Transit Alternatives to the Tappan Zee Widening

Cap’n Transit is virtually alone in the transit blogosphere in opposing the Tappan Zee Bridge widening and replacement. Unfortunately, merely opposing a highway project, expensive as it is, is not enough; as we’ve seen in the failure of the ballot proposition to ban a highway tunnel in Seattle, opponents of highway expansion need to make it concrete and clear what transit alternatives there are. In the case of the Tappan Zee specifically, alternatives exist, but serve different markets, and it’s necessary to explain why the market that the Tappan Zee serves is not the most important to the region.

I propose a regional rail system instead, focusing on serving Rockland County and perhaps a few centers in Orange County. There are multiple lines crisscrossing Rockland County, with limited or no freight traffic, passing through old town centers that would make good regional rail stops and connecting to good alignments in North Jersey. For a regionwide perspective there are my original regional rail proposal and my more recent focus on connectivity from North Jersey to Lower Manhattan, but the important thing for the purposes of Rockland County is the question of which lines could be used. The Erie Main Line only goes to Suffern, but could collect passengers from the western parts of Orange County; the Northern Branch, including an abandoned northern end, goes as far north as Nyack; the Pascack Valley Line was abandoned north of Spring Valley but has an intact right-of-way as far north as Haverstraw; the West Shore Line goes north to Albany and has moderate freight traffic, easily accommodated in the off-peak if double-tracking is restored. There are so many options that the main question is which to activate just to maintain adequate frequency.

The main difference with any Tappan Zee proposal is that the existing rail lines go north-south, whereas the Tappan Zee is east-west. Fortunately, most existing movement is north-south. As can be confirmed by the 2000 census, Rockland and Orange Counties’ commute market toward Westchester and other suburbs accessed by the bridge is quite small: 18,000 to Westchester and Fairfield. The volume of commuters from those two counties to Bergen and Passaic Counties is somewhat larger (22,000), and that to New York City more so (27,000 to Manhattan, 14,000 to the other boroughs). And traffic over the bridge since 2000 has stalled.

Not only is the north-south or northwest-southeast market bigger than the east-west market, but also it uses the Tappan Zee when it could be diverted if there were alternatives. A breakdown of travel on the bridge reveals that 16% of eastbound travel is to the Bronx and another 15% is to the other four boroughs and Long Island; this could be done competitively by various transit options.

Thus, a transit option that emphasizes north-south connectivity and goes to Manhattan through Bergen and Passaic Counties is going to serve more people than adding more east-west connectivity. It could serve far more if North Jersey jobs clustered in Paterson, Hackensack, and other old city centers, but in fact they’re diffuse. It’s unreasonable to assume significant commercial transit-oriented development in North Jersey, though a few jobs in Paterson could still be captured; however, jobs in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens could be served well.

Finally, to serve Bronx and Upper Manhattan jobs from both North Jersey and Rockland County, the trains should be combined with good bus service across the GWB. For example, bus lanes on Route 4 could be a strong start, especially if the trains are timed to connect to the buses. More speculatively, there’s a subway bellmouth allowing an extension of the C along the GWB, and relative to the cost of tunneling it should be inexpensive to extend the C as an elevated line toward Paterson over Route 4; the drawback is that the C is slow and would poorly serve the Bronx.

Although Rockland County is very sprawling, it has just enough old cities to anchor regional rail at the residential end. The effect is magnified if we can assume some TOD – for example, developing over the many parking lots currently in place in Nyack near the legacy Erie station – but as with commercial TOD, this is desirable but not very likely with the current political structure. Fortunately, American commuter rail works very well as a shuttle that extends auto-dependent commutes into cities that have no room for more cars; as a narrow alternative to constrained highways, it often succeeds, and would be a no-brainer compared to a bridge as expensive as the Tappan Zee.

The cost of reviving and electrifying the four lines proposed in my regional rail post (Erie Main, Pascack Valley, West Shore, and Northern Branch) is quite small compared to either the cost of bringing them to Manhattan or that of rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge. The cost of bringing the lines to Manhattan is substantial, but done right it would be much lower than the Tappan Zee Bridge’s $8.3 billion excluding any transit component.

If costs could be brought down, a new crossing, slightly farther north of the existing bridge, could work well for rail. The transit mode selection report discusses commuter rail on the new bridge, and the concept would be similar except that there should be more stations to serve local traffic better. A rail-only bridge would leave the Hudson Line north of Tarrytown, allowing west-of-Hudson commuters to access this job center and also ensuring no loss of frequency to the station, and then cross to Nyack. It would have to be underground in Nyack because the Palisades rise too steeply from the water, and would surface just west of the urban area. If all trains serving the line are EMUs, rather than diesels or even dual-mode locomotives, then the grade could be sharp enough to limit tunneling to the urban area of Nyack; the TMS report, which only considers diesels, proposes 2 miles (3.2 km) of tunneling, but EMUs climbing 4% grades could cut this by more than half.

