When Peter Derrick touts the concept of one singular rail system for metropolitan New York — a seamless ride from Newark, N.J., to Stamford, Conn., for instance — he often stares at disbelievers.
Derrick's response: Why not?
"The way we're running a system now is inefficient. If you didn't have unions and politics and all that other stuff, you'd have one regional commuter system," said Derrick, a transit historian, visiting scholar at New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and a retired executive with New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
That's easier said than done, given that Metro-North Railroad, Long Island Rail Road and NJ Transit operate as separate entities — Metro-North and LIRR under the MTA's auspices. The agencies also have histories of territorial fights, notably Metro-North's objections to an LIRR presence in Grand Central Terminal.
"I worked for MTA for 15 years and saw this going on," said Derrick.
And, of course, there's the age-old question of how to pay for it.
"Nobody's put numbers on these things," he admitted, while adding that these moves would spur economic development, especially in outlying regions.
The MTA, which alone carries about $32 billion of debt, is one of the largest issuers in the municipal marketplace. Its current major capital projects include construction of the Second Avenue subway line, East Side access at Grand Central for LIRR trains and construction of a Fulton Street hub.
The authority's sizeable capital plan spending needs "will result in increased leveraging of revenues for debt issuance," Moody's Investors Service said in an Oct. 3 report.
"This would be a multibillion-dollar project," Derrick said of his concept. "People ask me, how can you even talk about it? Nobody's put a real price tag on it, but this would be a major capital improvement, about $20 billion to $30 billion worth of work."
Funding from the state legislature in Albany is also a variable. "When it comes to money, there's an attitude problem regarding Albany," one transit advocate told Derrick. "There's a total lack of understanding of the central nature of transit systems with respect to the economy."
Nonetheless, Derrick said the economic benefits of a regional rail system are worth the cost. Speaking at a breakfast meeting at NYU's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, Derrick pointed to Philadelphia, where he said connecting the legacy lines of two main commuter rail companies has increased ridership and helped boost downtown real estate.
Rerouting New York-area trains is possible through three steps, according to Derrick: Allow through-running at Penn Station in Manhattan to allow New Jersey trains to access Long Island and the northern suburbs; connect new destinations by deep connections, possibly connecting Penn and Grand Central Terminal; and building rail stations in the city and suburbs.
"Using Penn Station as a building block, you could do all kinds of creative routing," said Derrick. "London and Paris are doing something similar."
Derrick who pointed to London's $25 billion Crossrail project, which includes the construction of nine stations. Crossrail Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of Transport for London, on Oct. 9 completed a five-mile tunnel for that project.
"London says its long-term prosperity depends on this project," Derrick said. London officials say Crossrail will create positive ripple effects throughout Great Britain. They estimate the overall benefits at £42 billion ($69 billion) in current prices.
Paris, which integrates its Metro subway system with its Réseau Express Régional, or RER regional express network, could also be a model, according to Derrick. Berlin has done likewise since German unification, he added, reconnecting its S-Bahn commuter trains from the former East Germany with existing commuter rail.
"There are benefits to ridership and economic development," said Derrick, noting that RER carries about 800 million riders per year, while the New York region's various commuter rail systems only transport 250 million.
Derrick was a planner and assistant director at the authority from 1982 to 1996. He is writing a book about the MTA's efforts to rebuild New York's transit network after 1982 — when New York state lawmakers required the authority the prepare five-year capital programs to rebuild and expand the region's transit network. In 2001 he published "Tunneling to the Future: The Story of the Great Subway Expansion That Saved New York."
"Peter keeps on generating ideas," said Rudin Center director Mitchell Moss. "He'll send emails from the Baltics."