Amsterdam taking steps to move train station

Daily Gazette

In a city where the phrase “urban renewal” is still used as a dirty word, a proposed $34 million downtown multimodal station is stirring both memories of the past and hopes for the future.

The Amsterdam Common Council has supported a series of steps toward the revitalization project that began under former Mayor Ann Thane and continues under Mayor Michael Villa.

The city hired international engineering firm Mott Macdonald in 2017 for $207,790 to conduct a feasibility study.

Mott MacDonald presented the council with a multi-option plan to spur economic activity in Amsterdam, by essentially ripping up some of the urban renewal scheme implemented in city in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

The plan also aims to reconnect the city’s traffic grid east to west and north to south. Lastly, the plan proposes opening up the city’s waterfront by razing all or a portion of the former Amsterdam Mall, which Mott MacDonald calls a “cork” that blocks traffic. This would allow access to the river and the city’s economic potential.
These are the main elements of Mott MacDonald’s plan and the cost estimates:

• Relocation of the West Main Street Amtrak station to one of two locations near downtown and build railroad platforms and a mixed-use multimodal station, which would include retail space, coffee shop, a newsstand and a Taste of New York location; cost, $20 million.
• Design of the project and contingency planning; cost, $8 million.
• Removal of the Route 5 bypass and other road improvements; cost, $5 million.
• Property acquisition; cost, $1 million.
The first element of the plan would need to be the removal of the Route 5 bypass, which Villa said for him is the key to the whole project.
“Irregardless of the multimodal station, I think removing that Route 5 corridor is the thing that I’m certainly going to push for — that we do, whether or not the multimodal happens,” Villa said. “I think it’s an integral part of reconnecting our downtown with the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook Pedestrian Bridge. So, we have that connectivity. I think that’s important to link the southside with our downtown. I think that it’s very important that we try to proceed. That is something that, let’s be honest, takes quite some time to not only get off the ground but get funded.”

The Common Council on May 15 voted to hire Chazen Companies for $7,500 to help assist the city with applying for a $450,000 grant from New York state. The grant would help pay for a $517,000 study to finalize plans for the multimodal center, a necessary step before applying for larger state and federal grants to fund the project. Amsterdam’s local share of the study would be $67,500.

 

Vanished downtown, disconnected city

The history of what happened to Amsterdam’s downtown is almost as complicated as the traffic system built to accommodate it.
Daily Gazette columnist Bob Cudmore listed the changes in chronological order in a 2007 column titled “Memories of a Vanished Downtown.” In the column Cudmore cited author Hugh Donlon’s 1980 “Annals of a Mill Town,” which listed the many changes to Amsterdam’s downtown in the name of urban renewal.
The major changes included:
• The first highway modernization of Route 5S on the South Side, which was relocated in 1956 from the former Bridge Street business district to its current location on higher ground near the Thruway, that opened in 1954.

• Construction in 1960, of the four-lane Route 30 stretch from the Thruway to the Mohawk River, with demolition of 30 buildings. Route 30 on the North Side from the river to the top of Market Hill was completed in 1968.
• Construction of the Mohawk River Bridge in 1973. During the 1970s other changes were completed, including relocation of the train tracks, moving the train station to its current location and creation of another four-lane highway section for Route 5.
• Construction of the Amsterdam Mall, now known as the Riverfront Center, begun in 1973. The mall opened in 1977, but construction continued on parts of it into the 1980s. A large portion of downtown was torn down to build the mall, which carved up the city’s main street, leaving the eastern side somewhat blocked by the mall from the western side.
Jackie Murphy, former Montgomery County historian and a member of the Historic Amsterdam League, said the city has long suffered from poor planning decisions, like those inspired by the philosophies of Robert Moses, an influcial downstate public official in the mid-20th century who advocated urban renewal projects that often emphasized highway construction over public transit.
“Whatever he said was gospel and he thought these malls were the way to go, and the city just went along. That’s how it’s been our whole civilization,” Murphy said.
Gerry Snyder a retired mechanical engineer, and co-founder of the Historic Amsterdam League, said altogether the urban renewal projects in Amsterdam razed 400 buildings and effectively, “tore out the heart of the city when they tore down the downtown.” He said all of the changes made to Amsterdam’s downtown made traffic flow a nightmare and cut off the city’s southside on the other side of the Mohawk River.
“When they built the new bridge your Market Street and Main Street intersection was gone. Main Street was broken into two pieces, with a little bit of a section on the western side of the mall and the rest of it on the eastern part of the mall,”