The advantage of the east-west option is that it would serve Westchester jobs; while the commute market from Rockland and Orange Counties to Westchester is as mentioned not large, it clusters along I-287, especially in White Plains, and is thus somewhat more rail-serviceable. In addition, although the chance of commercial TOD is small everywhere in the US, it is larger in Tarrytown and White Plains than in Paterson and Hackensack.

On the other hand, if the costs could be brought down, they would be lower for everything, including highways. The same factors that cause transit construction costs to be so high in New York (namely, overstaffing, and poor contracting practices) apply to highways equally. In particular, the decision about what mode to favor should only weakly depend on cost, since relative costs both within transit modes and between cars and transit are not too different from in lower-cost countries.

To cut costs to a minimum while still providing acceptable first-phase service, the initial network could include only the lines that could be brought to Secaucus, with some track modifications near the station allowing Erie trains to terminate at the station parallel to the Northeast Corridor tracks; this still involves a fair amount of concrete pouring, but much less than a new tunnel to Manhattan, and the transfer could be made as convenient as that at Jamaica. In addition, trains could be mixed and matched: that is, to let a few of the Erie trains serve Manhattan directly, some Northeast Corridor or Morris and Essex trains could be cut to Secaucus. The main disadvantage is that no such option is possible with the West Shore Line and Northern Branch, and so it would be more useful in the western part of Rockland County than in the eastern part.

The selling point of the regional rail alternative is that, despite job sprawl, Rockland County residents are still more likely to need to travel to Manhattan than to Westchester. Thus, the promise of a one-seat ride to Manhattan on frequent train service, or at least a two-seat ride with the same quality of transfer offered to Long Islanders, could carry some political weight. One does not drive into New York out of love of driving; one drives into New York out of necessity, and making this less necessary could reduce some of the political will to spend billions more than required on widening a bridge.


  1. Adirondacker12800

    The Erie Main Line only goes to Suffern….

    The Erie in combination with former DL&W goes all the way to Buffalo. They’ve shifted passenger service to suburban freight bypasses here and there but you can still take a train to Port Jervis.

    …..but could collect passengers from the western parts of Orange County

    Port Jervis is in Orange County.
    NJTransit terminates trains in Suffern. Metro North trains continue on.

    Finally, to serve Bronx and Upper Manhattan jobs from both North Jersey and Rockland County.

    I suspect that it’s relatively diffuse. They are heading for the hospitals, colleges and government offices scattered around the Bronx. Or places like Hunt’s Point Market. They aren’t driving in from Bergen and Rockland to work in the McDonald’s on Fordham Road. The best you can hope for is extending the Fordham Road SBS and Tremont Ave SBS to the bus terminal at the George Washington Bridge. When they get around to starting a Tremont Ave. SBS.

    A rail-only bridge would leave the Hudson Line north of Tarrytown,

    Then enter a grand sweeping tunnel to get from high tide line to the place where you can cross over the river traffic. There isn’t much river traffic compared to Port Newark or Elizabeth Port but it’s there and you’d have to stay out of it’s way. If you are doing this so they can get to Grand Central they already have a way to get to Grand Central. Buses to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and a quick ride on the Shuttle. Which, because of the XBL, is probably faster than a train would be.

    Westchester jobs…….clusters along I-287, especially in White Plains

    Most of it is in stereotypical suburban office park that would need a shuttle bus from the station to get to the office. A few of the are so big you need a shuttle bus to get from the outer parking lots to the office.

    it is larger in Tarrytown and White Plains than in Paterson and Hackensack.

    Paterson is much bigger and much denser than either White Plains or Tarrytown. It’s surrounded by lower middle class suburbs some of which are almost as big as Tarrytown and denser. Passaic, which is bigger than White Plains, is a short distance away. So is Hackensack. Passaic County with all it’s semi rural upper parts is denser than Westchester. Bergen is denser than Passaic.

    In addition, trains could be mixed and matched: that is, to let a few of the Erie trains serve Manhattan directly, some Northeast Corridor or Morris and Essex trains could be cut to Secaucus.

    Yeah un huh sure. Tell the people who have been standing since they got on the train in Metropark or Summit that they have to change trains in Secaucus so that people who have been sitting since they got on in Suffern can continue to sit all the way to Penn Station.

    one drives into New York out of necessity

    One drives into Manhattan during rush hour out of insanity.
    Whenever there’s a toll hike, the TV reporters will be out at the toll plazas asking people why they drive in. After their 45 minute wait to pay a toll they will, with a straight face, tell the reporter that it’s “faster” or “more convenient”. The ones who say it’s cheaper are definitely living in an alternate reality. In 2001 when the Holland Tunnel was closed and the Lincoln Tunnel was HOV-3 from 6 to 10 AM they would interview people passing through the tolls at 5:45. They would insist it was “faster” than taking the train or bus at 7:30.

