Featured Indicator: All Aboard!

September 2, 2016 Alexandra Tranmer

For this month's Featured Indicator I took some inspiration from NEDA's upcoming annual conference, which is transportation themed. Transportation infrastructure might not be the most enthralling subject in the realm of economic development and urban planning, yet reliable and efficient transportation corridors are crucial for productivity across the nation. U.S. transportation networks are in rough shape –literally. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) assesses the state of the nation’s infrastructure, from dams to bridges to transit every four years, grading the U.S. on multiple elements. Let’s just say that the U.S. could have prepared a bit more for this test as our transportation infrastructure received average to abysmal grades.

And while potholes and bumpy roads can seem like just an inconvenience, the ASCE also note that it is American small businesses and households that are carrying most of the burden from insufficient transportation infrastructure. For example, when an up-and-coming tech business can't obtain the latest widget for its launch because the transport truck was stuck in traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel or because train tracks couldn't accommodate the latest model of train cars – that small business suffers. And when this case repeats itself on a daily basis, there are larger repercussions on total productivity and business climate for communities across the country. 

Although personal automobiles are still the primary mode of transportation for much of the population, urban populations continue to grow, resulting in differing transportation preferences, as cars are a less viable option in cities. From commuter trains, bus rapid transit, light rail transit, subways, and even aerial cable cars, public transit systems are growing more and more taxed as people flock to cities and leave their cars behind.




One of the major transportation systems moving people up and down the east coast is Amtrak. Amtrak's Northeast Corridor (NEC), reaching from Washington D.C. to Boston, is the busiest section of railroad in North America. In 2015, 17.6 million trips were taken across the NEC, resulting in 750,000 daily commuter and Amtrak trips on the line. The Acela Express, the company’s high speed train, which serves Boston, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington D.C, carried 3.4 million passengers in 2015, generating $525 million in ticket revenue. 

Of the top 15 busiest Amtrak stations in the United States (shown in the graph), 11 fall in the Northeast (Northeast as defined by NEDA's membership)1. New York City saw more than 10.1 million riders in 2015, Washington D.C. saw nearly 5 million, and Philadelphia comes in at the third busiest station in the country with another 4.1 million riders. Out of the top 25 busiest stations across the country, more than half are in the Northeast, demonstrating the everyday importance of passenger train service in this region.

But increasing demand has taken a toll on the track infrastructure, and Amtrak and local systems are struggling to keep up. New Jersey and New York commuters suffered three days of delays in July 2015 as electrical problems in the Hudson Tunnel caused massive backups. As daily commuters seethed at yet another delay on a hot, sticky summer day, an Amtrak statement put blame on "long-term under investment in the Northeast Corridor."2 In an attempt to alleviate the chronic problems, the NEC is targeted for major renovations with the help of federal, state and yet-to-be determined funding. These projected upgrades will touch on rail infrastructure that carries 2,000 commuter trains, 140 Amtrak trains and 60 freight trains on a daily basis. While the upgrades to many of these routes is long overdue, partial closures for renovations over the next decades will certainly have their own ramifications on commute times.

To further guide track advancements and new lines in the Northeast, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is undertaking a comprehensive planning study called, NEC Future. A report on a segment of the plan was just released in July and covers the necessary requirements for a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement – including public comments from multiple stakeholders expressing strong opinions as to where and how improvements should occur.

Transportation and accessibility are important factors for communities and economic developers to consider in short- and long-term plans. The necessity to transport people and cargo for economic success should not be underestimated. To preview the different ways that transportation touches economic development, check out the NEDA conference website to see the sessions schedule. Our very own Rachel Selsky and Tom Dworetsky will be presenting as well. So whether you're biking, walking, driving, or taking a plane or train, get yourself to the NEDA Conference on September 11-13 in New Haven, CT.

1. NEDA’s membership includes: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, The District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts

2. Mueller, Benjamin. “On Day 3 of Delays, New Jersey Transit’s Shortfalls Are Painfully Clear,” New York Times, July 22, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/23/nyregion/new-jersey-transit-service-ag….