With no new rail tunnel on the horizon under the Hudson, New York faces a looming transport crisis

» Damage to the North River tunnels could cut off most rail service into the nation’s center unless a new link is built soon.

There are many cities where rail lines serve an important purpose: They help connect important destinations; they reduce congestion on particularly intensely used corridors; they concentrate development and produce agglomeration benefits. These benefits are useful in making those cities more livable, economically vibrant places.

But only in certain cities — the largest, most densely developed places, particularly those with geographical constraints on growth — are those rail lines essential to making the metropolitan economy work. In New York City, there is no question that this is true; the region’s subway and commuter rail lines carry the bulk of peak flow into the Manhattan business districts thanks to the ability of trains to handle upwards of 40,000 people per hour on each line. Without those lines, people simply wouldn’t be able to get to work.*

Given the city’s reliance on those rail lines, how much are we willing to pay to keep the trains moving? And, if we’re willing to pay tens of billions to do so, how can the political system be convinced of the need to do so?

New York’s dependence on its rail system is why Amtrak’s announcement last week that damage from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy would require the eventual renovation of the North River (Hudson River) tunnels, which connect New Jersey and New York, is such devastating news. The $700 million expected cost of the renovation, which includes improvements to tunnels under the East River, isn’t the problem, for once, as the price is expected to be covered by insurance. Rather, the problem is that Amtrak noted that the renovation of the North River tunnels would require shutting down one track at a time (there are two), reducing peak capacity from 24 trains an hour to just 6 (there are four tracks under the East River so there is far less of a concern there).**

It’s unclear how this problem will be handled. Passengers could switch to the already-crowded PATH subway into New York from Newark or Hoboken. Or one of the automobile tunnels could be converted to bus service, which isn’t likely to make many drivers happy. Amtrak through-service from Washington to Boston will be dealt a severe blow. Either way, there are no happy outcomes to a tunnel renovation program other than a safer infrastructure.

Amtrak head Joseph Boardman noted that, because of the storm damage, the 104-year-old tunnels likely only have 20 years left of life in them. The public rail company’s solution is to immediately begin construction of the Gateway Program, whose primary component is a new double-track rail tunnel under the Hudson. Once those new tunnels are ready for use, rehabilitation of the North River tunnels could commence by 2025 or so.

Amtrak’s report could be seen as little more than a thinly-veiled threat; give us money to build a new tunnel, the argument goes, or you’ll suffer from complete evisceration of your rail services. Indeed, the press release notes that “the report underscores the urgency to advance the Gateway Program,” including the new Hudson tunnels. Who knows whether to believe Mr. Boardman’s proclamation about the tunnel’s life expectancy.

Yet it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that, even had the storm not happened, a new Hudson River rail tunnel would have been necessary. Traffic along the rail corridor is expanding. New York City is expected to continue to grow in the coming decades. And resiliency is always a good idea (had Sandy been bad enough to destroy the tunnels, what would have happened?).

New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority had a plan to solve this problem back in the mid-2000s, when they successfully assembled $8.7 billon for the Access to Region’s Core (ARC) project (it was the largest federally funded transit project ever), which would have added two new tunnels under the Hudson by 2018. In other words, it would have provided at least something of a solution to the problem Amtrak is now warning of.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who assumed office in January 2010, put the project on hold and then cancelled it in September and October 2010, citing the risk that the project’s cost would escalate, putting the state’s finances in trouble. In the process, he significantly delayed any investment in new cross-Hudson rail links.

It merits mentioning that ARC was far from a perfect project. The program’s construction costs had bloated to $12.4 billion by the time it was cancelled. It would have brought people to a deep-cavern station many stories below the basement of Macy’s, and it would not have connected to the existing tracks at Penn Station, meaning that the Long Island Railroad and Amtrak would be unlikely to be able to use it. And it failed to recognize the fact that improvements to regular service on New Jersey Transit could actually allow the system to carry far more people without having to invest in a new tunnel.

From several of these perspectives, the Gateway Program, which Amtrak revealed just months after ARC’s cancellation, would be more effective. The project would connect to existing tracks, allowing all operators to use the tunnel. And it would bring customers to a station far closer to the surface than ARC would have allowed. Gateway also integrates several positive investments that were elements of ARC, including the replacement of the Portal Bridge east of Newark, which is more than 100 years old and a significant cause of delays, and the construction of two new parallel tracks that will allow faster trains.

