It’s been over two weeks since Hurricane Irene stormed through the New York area, and the MTA is still in the process of assessing the future of the Port Jervis line. Even with the MTA’s so-called emergency powers activated in order to avoid a lengthy procurement process, the line will be out of service for a few months as engineers levy a cost estimate and then begin repairs. The storm has brought renewed attention to a little-used lifeline into the city, and many are wondering what should be done with it.
Earlier this week, Jim O’Grady at both WNYC and Transportation Nation examined the Port Jervis line. The two articles are basically identical copies of each other but with different headlines. One asks if the MTA should bother fixing it, and the other notes that the authority is going to “spend millions” repairing the line. Whatever the price tag, it’s going to be a lot of dough for 2300 riders per day.
O’Grady raises a point I briefly mentioned in my most recent examination of the Port Jervis line’s future: Based on the MTA’s initial estimates, the cost to repair the Port Jervis line will be far steeper than the money the agency saved when it cut 37 bus lines, and the Port Jervis ridership is “just a small portion of the thousands of riders who used to take” those buses. If only it were that simple.
By providing service into Orange County, the MTA can earn subsidies from those counties. While few riders travel along the Port Jervis line into New York, it is included in the payroll tax calculations. Relatively little money comes from the largely rural county, but the subsidies allow the MTA to operate this far-flung service at relatively little additional cost. Sinking millions to repair the line alters the equation.
Yet, for those 2300 who live in Orange County and commute to New York, many cannot afford to take the drive every day. “It’s the only means of transport for these people,” Gene Russianoff said to O’Grady as he debated the pros and cons of repairing the line.
Still, the MTA’s interim offerings haven’t been too popular. The authority is currently conducting a $500,000 study on the 14 miles of washed-out track, and by the end of September, they will know how much repairs will cost. In the meantime, they have unveiled extensive bus routing. MTA Bus has sent 40 vehicles to Orange County to provide service to nearby stations. “In the two weeks since flooding crippled 14 miles of the Port Jervis Line, Metro-North has worked to provide buses to transport the 2,300 people who depend on the railroad each weekday. They will be taken to nearby stations in New Jersey and across the Hudson River in a complex and evolving plan to provide alternative public transportation,” Metro-North Railroad President Howard Permut said. “It is the most extensive and complex busing program ever implemented by the railroad.”
Unfortunately, though, only around 1250 people a day are using these buses, according to WNYC, and politicians are complaining anyway. “We have balked about paying the MTA tax, that percentage, for the last few years, and now, when we need them the most, they can’t provide any of my constituency with an appropriate service,” Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, who clearly doesn’t the impact understand weather-related disasters, said. “I think it’s outrageous. People are in tears. How can you do that? Even from Harriman down. There are people that are paying this tax, and now, all of a sudden, it’s not us getting the service again. It’s like we’re the orphan children.”
Ultimately, the MTA isn’t going to cut bait on the Port Jervis line, and it wasn’t discussed behind closed doors. FEMA dollars will likely cover some of the costs of repairs as well. But better planning, some higher speed options and a drive to encourage transit-oriented development along the lonely line could improve commutes for everyone while making the Port Jervis line more popular. Finding an opportunity in a hurricane could be a good move; giving up likely isn’t.