Political Will Disappearing, New Jersey’s ARC Project Could be On the Way Out

» 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

43 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • political_incorrectness

    There are pros to this:
    This might lead to an opportunity to connect Penn Station
    Reduce spending on a giant underground labrynth
    There are cons though:
    Expanding capacity into New York City will most likely be delayed.
    There are federal dollars on the line

    It is hard to say whether this is bad or good.

  • Ramon

    My understanding on the connection to the current Penn Station is that the # 7 line extension to the Javits Center on the far west side of Manhattan made it difficult (a higher than acceptable grade if I remember correctly) to connect to. I don’t see how that could be changed but maybe the station under 34th St can be built in a way to allow for expansion to the East Side once the new Water Tunnel opens up.

    That said, as a person from New Jersey, I personally don’t think this is a good move. For all the reasons Yonah mentioned and the fact that costs will escalate as happens everywhere in the country.

  • jim

    It seems clear to me that ARC is dead. I understand the RPA trying to avoid it being killed, but they shouldn’t tell porkies, even in a good cause.

    “Dozens of buildings would” NOT “have to be razed. The obvious alignment for cut and cover is W 31st St. A tunnel under the Hudson could continue bored at least to the Highline, probably to 11th Ave. Cut and cover from 11th Ave. along W. 31st St to some point east of Dyer Ave. (where the new tracks could be brought in to meet the existing tracks in the open cut between the Farley Building and the Ziggurat) wouldn’t be not massively disruptive.

    It is NOT “inconceivable that the existing Penn Station could handle the additional people coming in via ARC.” Penn Station’s trackage is severely underused. Phase 1 of the Moynihan Station project will create new paths for passenger flow to and from the platforms. The LIRR will be bringing many fewer trains into Penn Station once East Side Access is functional. Fewer trains mean fewer passengers. Penn Station’s current capacity issues are essentially passenger flow issues and those issues are being addressed. The notion that a new station will handle 24-25 trains an hour using six stub tracks, while the existing station can’t handle that addition with its 21 existing tracks (only four of which are stub) and two more accessible from the Farley Building is fantasy.

    • Nathanael

      Again, as I said somewhere, we could wish that the Hudson Tunnels would be built and connected to Penn Station (the designs and preliminary engineering diagrams for the connections *already exist* and have *passed EIS review*), and that the 34th St. Cavern was deferred.

      That may be too much to hope for, but it’s worth pushing for because it *makes sense*.

  • It’s strange how so much money is spent on this project rather than creating an integrated plan for all the commuter rail systems going into New York; especially including through-routing. Like Alon Levy detailed in some post on this blog a while back.

  • Brandi

    While this project was far from perfect, anyone who thinks that any additional rail capacity across the Hudson will be built in the next 15 years is deluding themselves. If this gets cancelled no new rail capacity will get built in the near future period. This will not be good news for any large transit project. If anything this is a glimpse of what is to come once the tea party anti government inspired GOP takes over part of congress and lots of states. I’m going to bet transit and high speed rail projects will be up on the chopping block. Sorry about the rant but this is becoming a new rallying cry just look at Wisconsin. The Hudson crossing so desperately needs more rail capacity as it is a major transit chokepoint. Id rather stand behind this than get nothing for twenty years.

  • AlanF

    From what I understand, this is a very complicated project, not just because of the many stakeholders that have an interest in improved transit access between NJ and NYC (Amtrak, NJT, Port Authority, MTA, the states of NJ & NY and NYC, the feds), but also because of the dense infrastructure that has been built since the original Hudson river tunnels were built a 100 years ago.

    The key problem, as I see it, is that the 2 existing Hudson river tunnels are at 100% capacity routinely during peak morning and afternoon periods and are absolutely critical to the main intercity rail corridor of the US, the NEC, and for many thousands of daily commuters from northern NJ to/from NYC. If one of those 100 year old tunnels is found to have a serious problem that require it to be taken out of service for an extended period for repair, the damage to NEC and NJT operations would be epic. The four East River tunnels provide more reserve capacity, because shutting down 1 of 4 tunnels is a much less worse situation than shutting down 1 of 2.

    After this many years of NJT controlled studies, changing the project at this late stage would result in years of delay. But, still, maybe this should have been defined as a two stage national infrastructure project. First, build 2 new tunnels that connect to the existing Penn station tracks along with a major upgrade to the station capacity under the umbrella of the Moniyhan station project. This might not allow NJT to add the ~24 trains per hour additional capacity, but should allow both NJT and Amtrak to run more trains to NJ. Fix the most critical weak link first.