“Just trying to get to the bridge to the South Side became such a convoluted matter that, trying to explain to somebody how you got to the bridge became a ten-minute discussion,” Snyder continued. “You had to draw it on a piece of paper because you had to send them around and find the entrance ramps off what used to be Pearl Street. And you’d go up the arterial ramp and then over again. It wasn’t a matter of just going to Market and Main and just getting on the bridge anymore.”
Murphy’s complaints against misguided planning go back to the mid-19th century when the railroad was built and large portions of the city’s riverfront were acquired by the railroad companies.
“This is one thing that really gauls me, I’ve lived along the river my whole life and I’ve never put my toe in it, because of the railroad,” Murphy said.
Snyder and Murphy both expressed skepticism about the multimodal project. Snyder said he isn’t against progress, but the city has been “sold a bill of goods” by experts in the past on the basis of progress.
“It’s probably not necessary to have [the Route 5 bypass] there, I find it convenient myself, but it does create a barrier to the waterfront and that’s supposed to be the direction that everyone is trying to head these days, trying to develop the waterfront,” Snyder said.

“But is it really going to be that much of a benefit to do that?.” Snyder asked. “I like the concept of connecting the South Side back to the North Side, and I think that’s an important part of the future of the city. But they’re talking a $34 million project and tearing down an additional portion of the city to do it.”
Murphy said she doesn’t know whether residents of Amsterdam would support construction of a multimodal station downtown.
“I don’t think there’s that many people who have the feeling that something good can come out of Amsterdam and support whatever is there. I don’t know,” Murphy said.”
Snyder said the goals of the proposed project are laudable. But he is skeptical of the details.
“We used to have the downtown, which was an east-west corridor here in the city, which was a key thing for the city to have,” Snyder said. “That was were the life occurred here in the city, along the Main Street, and we lost that with the mall.”

“If we can establish a north-south corridor, even if its connected by the pedestrian bridge between Bridge Street and the South Side, and Market Street and what’s left of the downtown, I think that goes a long way toward bettering the quality of life and what we have in what’s left of our downtown area,” Snyder said. “But I’m not convinced we need to do that with a train station. Is it a $34 million project to do it and tear down more things? I don’t know.”

Reach Gazette Reporter Jason Subik at jsubik@dailygazette.net.

Amtrak gets nearly $2 billion in federal spending bill, despite Trump criticism and accidents

Amtrak gets nearly $2 billion in federal funding, rather than a steep cut that President Trump proposed, under a broad spending measure released Wednesday.

Trump had proposed cutting $630 million from the national passenger railroad’s federal subsidies for the year that started Oct. 1, out of $1.4 billion provided the previous year.

“Amtrak’s long-distance trains do not serve a vital transportation purpose and are a vestige of when train service was the only viable transcontinental transportation option,” Trump’s budget said.

But the spending bill provides $1.3 billion for the long-distance network. The bill also provides $650 million to Amtrak for the Northeast Corridor (NEC), the popular route which runs from Washington, D.C., to Boston.

“Amtrak thanks Congress for recognizing the importance of intercity passenger rail and the Northeast Corridor,” Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said. “The increased NEC capital funding will allow us to address many important needs along the corridor and we look forward to working closely with the Department of Transportation on investing these funds to advance the most critical projects.”

More: What’s in – and what’s out – of the $1.3 trillion spending bill

More: Congressional leaders unveil $1.3 trillion spending deal as shutdown looms

The bill also provides $250 million to help railroads install automatic-braking technology that Congress has required, in an effort to prevent derailments and collisions. Overall rail spending grew to $3.1 billion, up $1.2 billion from the previous year.

“This is the most significant rail investment in a decade,” said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.

Congress is scheduled to vote on the $1.3 trillion, 2,232 bill this week.

