» Largest-ever federal transit project lacks adequate state funding.
Just to be clear from the start, there are a lot of things to dislike about New Jersey’s Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project. Despite an expected construction cost of $8.7 billion, it won’t provide New Jerseyans a direct ride to Manhattan’s east side but instead duplicate the existing path to Penn Station. Instead of taking advantage of excess capacity at that west side terminal, the project will force customers into a massive (and very expensive) new terminal deep underground.
Even so, the expansion of direct commuter rail services from New Jersey into Manhattan will represent a significant mobility benefit for a large percentage of the suburban workforce, now required to make time-consuming transfers to get into New York’s central business district. Nine miles of new tunnels under the Palisades and Hudson River would double train capacity and allow NJ Transit to shuttle in by commuter rail almost 100,000 additional commuters daily by 2018. And there is evidence that many of the flaws of the program’s design are either unchangeable or could be improved upon in coming years.
Those big expansions in service promised by the project make this week’s 30-day shutdown of the project by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) quite disappointing. Citing fears that the state cannot afford the project and that construction costs will continue to mount, Mr. Christie called a moratorium on the awarding of new contracts.
ARC entered the construction phase last year, with a commitment of $3 billion from the federal government, $3 billion from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and $2.7 billion from the State of New Jersey. Governor Christie was in favor of the project in April of this year, at least on paper. Washington has never before agreed to spend so much money on any individual transit project anywhere in the nation.
Though the federal government has not highlighted any specific concerns about cost overruns on the ARC program, it has warned New Jersey that financing difficulties with projects in New York City — the Second Avenue Subway, Fulton Street Transit Center, and East Side Access — could be repeated across the river. Mr. Christie is expected to meet with federal officials later this month to discuss problems with the program. Though this delay is worrisome, it does not necessarily mean that the ARC tunnel has been canceled. Indeed, it is worth noting that it is possible that the project could resume with no changes in a month.
Governor Christie, who has never been particularly realistic about the condition of his state’s transportation financing mechanisms, has posited in recent days the argument that car drivers are already being asked to increase their financial contributions to an unreasonable extent compared to transit users. In addition, the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which provides the majority of contributions to both highway and transit capital projects, faces bankruptcy. Some have suggested that Mr. Christie’s main motivation in delaying the ARC project, and potentially eventually canceling it, is to resuscitate the Fund.
However, the governor’s assessment is incorrect; transit users in New Jersey have in fact seen a larger increase in fares than drivers have seen in tolling. In addition, NJ Transit has been forced to reduce operations on some services recently because of inadequate state funding.
The elimination of the project would mean the forfeit of $3 billion in federal dollars, which would likely be transferred to other parts of the country looking for a major investment in new transportation programs. The use of the Port Authority’s $3 billion commitment, if not used for the ARC tunnel, has not been established or even discussed openly.
Mr. Christie, a conservative Republican, has never been one to take up the mantel of increased government investment, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that in the face of a difficult funding environment he has chosen to put ARC on hold. If he were truly committed to the program, he arguably could have begun a reevaluation of the project’s fundamentals even as construction moved forward. But the delay indicates much less political support for the scheme than was previously assumed to be the case. And the governor’s attempt to approach the decision in a car-versus-transit users frame suggests that he has no real love for public transportation.
For the state’s commuters, this lack of will to find the means to fund the proposal will result in years more of long travel times and little relief for the overbooked North River Tunnel, whose two tracks simply aren’t enough to carry all the NJ Transit commuter and Amtrak intercity trains the New York area needs to remain economically competitive.
For those who suggest that a delay in the project could mean a rethink significant enough to mend the flaws in the current proposal, I suggest a consideration of what has occurred to other New York-area transit projects when they were put on hold because of a lack of adequate funds. The Second Avenue Subway, under construction in the early 1970s, has seen its plans reduced from an eight-mile, sometimes four-track line to a two-mile, two-track spur. The prolongation of the Hudson-Bergen light rail system into Bergen County has morphed into a possible future diesel light rail line.
Would a helpful reevaluation of the ARC project at this point — when construction has already begun and when plans are already drawn up — actually be beneficial in the long-term?
Image above: Rendering of ARC’s proposed 34th Street Terminus in Manhattan, from ARC