    Then as stage 2, in 10+ years if the need is still there, build 2 more tunnels under the Hudson to a new underground station. I would expect that a major chunk of the $8.7 billion cost is for building the Penn Station Extension because clearing out a huge cavern space deep under NYC with access shafts and passageways, air & service shafts, with platforms & tracks is a huge project. But maybe the new underground station should not be next to Penn station; maybe instead build the new station further north near Grand Central or, if it is physically possible, next to the new LIRR complex under Grand Central.

    Problem is that this would be a national infrastructure project which would need considerable federal and state leadership. Gov. Cristie of NJ does not come across as overly supportive of mass transit. Which is odd in some ways, because the New Jersey economy, speaking at a state wide level, is probably the most transit dependent state in the US.

    • Alan, if they build two new tunnels to the existing Penn Station, then they will never have a reason to build two deep level tunnels to a new station. The cost of squeezing 24 tph out of a new tunnel pair is next to nothing. Given current infrastructure, it requires either through-running, or slightly shorter turnaround times. But given ESA, it would require nothing at all, as NJT would be able to use tracks vacated by the LIRR. As an extra bonus, the LIRR platforms have more staircases than the NJT platforms, inherently allowing shorter dwell times.

      • Adirondacker12800

        What’s the interlocking going to look like and operate? ( Very difficult to have two trains occupy the same track at the same time, at least in our universe – in universes with more than three dimensions it may not be much of a problem ) Where are all the new passengers going to go?

        • Nathanael

          The new interlocking will look like an interlocking. Huh? They already *designed* and *engineered* it before it was removed from the plans for reasons which are beyond questionable.

          The new passengers will go into Moynihan Station, which is planned *precisely* to provide extra passenger capacity.

        • jim

          Nathanael,

          I took Adirondacker’s question as whether the new tunnels could connect through the interlocking with the platforms that LIRR currently uses (tracks 17-21). If they come in from the south, adding crossovers in the dumb, obvious way connects the new tunnels just to tracks 1-13.

          But there may be a cleverer way of engineering the interlocking.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The new tunnels, the ones that will be built soon, won’t go anywhere near the current rat’s nest of switches in Penn Station. They will be aiming trains at the current Penn Station or the annex west of Secaucus. Many of the trains leaving the annex will never be on the Northeast Corridor.

          • Jim, there’s no need for NJT trains to use tracks 17-21. The multi-staircase platforms go further to the south and include the middle Amtrak platform. I forget how many of the middle platforms have 4-5 staircases – I’ll check my station map later tonight.

            At any rate, it’s not mission-critical to connect the new tunnels to the northern tracks. The old tunnels can already connect to them. The advantage of having a single four-track crossing, with all trains heading into the same station, is that it’s easy to route trains partly on the old tunnel pair and partly on the new tunnel pair.

  • laldm

    If New Jersey’s governor gets this project cancelled, he is shooting his state’s economy in the foot for the forseeable future while wasting many years of professional studies and professional services, all done by people that truly care about transportation. It’s amazing how much damage one person without vision can do.

  • jim

    It strikes me that Christie may know more than we do, indeed more than NJT does, about the future volume of New Jersey Transit trains: how many trains NJT is going to be able to afford to run after all the budget cuts have been made.

  • jim

    Does anyone know if there’s been any sort of study of building just a single tunnel into the existing Penn Station, 2.7% grade and all, to be operated on a “morning in, evening out” basis? Presumably NJT would have to work around that some of its equipment would have to exclusively use the North River tunnels and might have to procure additional relatively lightweight equipment to use through the new tube. And obviously at least half the NJT trains coming in during AM peak would have to be stored east of the Hudson, in Sunnyside Yard or (since there’ll be a lot less LIRR trains after ESA) in Hudson Yards. But it doesn’t seem impracticable on its face, and should be cheaper (boring one tube is not much more than half the cost of boring two and avoiding excavating a two avenue block long cavern saves a lot of money), even after allowing for the cost to NJT of procuring additional lightweight equipment for its electrified lines.

    Any new tunnel should function as a relief for the existing tunnels, for maintenance and repair. It was a major drawback that ARC didn’t do that.

    • Adirondacker12800

      since there’ll be a lot less LIRR trains after ESA

      If they had completed ESA in the 70s or 80s perhaps. The MTA is predicting that traffic will barely change in Penn Station. ( I think that includes Metro North service. )

      Any new tunnel should function as a relief for the existing tunnels, for maintenance and repair.

      There’s no reason why Amtrak trains can’t go to the new tracks. If Amtrak decides they need to shut down both of the old tunnels they can do it, the trains will just have to arrive and depart on tracks 22-27.

