Free Tracks For Transit

June 17, 2017 by
Filed under: Car Stop 

Wouldn’t it be great if transit operations got free tracks? All they would have to buy would be the rail vehicles, stations, and car barns. Well, according to a recent story in the New York Times, the City of New York is about to re-discover the free tracks that lie all around Manhattan. What are they? Waterways.
The Times reported that Mayor de Blasio plans to inaugurate a much-expanded ferryboat system that would connect all five boroughs, in order to relieve the overcrowding on the subway system. The ferries, eighteen of them, each capable of carrying 149 passengers, would be owned by the city but run by a private operator. The city would also build thirteen new ferry landings and a home port for the boats at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
For most of their histories, cities such as New York that lie on waterways made extensive use of them for passenger transport. Around the world, many still do. Passenger boats were one the many nice ways of travel that got sacrificed on the altar of the automobile. Now, they are coming back, and for good reason. The tracks are free.
Just how dramatic the savings are from free tracks is illustrated by the projected cost of new ferries. The estimated total price is “more than $325 million,” according to the Times.
That may sound expensive, until you realize that the new waterfront streetcar line Mayor de Blasio wants for Brooklyn will cost upwards of $100 million per mile. The total cost estimated for the ferries would cover about three miles of the 18-mile streetcar line. Why the difference? Obviously, because for the ferries the tracks are free.
The mayor estimates that the new ferries (a few ferries already run in New York) would carry 4.5 million people annually, which works out to a bit more than 12,000 people a day. A streetcar line that carries that much is considered a success. Of course, the planned Brooklyn-Queens streetcar line is in a league of its own, expected to carry about 50,000 weekday riders.
There are very few issues on which I, as a conservative, agree with Mayor de Blasio, one of the most liberal politicians in the country. But in this case, by using free tracks to keep transit costs down, he is doing something conservative. Conservatives hate wasting money almost as much as liberals usually like spending it.
Other American cities would do well to learn from what New York is doing. Because water transport is always the cheapest, many of our cities are built on waterways. Virtually all used those waterways at some point for moving people, not just freight. Now, few do so. By resurrecting ferries and other water transport, they could expand transit options cheaply with a mode most people enjoy riding. High-quality transit with free tracks; what more could anyone ask?

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation


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