    Heavy rail across the TZ is foamer fantasy. There isn’t enough traffic for 12 car multilevels. Or enough traffic for 6 car single levels. LRT maybe in a universe where gas is ten dollars a gallon and the toll is 25.
    25 passenger buses circulating in the neighborhoods that pick up Manhattan bound commuters and drop them at the train station then fill up on the way to the Thruway’s XBL would attract more riders. Biggish bus terminal hovering over the Tarrytown Station where they change to the Hudson Line or 25 passenger bus to their office park in Elmsford. It gets them there fast and a two seat ride. Attractive because they can get rid of the second or third car. Some traffic from the Hudson Line because riders could change to the bus to their office park.

    • Alon Levy

      The amount of travel demand from Rockland and Orange Counties to Manhattan isn’t that small. 27,000 compares with 31,000 from Middlesex and Mercer Counties (i.e. outer ends of the NEC and NJC Lines) and 38,000 from the Morris and Essex commute shed (Morris, Essex, Sussex, and Warren Counties, excluding Newark). And since trains are not airplanes, they can capture intermediate markets – in this case, the market from Bergen and Passaic to Manhattan, which has another 70,000 people who most likely don’t wake up every day singing paeans to either the Port Authority buses or the GWB toll plazas*. So those combined trains are not going to be empty.

      As for North Jersey vs. Westchester jobs, the reason I’m more bullish on transit-oriented centralization in Westchester is the related class issues. For branding purposes, businesses prefer not to locate in poor cities, and on top of it, local politicians are unable to conceive of any way to encourage development in a secondary city except in the most violently gentrified and anti-urban way. Newark’s redeveloping and this means there’s some hope for Paterson, but Paterson is a much smaller center than Newark. In contrast, the effort that Tysons Corner is making to be more walkable when Metro comes suggests to me that there’s more hope for White Plains; Tysons is revamping its street network, whereas White Plains would need to develop over parking lots and replace some of the garage mahals near the station.

      *I’ve only had to deal with the toll plaza once, while getting back from my graduation party at my advisor’s house in Tenafly to Manhattan. It was around 11 pm or midnight, and we still got stuck a good 10 minutes navigating the plaza. Because groups of lanes alternate between cash and EZ-Pass (putting all cash lanes on one side and all EZ-Pass lanes on the other is too simple, or something), people cut in front of us multiple times. It’s as if they arranged the roads for maximum inconvenience so that people would use the trains, and then didn’t build the trains.

      • Matthew

        The GWB toll plaza is very strange. Usually, the EZ-pass lanes are blocked by cars lined up to pay in the other lanes.

        NJTransit and other buses from that part of Bergen aren’t too bad actually. When I visit I can ride the express bus to midtown via the Lincoln tunnel in about 25 minutes if it doesn’t get stuck in traffic, which is where the XBL comes in handy. Wikipedia has a reference claiming that the XBL handles more commuters than Penn Station, FWIW.

      • Adirondacker12800

        The amount of travel demand from Rockland and Orange Counties to Manhattan isn’t that small. 27,000 compares with 31,000 from Middlesex and Mercer Counties

        It doesn’t need to do it on the Tappan Zee bridge. Getting to Manhattan has better solutions, they go through New Jersey like they do now.

        So those combined trains are not going to be empty.

        Combined trains wouldn’t go over the Tappan Zee. You don’t get to Secaucus from Rockland or Orange by going across the Tappan Zee Bridge. And if you are in Secaucus you don’t get to Grand Central by going over the Tappan Zee Bridge. Or Times Square or Wall Street or many other places south of 96th Street or so. If you want to go to Yonkers you don’t need the Tappan Zee Bridge to do that

        White Plains would need to develop over parking lots and replace some of the garage mahals near the station.

        Yes IBM is just going to let it’s office parks go back to nature and build a 70 story office tower in White Plains. Even if someone was possessed of the urge to build a 70 story office tower in White Plains and the drugs added to the White Plains water supply allowed that to happen you are talking about running 35 passenger buses on the Rockland County side and 25 passenger buses on the Westchester side except for the ones that run to the 70 story office tower. You might need articulated buses for that run.

        putting all cash lanes on one side and all EZ-Pass lanes on the other is too simple, or something

        People are stupid or @ssholes or both. Explain to me why, after waiting in the cash lane for 15 minutes the driver ahead of you doesn’t get the urge to get cash out until he gets to the toll collector. But then I have an EZPass and no longer have to watch that particularly irritating stupidity. People who can’t manage to get cash out before they get to the toll collector can’t be expected to figure out that all that purple paint means something. Or they are #ssholes who think their time is much more important than yours and they can slip down the EZPass line and get back into the cash lane.