      • The majority of Amtrak trains crossing from Jersey to Manhattan run through to Boston. ARC Alt P is useless to them.

        • Adirondacker12800

          I’m not going to spend an afternoon dissecting Amtrak schedules. I put Philadelphia to New Haven into their trip planner for next Tuesday. There’s 21 trains. Philadelphia to NY there are 46 trains and since the long distance trains won’t carry “local” traffic they don’t appear in the options.

        • Ocean Railroader

          I wounder would there be any subway tunnels for the New York City subway tracks that run under the river from New Jersery into New York City. What they could do is build a rail line to link the NEC into one of them and if the trains fit into the subway tunnels under the river they could have the trains run though a section of the subway system and then exit out of the subway system into the Hell Gate Bridge main line across the Hell Gate Bridge.

          • FG

            I always wondered why, beyond cost and difficulty, the NYC subway system never served NJ more directly – if it were extended, NJT passengers could transfer directly to the subway in NJ and take that in to Manhattan. Is there some other reason, such as legislative, etc, that precludes the subway from leaving NYC city limits? The el, in Chicago, for instance, serves six suburbs directly.

          • Robert Kozma

            NJT and/or LIRR trains will not fit into NYC subway tunnels as they are too high and long.There would also be serious power issue with the NJT trains. The NY subway tunnels were not designed to fit overhead catenary. In addition there are the numerous FRA and union work rule issues that would render the sharing of the same tracks by mainline railroad and rapid transit trains virtually impossible.
            NYC subway lines could be readily extended into NJ. There are no legislative prohibitions to my knowledge. Both the “L” line on 14th St and the #7 would be prime candidates. Also, the GWB was designed to carry trains on the lower level. As a result the tail tracks of the 8th Ave local (north of 168th St) were built with provision for a possible GWB extension.

          • PATH runs on the same loading gauge as the IRT. However, there’s no political or institutional interest in merging the systems. The local perception is that the subway is for New Yorkers, and the inner parts of Jersey should be served with PATH.

            The NJT/PATH connection is actually pretty good. At Newark, it’s cross-platform in one direction, though there are faregates in between. It’s the easiest way to get between NJT’s Newark Division and Lower Manhattan. However, the NJT/PATH/subway connection is really bad, because WTC/Fulton is a maze.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The westbound connection from PATH to NJTransit isn’t bad, one flight down the stairs or ramps to the track you want.
            Not terrible at Herald Square either.

            PATH is at capacity at rush hour now. Direct access for NJTransit to the Fulton Transit center – a shuttle that runs between Jamaica and Newark or Newark Airport. Or run the suburban NJ trains all the way to Jamaica. Assuming 25kV catenary, Amtrak could serve Fulton, Brooklyn and Jamaica.

          • FG

            It seems more connections might ease some congestion and provide cross region commuting (wasn’t there a proposal here about a regional system?). NYCTA maps always seem to ignore NJ overall. And it would be a great make work project to do all this, dreaming sure is fun….

      • AlanF

        The Amtrak service yard for Penn Station (NYP) is Sunnyside in Queens. The trains starting at NYP that head south go from Sunnyside to NYP. If Amtrak were to use Penn Station Extension, the trains from Sunnyside would have to go through NYP, through the North River tunnels, switch in northern NJ, and do a reverse move through the new tunnels to the new underground station. This would be TWO non-revenue moves through the busy tunnels under the Hudson river. Not very practical. Ok, maybe Amtrak could store the trains in Philly or use NJ Transit facilities in NJ, but Sunnyside is Amtrak’s major service and storage yard.

  • jim

    Sort of related to my last question:

    Does anyone know if the Port Authority (with matching FTA money) could continue a scaled back version of the project without State involvement?

    • Woody

      The Port Authority isn’t really an independent entity. It’s controlled equally by the states of New Jersey and New York, which means, in effect, it’s controlled by the two governors. So we won’t see an end run around Christie on this one.

      We might see the Port Authority’s Hudson tunnels contribution diverted half and half to other projects in the two states. It might be enough to cover the latest round of cost-overruns on the Second Avenue Subway. And I’m sure similar spending opportunities can be found in Jersey.

      • jim

        I don’t think Christie cares one way or another about the tunnel. He cares about the money. As long as no State money goes to it, it can be built. If New York wants it, then the PA might want to continue (then again, they might not). If the PA money doesn’t go to this, the Goethals Bridge replacement is probably high on the list of things the PA could fund instead.

        • Nathanael

          I don’t know — don’t underestimate the ability of certain people to be rabidly hostile to any public transportation project whatsoever, regardless of the cost/benefit ratio, regardless of the money. I don’t know if Christie is one of those, but he might be.

