Virginia: Lessons to learn on New York’s transportation

IT’S TRUE that you can’t compare Hampton Roads’ rail system to New York City’s transportation network of rail, light rail, tunnels and bridges, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it — the good and bad.

In the past 15 years New York City’s rail system has incorporated private elements in its offerings. Most folks don’t realize that the city has light rail, an eight-mile system called AirTrain that opened in 2003 and connects the Long Island Railroad Jamaica station in Queens and the Howard Beach subway station in Brooklyn to JFK airport.

The system was built over one of the most heavily trafficked routes in the city, including the Van Wyck Expressway. It charges a separate fare almost twice the subway and bus fares and is run by Bombardier for the Port Authority.

When MetroCard was introduced in the late 1990s, delivery and customer service were outsourced for the almost half-billion dollars in sales eventually generated by local merchants that resold MetroCard. This made it more convenient for the public to buy and much less expensive for NYC transit to service and deliver.

When the MetroCard is eventually replaced with a smart card, NYC transit will partner with a bank or credit-card company to reap even larger savings. Financially sound transportation projects are still capable of attracting private funding, just like the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel did in Virginia Beach. NASA, too, realizes that private enterprise is an important part of future space exploration.

For Virginia Beach, light rail connections to important destinations such as military centers are logical. Connecting to the bases could also help prevent future loss of military support for the area since critical infrastructure that can be used for other purposes would already be in place. In the event that we lose military support, having light rail to the base and port areas would make it easier to attract private industry to those locations.

Because these destinations aren’t the line’s first connections, which have the biggest return on investment financially and in congestion relief, the city will have a tougher time approaching the taxpayers if it wants to expand light rail.

Politicians tell us the base connections are planned for the future, but that doesn’t mean they will happen any time soon. Consider New York City’s Second Avenue subway line. City and state politicians promised it when they took down the Third Avenue elevated line, most of which disappeared in 1955, but budget problems and politics always got in the way. During the past 60 years, with the Third Avenue line gone, the Lexington Avenue line has been one of the most crowded subway routes in the city. Only in the past 10 years has the city seen real progress on the Second Avenue subway, with a small portion of it, between 96th and 63rd streets, set to open next year.

In Virginia, a third crossing is needed across the Hampton Roads harbor, but I disagree with the idea that the current crossing should not be tolled. In New York City, the tolls on the Midtown and Battery tunnels are higher than necessary because they subsidize the free crossing on the East River bridges. The East River bridges have exponentially higher maintenance costs and are well past life expectancy. It would be better if the bridges were tolled so the proceeds could help finance the construction of tunnels with dedicated rail and bus lanes for HOV use during rush hours.

After all, the goal is to dissuade car use and encourage the use of public transportation. Nothing is free, and if there isn’t some cost associated with it, it’s not appreciated and almost always abused. Without tolls at the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, we will wait decades for a solution while congestion is exacerbated.

Members of the Virginia Beach City Council should know that opponents of the current light-rail plan will not support them in November. If the politicians in question vote their conscience, re-election be damned, good for them. The process is called democracy.

I’m a proponent of public transportation, not wasting taxpayer money.

By John Sparrow, former director for MetroCard retail sales in New York City, lives in Virginia Beach.

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