New Jersey Transit has a major problem. Its commuter rail tunnels heading into New York’s Penn Station, completed one hundred years ago, are mercilessly overcrowded, since they handle all traffic heading into New York on the Northeast Corridor, not only on NJ Transit, but also on Amtrak. NJ Transit’s recent adoption of double-decker trains allow for increased capacity, but Amtrak simply cannot increase the number of trains entering and leaving New York. And the likely future growth of jobs in New York’s Midtown means that the New Jersey commuter service needs a way to increase capacity.
Thus, New Jersey Transit’s Access to the Region’s Core (ARC), a project sometimes also known pitifully as THE tunnel, as in Trans-Hudson Express. Expected to begin construction in 2010, the enormous $9 billion project will mean the doubling of existing New Jersey-New York capacity by completely a new tunnel under the New Jersey Palisades, then under the Hudson River, to a new, very deep station just north of the existing Penn Station. It will also connect the New Jersey transit commuter rail lines that currently feed only to the Hoboken Terminal on the Jersey waterfront to the main line, allowing them direct access to Manhattan. The project, along with New York’s other major commuter rail megaprojects and potential alternatives, is illustrated in the image to the right (or in PDF form).
ARC originally made a lot more sense. Its second pair of tunnels would have allowed for both Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains to experience a significant jump in capacity, since the tunnels were originally intended to connect to Penn Station. As Cap’N Transit has documented, that plan has since fallen apart as funding limitations have set in. This means that the new tunnels will not be used by Amtrak through trains. Second, commuters on trains using the ARC tunnels will be forced into the very deep underground station, which will be convenient to absolutely no one. Third, and perhaps most importantly, this massive tunnel project will never allow New Jersey commuters a direct connection to the East Side of Midtown, since the new station will be located directly in front of Water Tunnel #3, which means it will not be expanded Eastward.
This violates one of our basic rules of transit expansion: that it be designed to offer a new service. If $9 billion rail tunnels take commuters to a more inconvenient destination than they’re currently offered, something is very much wrong with the plan.
New Jersey should look at what the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is doing with its two megaprojects. For the Long Island Railroad, the MTA is building an East Side tunnel, which will allow about one third of LIRR trains to head to a deep new station below Grand Central. While this isn’t exactly the ideal solution, since customers will be so deep underground it will take them five minutes at a minumum to get to the surface, it will mean direct service to Manhattan’s East Midtown for the first time for Long Island suburban commuters, who have thus far always been routed directly to Penn Station on the West Side. This is a major advancement in service, and will mean that Penn Station itself is less crowded as more LIRR trains can be redirected to the Grand Central terminus.
Similarly, the MTA plans to implement Metro-North commuter rail service to Penn Station after East Side Access opens up free capacity in that station. Using the underused Amtrak Hell’s Gate Bridge for New Haven line services and the West Side Empire Services for Hudson line services (including the Freedom Tunnel), Metro-North trains from upstate New York and Connecticut will be granted direct service to Penn Station on the West Side. This will be a major change for these commuters, who have been used to the East Side only.
So far, few serious plans have proposed expanding suburban rail service to downtown Manhattan, but LIRR and MNR have made their intentions clear: they plan to offer their customers the option to travel to either the West or East Sides. So why isn’t New Jersey Transit doing the same? And if it wanted to, how could it proceed on such a path?
Fortunately, Grand Central Terminal is ideally suited to stop being a terminal. Both the East Side Access project by LIRR and the lower level of Metro-North’s services are designed to allow for the expansion of services south. As illustrated in the image above, New Jersey Transit’s new tunnel could be redesigned to allow trains directly to Grand Central. While the existing plans for a tunnel would not function effectively because of the water tunnel in the way, ARC could be rerouted to provide efficient service to the East Side. This should be the priority for NJ Transit as it would allow tens of thousands of its customers working in East Midtown to avoid the time-consuming crosstown rides to which they’re currently subjected. And because the trains would connect directly either to Metro-North or LIRR tunnels, ARC could be used by Amtrak. The agency could take advantage of the space to expand services, an important possibility considering growing interest in expanding the nationwide rail netowrk. The advantages of through-running service has been well-documented by Auto-Free New York.
We have illustrated two rough routes on the map on this page. The first would provide a slight diversion from the existing plan, mainly intended for the service to proceed under the water tunnel. Another West Side station could be included in this plan, but considering that Penn Station would continue to provide most New Jersey service, we’re not sure whether that’s as necessary as NJ Transit has been arguing. More importantly, it would allow a connection with Grand Central.
More intriguing perhaps is National Corridors’ vision of a Hoboken tunnel. Instead of building a connection from the Hoboken-bound lines to the Northeast Corridor, as is currently planned for ARC to provide direct New York access to all NJ Transit lines, the ARC tunnel would be routed under Hoboken, where an existing commuter rail terminus intersects with light rail and PATH lines. Here are some basic advantages of this proposal:
- It would mean that the Hoboken station would continue to play an important role; current plans would make the station virtually unnecessary. This would allow for the continued expansion of New Jersey’s waterfront.
- It would allow for the creation of a new station in Greenwich Village, as well as at Grand Central. More interestingly, it might also mean a connection to Brooklyn via a downtown connection. In the long-term, LIRR trains that currently terminate at Atlantic Terminal could continue to a downtown station and then to New Jersey or up to Grand Central.
- There would be no need to construct the very expensive connection between Hoboken and Northeast Corridor trains.
While the Hoboken solution would be more expensive, it would also mean the potential for more future services and a possibility for a downtown commuter rail station, a boon to struggling Lower Manhattan.
But obviously either of these solutions would provide an effective addition to services currently provided by New Jersey Transit – getting customers West of the Hudson to the East Side. New Jersey Transit’s current plans for ARC are not worth their enormous cost – and deserve serious reconsideration.