      • jim

        Yonah tweeted (on the sidebar) that NJT sources are saying that Christie wants to defund ARC to divert the $2.7B NJ money to other transportation needs.

        So he might see the PA continuing a scaled back tunnel as a win-win. He gets his $2.7B back to spend on the things he wants to spend it on and a tunnel gets built anyway. A victory for hard-headed conservatism!

        • FG

          Is the money “defundable” – transferred to other projects or is this partially federal money dedicated to ARC?

          • jim

            The $2.7B Jersey share can be transferred. The $3B Port Authority share can’t be redirected at the NJ Governor’s whim, but will have to be spent on something related to New York/New Jersey, and the $3B FTA share is Federal money and will be redirected to other transit projects (not necessarily in New Jersey, nor even in the Northeast).

          • FG

            Maybe it’s a “no spend, reduce taxes” gambit? Thanks for the breakdown.

  • walt veit

    This decision by the governor reinforces the ideology that the market can solve all problems and public government is not the answer, but it ignores the fact that private corporate solutions result in a de facto government by only providing a product that will sell, not necessarily one that is needed.Christie’s answer is more private solutions to public problems: more private transportation, less public transportation,which ignores the long term cost by not adequately funding transit infrastructure, hence more consumer spending over time.

  • Ocean Railroader

    The Pennsyvinia Railroad really got a lot of bang for their buck with those two 1910′s built railroad tunnels. They outlasted four to five railroads and are right now the only way by rail for main line over head wired powered trains.

    I some how think this is going to be a poltical fescio in that they most likely are going to eather have a 12 billon dollar project by the end of it or they are going to stop work on it right in the middle of working on it and the river is going to find away to get into it and turn it into a two billon dollar fish tank ortament.

  • Jim

    For the $6 or $7 billion that will ultimately be spent on the LIRR/Grand Central connection and the $8.7 billion proposed here wouldn’t it have been far cheaper to build additional track under 34th St. (or 33rd or 35th) and a new station on the east side along the route that NJTransit and LIRR trains already use between Sunnyside and Penn Station?

    For $15 billion it seems to me like you could’ve had all that plus you could’ve brought Metro North trains down to 34th St. and had a true regional rail system.

    Another tunnel under the Hudson is still needed but it seems incredibly shortsighted to me to have NJTransit and LIRR/MTA look at and fund these as separate projects and try to jam 100,000+ more people (each) into already crowded stations when most riders are probably looking for subway/surface connections anyway.

    • I was thinking the same thing. If there are track capacity problems due to all the trains terminating at Penn Station, then route them through downtown. If then there are passenger capacity problems at Penn Station – both because the labyrinth doesn’t support that many people, and because everybody exiting the trains there causes long dwell times which requires longer headway between trains – then add another station at the East Side. This way not everybody has to go through Penn Station, which would reduce congestion on the one hand and might mean better connections (=fewer transfers) for many passengers on the other.

  • B. Samuel Davis

    I agree with Christie – why not use the funds to increase transportation in New Jersey – why make it easier for people to get to New York City? Why not put the money into improving transit in Newark and other of New Jersey’s large urban areas, and seek to have business relocate over here? Why should New Jersey be relegated to a bedroom community for New York City – let’s change things here to make the state attractive to business. Like, maybe, lowering taxes, getting rid of anti-business policies and regulations.

    • Nathanael

      No Republican *ever* gets rid of anti-business policies and regulations.

      This is one of the dirty little secrets of Republican politicians for the last few decades. They love to get rid of regulations which actually help people’s health, but when it comes to onerous paperwork which puts small businesses at a disadvantage to big business — well, they love that paperwork too. They use small businesses as a stalking horse, but they implement policies designed to make it hard for small businesses to compete with big businesses.

      It’s very consistent. It’s unfortunate that there isn’t an actual party which backs small business (Democratic politicans generally don’t think about the impact on small business, while Republican politicians actively attempt to destroy small business.)

      Republicans are also well-known for cutting taxes on the richest and the largest corporations, while *raising* taxes and fees on the poor, the middle class, and small businesses. It’s standard operating practice. Therefore, Republican promises to “cut taxes” are generally a big fat scam, unless you’re Exxon Mobil.

      It’s an impressive set of scams. A party which did what the Republicans *claim* to support for small business would be useful. But in practice, the Republican Party does the exact opposite, being filled with politicans who do whatever they can to destroy small business.

  • This was a great post for me personally. Ive been in the self storage business all my life so a lot of what youve mentioned has rung true to me. Thanks

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