Home > Bruce S. Ticker, United States of America > Nation’s deteriorating transit should concern Jewish community

Nation’s deteriorating transit should concern Jewish community

November 23, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Bruce S. Ticker

PHILADELPHIA–With plans to visit two vibrant Jewish communities, I had jarring reminders of the condition of public transit in early November, simultaneously: the week-long strike in Philadelphia and the shocker that Boston is faced with imminent safety hazards which might cost $500 million to repair.

Not to mention news elsewhere of potential fare hikes in New York City; a renewed attempt to save South Florida’s 70-mile rail link between Palm Beach and Miami; and a $144 million deficit in Washington, D.C., that has only one way to go – up, that is.

Preserving public transit and improving upon it is crucial. It is no less important than health care and education. A system needs to be established to guarantee that transportation continues as the vital service it is. Long before the economic meltdown, fares continued to rise, services were threatened and safety was compromised. Many Jewish communities are connected by public transit, and substantial Jewish populations even comprise a large share of metropolitan areas with the more advanced systems.

I was lucky during the Philadelphia strike, when the two subway lines and city bus routes ceased running; still operating were suburban buses and commuter rail trains. During my first day vacationing in Boston on Tuesday, Nov. 3, I learned that the strike began hours after the Phillies played their last World Series home game against the Yankees. When I returned to Philly by Amtrak at 30th Street station on Nov. 7, I still escaped the strike’s consequences because I transferred to a commuter line for the 10-minute ride downtown.

I was relieved to be spared of most of the strike, especially since I endured the cruelty of past walkouts. I walk to work, but I still rely on public transit for many reasons. With the strike still going strong, I had planned to attend a Kristallnacht commemoration on Wednesday, Nov. 11, at the Germantown Jewish Centre in West Mount Airy, in the evening. The bus would drop me off a half-block away, but if necessary a train station was located further away in a more isolated spot. I did not feel safe walking to the station and waiting there in the dark. The strike ended beforehand as the workers settled, and I was unable to attend the synagogue event, anyway.

While buses and subways were idled back home, I received my first clue as to why riding Boston’s commuter trains could be hazardous to one’s health. I rode a westbound commuter train from Boston’s South Station (Boston’s mini-version of Penn Station in Manhattan) to the West Newton station in the town of Newton, which is comprised of one of the largest Jewish populations in the metropolitan area.

I learned abruptly that riders do not detrain, so to speak, onto solid ground. When the conductor directed me to leave the train for West Newton, I peered out the exit door and spotted a narrow platform separated from the train by a pair of railroad tracks.

To reach the platform, I jumped from the train’s stairwell three feet onto the gravel separating the tracks, and I could have slipped on oil covering parts of the tracks I needed to cross to reach the platform. Maybe an eastbound train might rumble by just as I was crossing the tracks. Hopefully, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which oversees the system, knows enough to schedule the trains to prevent accidents.

The West Newton hazard is among a massive amount of maintenance risks. A report commissioned by Gov. Deval Patrick revealed that the MBTA has a maintenance backlog on its hands that could cost $3 billion to remedy, and it will take $500 million of that to fix critical threats.

The study projected spending up to $80 million to remove and replace rail ties damaged by flooding along the northern end of the Red Line subway immediately after the Harvard University stop. Otherwise, corrosion and damage could destabilize track alignment and lead to a train derailment, The Boston Globe reported. A new state board approved a $2.5 million contract for an engineering firm to design a longterm correction for a track repair project.

By chance, I waited for a Red Line train at the underground Porter Square stop, the first station north of Harvard, and noticed that a pond of ice had formed on the other side of the tracks.

While Boston has a good system overall, the state is intent on expanding both subways, which serve the city and immediate suburbs, and commuter trains that extend to the outer suburbs – despite the expensive maintenance backlog. Most commuter trains run sporadically; off-peak, many run a maximum of every two hours apart. Trains in New York and Philadelphia typically run every hour.

Transit systems that I have patronized elsewhere continue to struggle; my personal experience with West Coast systems is limited. A $144 million deficit for Washington’s Metro operation that was announced a few months ago could be the start of its troubles, according to a Washington Post editorial. The Nov. 12 editorial predicted significant fare hikes and service reductions because of declining ridership and a recent arbitration ruling to raise the salaries of unionized employees.

The Tri-Rail train line that passes through Florida’s three most populous counties is in danger of extinction. Officials in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties have been seeking a $2 tax on rental cars to finance the continued operation of Tri-Rail, but the state legislature has refused to approve it. Lawmakers may reconvene in December to consider funding of Tri-Rail and creation of a rail line in the Orlando area.

On Saturday, Nov. 21, I bought a “fun-day pass” for $8.25 to ride New York City’s buses and subways, the same amount I spent during my last visit in October. Earlier in the week, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority introduced a budget that is actually balanced after the state allowed new revenue sources. No fare increases or cuts in services, according to The New York Daily News.

But among his first words as MTA chairman, Jay Walder declared: “The MTA remains in a very fragile financial situation…There is no more money for us in Albany, and we will learn to do more with the funding we have.”

If, that is, the state does not plug its unsettled deficit with cuts in transportation subsidies. Besides, a four-year fiscal plan projects 7.5 percent fare and toll increases in 2011 and 2013.

Fare hikes in New York in two years? Maybe Philadelphians are fated to pay more after the post-World Series strike. This pattern has been ongoing for years and getting worse as more low- and middle-income people who can afford less are the ones being victimized.

The variety of reasons for these problems – neglect of cities, loss of tax revenues, political rivalries, corruption and so on – have never been sufficiently addressed. I wish I can be optimistic that significant measures will be taken to remedy these problems. It is a train wreck ready to happen.


Ticker is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist.  He may be contacted at 

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