel bus issue is its impact on regional transit capital planning, for the PABT is coming due for replacement. The Port Authority is contemplating a number of project alternatives, the best of which do little more than incrementally improve rider experience and transit utility, and the worst of which move parts or all of the (already peripheral) bus terminal further away from Midtown job density and transit connectivity to the Javits Center area. These replacements also come at a massive cost; the Port Authority is projecting PABT replacement to cost somewhere between $7.5 and $10 billion.

The project’s price tag is more a testament to New York’s cost disease than any inherent issues with buses, but, as denizens of ‘Transit Twitter’ have been doing for years, we should ask why we are planning to spend this much on a project that is fundamentally about preserving an inefficient transportation system. Precious few global cities with high transit ridership and job densities are currently building large bus terminals to serve them; for the efficiency reasons illustrated above, buses are simply not a best practice here. Indeed, some cities (for example, Ottawa) are even converting former bus infrastructure to rail on high-ridership corridors in order to realize more capacity for less money. While it’s likely unrealistic to expect a full replacement of the PABT, lower bus volumes would be more conducive to a much less costly transitway based replacement. So to the extent we can, we should be following the lead of other cities, spending on better, higher functioning transit infrastructure rather than preservation.

Ways Forward

What planners must task themselves with, then, is finding ways to better serve the PABT/Lincoln Tunnel catchment area with rail transit. Any such conversation should start with low-hanging fare and operating reforms. It should not, for example, be more expensive to take a train to New York from Paterson than a bus, nor should our regional fare structure penalize people for transfers transfer between, say, NJT and PATH. Especially in light of the pandemic’s impact on rail ridership, now may also be the time to begin working towards (long overdue) commuter rail reform; to whatever extent possible given the limitations of existing infrastructure and equipment, we should seek to rectify NJT’s low service levels, complicated service patterns and high operating costs.

Fundamentally, however, reforming travel patterns will require us to redirect the billions planned for PABT replacement towards investments in rail speed, capacity and coverage in Northern New Jersey. For existing rail corridors (which mostly serve Bergen County) the infrastructure prescriptions to these ends are simple, and have been discussed at length and in more detail by others: New Jersey Transit should electrify its existing lines through northwestern New Jersey to support higher speed, lower cost operations with less environmental impact, and convert stations along them to high platforms to reduce dwell times and staffing requirements. In tandem with those improvements, NJT should begin the construction of the dense local/feeder bus grid so critical to rail’s success, and should likely contemplate expanding rail service onto currently freight-only corridors, for example CSX’s formerly quad-track River Line. Further, we need to invest in more, better designed core network capacity, whether that be some sort of Hoboken-Atlantic Terminal tunnel, a Penn-Grand Central connection in conjunction with Gateway, or an investment in higher performance signaling and equipment so we can run 30+ tph on the tracks under the Hudson as is done in Paris.

For Hudson County, things are more complicated. Unlike Bergen, its bus-dense towns do not have rail rights of way on which one may incrementally improve service. A fix for the area will likely require some combination of subway extensions from Manhattan, improvements to and realignments of the HBLR network (which is currently somewhat underutilized relative to population density north of Jersey City, and can provide a two-seat ride to Manhattan with PATH), and preservation of Manhattan-bound bus service. Yet perhaps more than anywhere else in the New York metro area, transit investments in Hudson County can self-justify with growth: Hudson County has the among the most pro-housing policies of any part of the region.

New York’s truly exceptional construction costs force us to make decisions that we simply should not have to make, and to suffer the climatic and economic disbenefits of glacial transit expansion. While agencies should always be cognizant of opportunities to spend money in ways that will increase operating efficiency, New York’s cost bloat (and operating cost efficiency issues) means this focus should only be stronger; the ethos of doing more with less should dominate transit discussions in this region. Rail replacement of the PABT is perhaps the greatest such opportunity in New York today, one which could positively transform transportation for millions in New Jersey. Let us not pass it up for another half-century of inefficient transit.

Subway Operating Efficiency and the MTA Budget Crisis

As most of you are likely aware, the MTA is currently facing a large deficit. Thanks to the ridership and cost impacts of the COVID pandemic, the agency needs $12 billion to cover operating losses through the end of 2021. It is hoped that the federal government will cover the shortfall, lest New York face a massive round of service cuts.

Given the magnitude of this budget shortfall, it is likely unrealistic to expect the MTA to recover fully without federal aid. However, whether to mitigate the impacts of a no-funding situation or to cover a shortfall in provided funds (for example, if Congress grants, say, $10.5 rather than $12 billion), it is important for the MTA to have identified ways of extracting efficiencies from its operations that do not involve the broad-based service cuts, layoffs and wage freezes threatened.

The path to ‘better’ savings isn’t especially murky. Patrick O’Hara laid out ways to save on the operation of LIRR service in this post of a few weeks ago, and I have tweeted a good bit on NYCT’s operating cost issues in the past. That said, given current events, it’s worth discussing the issue in depth. To be clear: I do not mean for this post to be an all-encompassing list of potential ways to save; my aim here is to present a few frameworks/cost centers of interest when discussing a financial path forwards.

