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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Northeast’s Future

A legal notice published last week in The New York Times attempted to do the near-impossible—generate interest in a public hearing this week on improving the U.S. rail network between Boston and Washington, D.C.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the NEC (Northeast Corridor) Future meeting is being held on Thursday, Aug. 16, between 4:30 and 7:30 p.m., at the Farley Post Office/Moynihan Station, 380 West 33rd Street, Room 4500, Manhattan. The New York City gathering is one of nine sessions the FRA has scheduled as part of its NEC Future initiative, which is summarized at www.necfuture.com.

NEC Future is the planning framework for developing a NEC Passenger Rail Corridor Investment Plan, comprised of a Tier I Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and a Service Development Plan that will evaluate a broad range of alternatives for improving rail passenger service, the FRA’s legal notice says.

“The NEC, the rail transportation spine which runs from Boston to Washington, D.C., accommodates over 2,000 passenger trains each day—including Amtrak and commuter rail services—along with 70 freight trains daily,” the FRA’s project overview states. “Yet today the NEC faces serious problems, with century-old infrastructure, outdated technology, and inadequate capacity to meet today’s travel demand or to expand travel options as the region grows.”

Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) commuters have a vested interest in what becomes of Amtrak because Amtrak not only owns Penn Station but also the East River tunnels used by the LIRR. Before mass transit advocates start figuring out how to upgrade the Northeast Corridor’s rail network, however, they should do a deep dive on the NEC Future’s website.

In its online frequently asked questions section, they ask themselves “How will NEC Future be organized and what will be produced?” Perhaps that query should not even have been posed because the answer is underwhelming.

NEC Future will be completed in three phases yet Congress has only authorized the funding to complete Phase 1, which concludes in February 2013, they acknowledge. Additional Congressional appropriations are needed to complete the final two phases, the NEC Future’s website states.

Phase 1’s key tasks include generating public involvement, gaining stakeholder engagement, collecting data, and scoping prospective projects. If the FRA secures Congressional funding to undertake Phases 2 and 3 over a 26-month period beginning next year, the agency will then look to develop a new forecasting model to track the NEC’s ridership trends and assess the NEC’s future capital and operational needs.

Well, there must be some ongoing improvements being undertaken today along this 457-mile network of rail lines, and they will continue no matter what becomes of NEC Future, right? Yes, the FRA explains, there are “many existing NEC projects currently being implemented or planned to address capacity, safety and reliability issues.”

Visitors to the NEC Future’s website are then told about the replacement of Newark, New Jersey’s Portal Bridge as well as Connecticut’s Niantic River Bridge, which connects East Lyme and Waterford. There’s talk of new bridge and tunnel designs in Maryland, too. Long Island and New York City go conspicuously unmentioned as the sites of any near-term rail improvements.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net