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October 26, 2009

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MORE FROM THE 2009 APTA ANNUAL MEETING

Making a Positive Impact with Transit Mega Projects
BY SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor

Every public transportation capital project that involves major construction will cause upheaval in its community, but some are more overwhelming than others. Transit agency representatives shared their experiences with three massive North American transit projects—the new Hudson River tunnel connecting New Jersey with New York, Toronto’s extensive expansion of light rail lines and bus service, and the newly opened Central Link light rail line in Seattle—at an Oct. 6 General Forum on “Transit Mega Projects.”

Richard R. Sarles, executive director of New Jersey Transit Corporation (NJ Transit), reported on construction of the tunnel, known as the Access to the Region’s Core project. NJ Transit is partnering with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to build the first new tunnel under the Hudson River in a century.

When the two-tube tunnel is complete, scheduled for 2017, it will connect NJ Transit’s Frank R. Lautenberg Station at Secaucus, NJ, with a new station underneath West 34th Street in Manhattan, adjacent to the current Penn Station. Sarles said the area anticipates 44,000 new permanent jobs and an additional $10 billion in the gross regional product once the tunnel opens.

“It seems very simple, but once you get to Manhattan it becomes very complicated,” Sarles noted. He recounted the effort that began in 2002 to create the plans for a tunnel, working with the New Jersey and New York state governments, New York City, several New Jersey municipalities, elected officials, unions, and other stakeholders.

“We were under pressure to create more capacity for the trans-Hudson route,” Sarles said, commenting that double-decker cars, improved signals, and other improvements could only do so much. “We and our partners saw that we had to take the project and move forward with it. The existing, 100-year-old tunnel is at capacity during peak periods, so we had to do something.”

NJ Transit held more than 200 one-on-one meetings with decision makers throughout the region before beginning the public information process. “The response was tremendous: the leaders said no one before had ever bothered to come across the river and meet with them,” Sarles said. “Because of this, we were able to invoke bipartisan and bi-state support for the project.”

Adam Giambrone, Toronto councillor and chair of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), described the Transit City plan, which includes 122 km of light rail transit on seven lines opening by 2020 as well as one new subway line; extensions to existing subway lines; and 160 new bus routes. The 25-year vision of rapid transit and highway improvements in the region has a total cost of $50 billion (Cdn.).

TTC selected light rail instead of subways for the major expansion, Giambrone said, because light rail will meet the projected ridership demand with stop spacing and vehicle speeds comparable to subways, but more quickly and cost-effectively.

He showed scenes of Toronto’s inner suburbs—six-lane highways with sprawling, inefficient land use—and an artist’s renderings of the future, when light rail will run in the middle of the road; bike lanes will be added; and new, taller buildings along the line will provide increased residential density.

Michael Williams, project development officer for Sound Transit, recounted the process that led to the launch of Seattle’s initial light rail line. The first Central Link extension, to Sea-Tac Airport, is scheduled to open before the end of the year, and construction began in March for another extension that will serve the University of Washington and Capitol Hill when it opens in 2016.

Calling the 13.9-mile Central Link line “one of the most complex and challenging projects in the country,” Williams noted that Sound Transit had to cope with waterways, hills, and the built environment in the design and construction process. Central Link has stations at grade, elevated, and in tunnels—both the existing Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, retrofitted to accommodate light rail as well as buses, and the twin-bore Beacon Hill Tunnel, with a station at a depth of 160 feet.

Ultimately, he said, Sound Transit will administer a total of 55 miles of light rail as part of $18 billion in new projects approved by the region’s voters.

Flora Castillo, an NJ Transit board member and APTA vice chair-transit board members, served as moderator.

Post, Buckley, Schuh & Jernigan Inc. sponsored the session.

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