        Praise be to Mr. Moses, within blocks of the river bank on the Manhattan side traffic goes in many different directions. If people weren’t sorting themselves out at the toll plaza they would be busy doing on the bridge or under the apartment buildings in Washington Heights. It wouldn’t be pretty.

        • Nathanael

          “Getting to Manhattan has better solutions, they go through New Jersey like they do now. ”

          But that’s NEW JERSEY!….

          I think interstate politics plays a role here. Honestly, if we chopped New Jersey in half and handed the northern half to New York and the southern half to Pennsylvania we’d probably get better policy in all three states.

    • David Alexander

      They are heading for the hospitals, colleges and government offices scattered around the Bronx.

      FWIW, my dad actually used to work at a homeless shelter in the South Bronx, and from what I remember, a sizable number of his co-workers drove despite being within walking distance of the subway at both worksites. Even though he had to pay tolls, it was still easier and faster for him to drive his car back and forth than to use the combination of the LIRR and subway especially since he worked the late shift at work. Admittedly, I wonder if these non-traditional workers with middle class incomes like nurses and police officers are less likely to use transit since they can find parking at their worksites even if it’s on the street, and there is less traffic when compared to traditional 9-5 workers? In the time that it took me to drive to his worksite in the Bronx from Zone 7 on the LIRR Babylon Line, I’d only be at Penn Station.

  2. jim

    The Tappan Zee Bridge doesn’t need to be replaced. I really do think that that needs to be the fundamental rallying cry. If the Cap’n is a lone voice, then more voices need to join his. It is an old trick to gain support for a highway from transit supporters by initially promising transit on the highway and then dropping it as too costly. Transit supporters need to realize they’ve been tricked and turn to opposing the bridge replacement.

    But I suspect that offering transit as an alternative to replacing the bridge would backfire politically: NYSDOT would think that someone is trying to take its money to give to MTA.

    I agree that more transit needs to be made available to Rockland County. But I think that that needs to be kept separate from the Tappan Zee issue. Build more transit to Rockland County — on the grounds that Metro-North cares more about east of the Hudson and that’s unfair, or something. Raise the tolls on the Tappan Zee to cover the increased maintenance on the existing bridge. And there will be a natural migration of the non-Rockland-Westchester traffic away from the bridge.

    In practice, yes, the money that would have been the state match to FHWA money to replace the bridge that would have gone to NYSDOT would become the state match to FTA money to extend Metro-North operations in Rockland County and go to MTA, but no-one would be so blunt about it.

  3. David Alexander

    FWIW, I’m a bit of a roadgeek, so I tend to be biased about the bridge and the need for reconstruction, especially after looking at the structure from the perspective granted from passing MNRR trains. Mind you, I’m still wondering why this needs any non-NYSTA funds given that original bridge was built by the authority using bonds back in the 1950s.

    And there will be a natural migration of the non-Rockland-Westchester traffic away from the bridge.

    Even if the toll went up, I’d rather cross at Tarrytown than deal with the Cross Bronx and the GWB, if I’m going to Rockland County or Woodbury Commons in Harriman. If I’m headed to Montreal, then I’d consider I-684 to I-84 and cross at Newburgh as there’s far less traffic and the toll is much cheaper there.

  4. Matt

    It’s not clear to me what you’re advocating. Are you saying the bridge should just continue on in its current form? My understanding was that the bridge was in need of replacement due to structural issues, and that it would otherwise fall into the water. Assuming that’s true, are you saying the bridge should simply be removed (to be replaced by a rail bridge, or whatever)?

    If the latter, bear in mind that commuting isn’t the sole reason for using that bridge. I don’t have numbers handy (though I imagine you do), but there’s a decent number of people using it to get from mid-Westchester to go west. Think Cleveland instead of Nyack. I imagine the truck traffic is significant too. Where should all that traffic go? South to make crossing the GWB even more miserable? North to the Bear Mountain Bridge? The BMB adds about an hour to any trip west, and there’s no way that route is cut out for a significant increase in traffic.

    • jim

      No. The bridge is not in need of replacement due to structural issues. It isn’t going to fall into the water. Its maintenance costs are higher than NYSDOT would like. But it can continue to be maintained at that higher cost indefinitely. One day, perhaps, it will become structurally deficient. But it is not now. If it were, then NYSDOT or the Thruway Authority would be trying to reduce heavy traffic across it to prevent it getting worse.

  5. Pingback: Mass Transit Yes; New Tappan Zee Bridge No
  6. Pingback: A rail transit alternative to multi-billion dollar Tappan Zee Bridge fix? «
    • Alon Levy

      Yeah. I can think of $75 billion in good transit investment at normal-world cost (so, equivalent to 300 km of subway) that doesn’t involve rail on the bridge. At the $100 billion level it might look like a good idea.

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