More about Amtrak and other railroads:

Amtrak accidents hurt safety reputation, but railroad remains popular with Congress, riders

Largest railroads operate automatic braking on 56% of routes, but experts say more would prevent crashes

Trump budget proposes again to cut federal funding for Amtrak in half, which Congress has rejected

The funding came despite complaints about the railroad. In the months since Trump’s budget blueprint was released, Amtrak suffered several fatal accidents, including a Feb. 4 collision with a freight train in South Carolina that killed two crew members, a Jan. 31 collision with a garbage truck in Virginia that killed the truck driver, and a Dec. 18 derailment in Washington state that killed three passengers.

Amtrak suspending service between Boston, NYC on Tuesday

Amtrak is temporarily suspending its service between Boston and New York City on Tuesday. The northeast corridor service will not run until at least 11 a.m.

Amtrak said service would return depending on the weather.

Modified service for Tuesday, March 13 not operating between New York City and Boston, Mass., includes:

Northeast Regional Service: 66, 67, 93, 95, 141,171, 190, 170, 172, 148

Acela Express Service: 2150, 2154, 2158, 2160, 2151, 2153, 2155, 2159, 2163

Modified service for Tuesday, March 13 not operating between Albany, N.Y. and Boston, Mass., includes:

Lake Shore Limited Service: 448 and 449

Canceled service for Tuesday, March 13, includes:

Acela Express Service: 2190

Amtrak Downeaster Service: 686, 687, 688, 689

Amtrak Keystone Service (New York – Philadelphia – Harrisburg), Amtrak Empire Service (New York to Albany-Rensselaer – Niagara Falls) and Amtrak Shuttle Service (New Haven, Conn., and Springfield, Mass.,) will continue to operate as scheduled.

Customers will be re-accommodated on trains with similar departure times. You can check on Amtrak.com or your smartphone app. Anyone planning to travel should check their train status prior to departing, allow extra time to get to the station and be extremely careful in stations and on platforms.

A SOLUTION TO REBUILDING THE NORTHEAST CORRIDOR

ME Singer

As the status quo will not hold much longer for Amtrak, let alone the Northeast Corridor (NEC), a new paradigm is desperately required. Having no transparency on data and finances provided by Amtrak plays into its “shell game” that prevents a logical paper trail to audit how the long distance routes funding is bled off to cover the widening fiscal hole of the NEC. Concomitantly, how much, if not every dollar paid by the non-NEC states is turned around to support the NEC? For how long has Amtrak manipulated such finances to dump the NEC’s overhead and infrastructure costs into the long distance and state-supported sectors?

Just as California wised up to bring in DB for the LA-SF HSR infrastructure and operations, so must we now acknowledge that Amtrak has failed to maintain, let alone, improve the NEC infrastructure. As neither the USDOT nor FRA have the requisite sources, it is definitely time for the FRA/USDOT to commence a process to open-up the NEC infrastructure for a competent, experienced, and successful owner, or, owner/operator for the NEC.

This must be a better alternative to the present situation, where currently Amtrak does not even charge the NEC states for their trolley-like schedules. As well, despite the requirement of PRIIA 2008 for Amtrak to finally start charging the commuter users for operating and infrastructure depreciation costs, because Amtrak is an appendage so beholden to the power brokers in the Northeast, it never bothered to charge. As this neglect was apparently approved by Amtrak’s Board of Directors, this issue did not change until mandated by Congress in December, 2015. As Amtrak has willfully evolved into a subservient tool to its Northeast political patrons, it has neglected its mission for a national system.

A privately-owned and operated NEC infrastructure should serve the following purpose:
1) Identify market rates to charge–and collect– for NEC operating and infrastructure depreciation costs from all users–commuter, freight, and Amtrak.
2) Consider fuller utilization and revenues of the NEC by enabling all parcel or mail trains to operate at night.
3) Appropriately prioritize infrastructure maintenance, repairs, and replacement for all parties to contribute, including states and federal, just as the states pay now for repairs to the interstate highways serving them.
4) Rather than continuing the solo operation of intercity trains by Amtrak, this operator should offer opportunities to properly vetted experienced operators to bid on franchise, or, even just offer open access.
5) With the infrastructure freed from the current political machinations favoring just current status quo commuter or Amtrak services, major improvements in the NEC could be contemplated to facilitate increased services and frequencies by improving the design of the current infrastructure.

