It is not unusual in the Hudson Valley to hear of local governments offering tax incentives as a way of attracting new businesses. Tax incentives have proven to be an effective tool. In a recent letter to one of my neighbors (regarding the amount of time trains spend idling on a siding near our neighborhood) John P. Casellini, Resident Vice President for CSX Transportation explained how New York's high property tax rates had forced the railroads to reduce their infrastructure. On the West Shore line, property taxes contributed to the removal of the second track that allowed trains to operate in both directions simultaneously. Now, restoring that second track is a prerequisite for the resumption of commuter service on this line.
There has been a fair amount of discussion in recent years on the subject of bringing back commuter trains to the West Shore. Perhaps, by offering the railroad a tax break, we could solve two problems at the same time. Here's how it might work: If the railroad permits commuter trains to operate on a section of track, no property tax would be collected on that section of track for as long as the commuter trains operate. This would be a strong incentive for CSX to double-track the West Shore line - at least as far as Newburgh. The same scenario could work on the Port Jervis line. Norfolk Southern and Metro North would both benefit from double-tracking of the line from Suffern to Port Jervis.
The biggest obstacle to the implementation of such a tax break is the fact that the railroad would have to negotiate this with each municipality that their tracks pass through. For this reason, it needs to be implemented at the State level. Our State Legislature, recognizing the long-term benefit of efficient public transportation infrastructure, would state that, in the interest of the public need of all the communities, individual communities would be compelled to waive their right to levy property taxes on railroad properties that have agreed to allow commuter trains to operate on them. This is a win-win situation for both the railorad and the affected communities. The railroads can handle increased traffic, at the same time reducing transit times and idle trains. This would result in increased revenues and lower operating costs. As for the communities affected by the reduction in property-tax revenues, they would benefit directly from the positive impact that increased commuter rail service has on property values.
To be fair to the affected communities, reasonable access in the form of railroad stations must be promoted. The residents of those communities should not have to travel long distances to access commuter trains. Despite the impact that additional stations would have on travel times, increased access to trains would lead to increased ridership, helping the commuter lines reach the "critical mass" that they require in order to operate efficiently.
Improved commuter rail service is an important quality-of-life issue for residents of Orange and Rockland counties. Dramatic improvements are required to prevent the otherwise imminent commuter gridlock that will result as our current highway infrastructure becomes woefully inadequate. Let us not re-learn the lesson that other metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles have learned (the hard way): No matter how many highways you build, they will always become overloaded. Perhaps a tax incentive approach, such as outlined here, is what is required to help meet our commuter needs.