The 80/20: Facility Maintenance

As should immediately stand out on the chart above, NYCT’s operating cost issues are driven by maintenance, specifically facility maintenance (think: track, tunnels, signals, yards, stations). If you look at cost-efficiency numbers on a per track-mile basis, the picture becomes even more dismal: NYCT is spending about three times as much per unit of maintenance as domestic peers. (NOTE: to get a comparison to true best practices, NYCT should benchmark to the likes of Paris or London, but I have not been able to obtain granular cost data for those systems)

There are some caveats here, of which it is important to be aware:

  • Facility maintenance expenditures are somewhat correlated with use intensity (as measured by car-miles per track-mile), even after you exclude the outliers of NYCT and PATH (these analyses include light rail system data to increase sample size beyond 14). However, even when including PATH and NYCT in the regression, NYCT’s maintenance costs are about $800,000 more than predicted.
  • Most US agencies classify some maintenance-like items as capital expenditures; for example, NYCT put spending on switch replacements in the capital budget. While it is possible to access regularized capital spending data through the National Transit Database, the NTD data do not offer sufficient detail to distinguish, say, an ADA upgrade from a laundry list of deferred maintenance items being treated as a capital project. The upshot: operating budget expenditures may not reflect the full extent of maintenance spending, but including capital spending may end up overstating costs.

With that said, let’s break down the issue. Maintenance cost structures across all US systems are dominated by labor. NYCT is no different in this regard; its cost disease seems to be driven almost entirely by a serious maintainer productivity deficit. NYCT’s labor cost per facility maintainer-hour (including salary and fringe benefits) is actually about average for US systems at $65; its issue is that it uses about four times more maintainer hours per track mile than peers.

The obvious question here is “why.” I am, honestly, not entirely sure. I have long thought that some combination of the agency’s complex track access and roadway worker protection (“flagging”) protocols and work rules may be what is driving up costs and labor expenditures, but I cannot present evidence beyond anecdote and my own observations. Nevertheless, this area holds massive potential for further investigation: bringing NYCT’s facility maintenance costs down to the national average could save $1.3 billion dollars per year, or about twenty percent of the projected 2021 deficit.

Other Ways to Save: OPTO and Hidden Time

One of the more commonly proposed ideas for cost reduction at NYCT is movement to one-person train operation, or OPTO. OPTO is, unequivocally, an international best practice in rapid transit, even on systems (ex: Thameslink) with long, crowded trains and curvy platforms. While NYCT’s overall vehicle operations spending isn’t extreme compared with those of other US systems — most of which use OPTO — OPTO would indeed be a significant saving, and would more importantly reduce the incremental cost of subway service, thus making cuts less and expansions more attractive. However, outside the G and L lines, any OPTO expansion would require significant investments in CCTV infrastructure and crew training. This would be money well spent, but the need for investment introduces a relatively inflexible minimum time-to-savings. And, of course, this is all assuming that the TWU would even concede OPTO, which seems unlikely (and honestly, who can blame them?)

Making a unit of service cheaper is only one of the two broad levers transit managers have at their disposal right now. They can also cut service. Even with COVID ridership levels, service frequency/span/coverage cuts should, as a general rule, be avoided (for reasons ranging from equity to the difficulty of re-hiring and re-training operations staff, to the downwards pressure this would have on ridership’s recovery), but there are ways to trim service with small impacts relative to their returns. These savings are all about ‘hidden time,’ which in my mind comes in two varieties: excess scheduled runtime and non-revenue train movement.

Most costs associated with train operation scale with the time it takes to run the length of a line. The longer the round trip runtime, the more trains and crews you will need to run a service at a given frequency. The corollary here is that when you shorten scheduled running times, you can make a service (hours) cut without actually impacting frequencies or coverage: crews and trains are doing the same work in less time. One cannot wake up one morning and magically speed up trains, but NYCT’s incremental speed efforts have borne fruit and COVID ridership losses are making trains run faster; if the agency expects these gains to hold, it may be worth adjusting schedules to reflect them. There are also likely savings to be had in schedules for diversions, though those savings would be more likely to accrue to the capital budget, which pays their cost.

The issue of non-revenue time is more straightforwards. In the course of operating a transit system, you inevitably end up with vehicles running without passengers — for example, on trips to and from train yards. For its size and complexity, NYCT’s non-revenue proportion benchmarks well compared to other US heavy rail systems, but savings likely exist. We could ask, for example, whether every AM rush D train need originate from Stillwell Avenue; on the N, some enter service at 86 St which minimizes time from yard departure to entry into northbound service (this may require slightly rearranging yard patterns in the Coney Island complex).

Hidden time cuts likely will not add to much in the grand scheme of the transit budget. It is not even possible to say for certain whether, after accounting for the resources that would have to be invested in rewriting schedules, they would net much financial benefit in the short run. However, cuts like these have return beyond finances: a faster, more tightly scheduled system is better for riders and operations, and I moreover think we would be remiss not to look at low impact savings before reducing mobility in a crisis.

Difficult Decisions

What New York and its transit system face today is unprecedented and unpredictable there is no certain way out of this mess. I want to be clear in saying that the immediacy of this potential crisis may make the systemic work I suggest too time-intensive to be helpful. But we need to be cognizant of our actions’ long term ramifications for the agency and for New York. Indiscriminate cuts and wage freezes will likely erode the MTA’s knowledge bases, internal networks and organizational capacity, whereas targeting specific cost centers reduces institutional risk while enhancing process reform capabilities. And every transit service cut made threatens climate, equity and the mere survival of the transit-dependent urban landscape that is New York. So, if funding does not come through, it is imperative that we try pursuing more targeted approaches to the budget.