We have to remove the “flash in the pan” politics that had the feds underwrite new Acelas to be built in NY state, when the NEC infrastructure begs for major renovation and cannot currently accommodate any significant increase in speed or frequencies. By ignoring the continuous degrading of the NEC infrastructure, the governors of NY and NJ, and their congressional delegations, have forfeited their voices and control over the NEC. The only way to save the NEC is to place it in the hands of a competent operator.  Indeed, the nation’s taxpayers west and south of the Hudson River do not appreciate the muscle game recently played by the senators from NY and NJ to withhold the approval of Mr. Batory to the FRA. If their continues to be this persistent obstinance to neglect the rest of the nation’s rail needs in favor of just the NEC, Hornblower ferries may become the best option for crossing the Hudson

 

Amtrak reviews risks of ‘dark territory’

Albany Times-Union

They’re called “dark territory,” stretches of track that lack not only sophisticated safety systems such as positive train control designed to automatically stop a train, but even the green and red signals that tell an engineer whether the track is clear.

In the wake of two recent fatal accidents, Amtrak’s CEO Richard Anderson told a Congressional panel earlier this month that the passenger railroad “will change how we operate through sections of track with no signals at all, so-called ‘dark territory,’ which is also exempted from the PTC mandate.”

Anderson said Amtrak trains currently travel over 222 miles of dark territory track nationwide, about one percent of its routes. At least some of that track is in New York, Vermont and Quebec, and is used by the Adirondack and Ethan Allen Express services, according to two industry sources. Freight railroads own most of the track over which Amtrak operates.

The two segments lacking signals carry the Ethan Allen Express from the Canadian Pacific mainline in Whitehall to Rutland, Vt., and the Adirondack on a Canadian National spur from the Canadian Pacific mainline at Rouses Point into Quebec and toward Montreal.

In both cases, the tracks are otherwise lightly traveled, so the risk of a collision, such as one early in February in South Carolina involving an Amtrak train that killed an engineer and conductor, is minimal, these sources said.

The Adirondack operates at just 10 mph over parts of the CN spur, while the Ethan Allen Express has the line to itself during the day. The two freight trains that use it, said Selden Houghton, vice president of track owner Vermont Rail System, operate at night.

Dispatchers, guided by a computerized dispatch system, communicate with engineers by radio or phone. The railroad has a PTC exemption for the Ethan Allen, Houghton said.

Anderson, who is scheduled to testify Wednesday morning before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, told the earlier panel that “we believe it’s time to reevaluate the risks that accompany such operations.

“Based on hazard analyses and mitigation options, the application of new technologies like switch
position indicators; altered operating practices; signal system and PTC investments or rerouting
or route abandonments may all be appropriate for such dark territory,” Anderson said.

And he said that for host railroads that haven’t made enough progress installing PTC even for an extension of the year-end deadline, “Amtrak will suspend operations until such time as the carrier becomes compliant with the law.”

TSA Testing Explosive-Detection Units At Penn Station

The Transportation Security Administration began testing technology Tuesday designed to detect explosive suicide vests at Penn Station.

The TSA is testing two types of units in partnership with Amtrak. One resembles a white camera on a tall tripod while the other is mounted inside a trunk.

The machines screen people at a distance without slowing them down. Unlike airport screening systems, the equipment projects scanning waves at people rather than having them walk through a scanner.

The machines scan for metallic and non-metallic objects on a person’s body.  If a potential threat is detected, it will trigger an alarm on an operator’s laptop.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer has been pushing for the last few months to get the explosives detectors installed in New York transit hubs.

“When I made the push to bring this technology to New York City it was because we need to put it on the fast-track and we need to perfect it, because if it works, this is where we want it,” Schumer said Monday in a news release.

Back in December, authorities said attempted suicide bombing suspect Akayed Ullah tried to blow himself up near the Port Authority station, allegedly using a crudely made pipe bomb attached to his body.

“This technology would have been effective and would have identified the suicide bomber who was at the Port Authority,”  the TSA’s Lisa Farbstein told CBS2’s Hazel Sanchez. “This specific technology will help us detect any artfully concealed items under clothing that could possibly be an IED, an improvised explosive device, such a suicide vest.”

The TSA has been working on the experimental devices, known as standoff explosive detection units, since 2004 with transit agencies. The technology has also been used to secure large events like the 2014 Super Bowl and was tested by the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority in December. It hasn’t been deployed permanently at any transit hub because it’s still under development.

Testing will evaluate the effectiveness at detecting bombs and the frequency of false alarms.