Urban Lawyer

Through-Running and Regional Transit in New York: An Analysis of Legal Structures and Approaches

by David G. Ullman

David G. Ullman is a graduate of Columbia University School of Law. This paper was awarded second place in the 33rd annual Smith-Babcock-Williams Writing Competition.

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ON AN AVERAGE WEEKDAY IN NEW YORK CITY, APPROXIMATELY 114,000 LONG ISLAND RAIL ROAD (“LIRR”) customers stream into Pennsylvania Station (“Penn Station”) on their way to work or another destination.1 Another 87,000 come into Penn Station via New Jersey Transit (“NJ Transit”).2 But what happens next? Many casual riders would be surprised to learn that due to a lack of underground capacity in Manhattan, NJ Transit trains are then carefully shuttled over to Sunnyside Yards in Queens, where they can be stored, serviced, and prepared for the reverse commute. Meanwhile, LIRR trains are routed to Hudson Yards in the far West Side of Manhattan for a similar procedure. The careful dance of the transit systems adds a significant amount of delay on the trains, clogging up the tunnels and rails and limiting critical capacity at the nation’s busiest train station. Meanwhile, riders from all over the region are limited to a single destination choice in Manhattan. But what if trains coming from both directions didn’t have to turn around? What if they just continued straight on their paths, picking up new passengers en route to the opposite suburb? What would a true regional rail system in New York look like and what might the benefits of such a system be?

Over the past decade, a cottage industry of online and New York-based transportation analysts and journalists has formed to answer that question, advocating for and debating options for improving regional rail service to the New York metropolitan region.3 Each of these analyses and articles share a common theme: a critique of New York’s regional transit system as inadequate, outdated, and non-conforming to best practices adopted by modern transit agencies across the world. While New York’s system underperforms on a variety of fronts, a key difference is that New York employs a “commuter rail” model featuring a cavernous terminal in a central business district rather than a “regional transit” model that “through-runs” trains from one suburb through one or more city centers to an opposite suburb.

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