These improvements won’t come on the cheap; Amtrak estimates that Gateway will cost $13.5 billion, certainly no chump change. Amtrak has already attracted some funds for the project, including $185 million of Sandy-related federal relief money, to construct a “box” saving space for the future tunnel in the Hudson Yards redevelopment project in New York City (illustrated at the top of this article).

Yet there are reasons to believe that it will not be easy for Amtrak to find the rest of the funding to pay for its Gateway project. The State of New Jersey has invested much of the money it planned to spend on ARC on roads and bridges. The Port Authority, having given up on ARC, is directing $1.5 billion to the extension of the PATH rapid transit line from downtown Newark to Newark Airport, a project that would run just one mile and attract a few more than 6,000 riders daily. That would do nothing to improve the link under the river, and it constitutes a political choice to spend billions on a capital expansion rather than investing in improved operations on the New Jersey Transit commuter rail lines, which already run between downtown Newark and its airport on the exact same alignment.

Meanwhile, certain powerful interests in New York City are arguing for the extension of the 7 Subway line under the Hudson to Secaucus, an idea that was initially raised by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2010, right after ARC was canned. That project could relieve some of the pressure on the North River tunnels, but it would require a huge percentage of New Jersey Transit riders to transfer, likely reducing ridership.

No matter what other ideas may be raised, Amtrak’s gambit is designed to force politicians at the local, state, and national levels to recognize that, in order for New York City and its region to continue to serve as the country’s economic center, investments must be made in its mainline rail infrastructure connecting it to New Jersey. It argues that the country must, then, find the resources to spend at least $13.5 billion on a new tunnel program.

It is a large cost to bear when New York City cannot find the funding for half of its billions of dollars of necessary public transportation expenditures over the next five years. It is a large cost to bear when the federal government has failed to increase revenues for transportation for more than two decades.

But the cost of losing the rail link under the Hudson may be larger. Amtrak’s leadership of this project is an acknowledgement of the national importance of this line (is it the nation’s most important transit project?), as it is the essential rail link not only between New York City and points south, but also between all of New England, Long Island, and much of Upstate New York with points south — totaling almost 10 percent of the U.S. population. The next rail connection over the Hudson is more than 140 miles north, just south of Albany. It is also the connection that makes it possible for hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans to work in Manhattan.

In other words, this is a definitively federal issue that seems ripe for Amtrak’s leadership. Yet New Jersey Transit, which would likely run just as many or more trains through the tunnels, will want to get involved, especially if it is to contribute part of the cost. The Port Authority, which contributed funds to the previous project, could do the same this time, though its ability to spend on new projects has shrunk due to the expense of the World Trade Center reconstruction. And the states of both New Jersey and New York depend on a cross-Hudson tunnel for their prosperity. In other words, what is clearly an essential national priority is likely to get bogged down in politics that cross state and agency jurisdiction, adding confusion and likely delaying construction. This is not going to be an easy process.

* In cities where rail exists but isn’t the primary travel mode, it still matters, just not to the same degree. In Los Angeles, for example, a transit strike increased the length of the rush hour on nearby highways by 200%.

** This 75% reduction is a result of the fact that Amtrak is suggesting allowing trains to run in both directions during the peak period; this significantly reduces capacity since a train can’t enter the tunnel in one direction until another train has completed its entire journey through the long tunnel in the other direction. One alternative that Amtrak did not mention would be running trains all in one direction for a half hour, for example, and then switching directions. This would likely produce much higher capacity, but still much less than is currently provided.

Image above: Hudson Yards, where a new tunnel under the Hudson would terminate, by MTA (cc).

25 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • al

    Affordable North River Tube Repair:

    It requires several agencies to cooperate: AMTRAK, NJT, NYC DOT, PANYNJ.

    Alternate tube shut for for repairs. AMTRAK runs modified service through remaining tube.

    Dedicate 1 tube (2 lanes) of Lincoln Tunnel 16-20 hrs/day for Vans and Buses.

    NJT terminates at Newark, Hoboken, and Lautenberg. Ferries (Hoboken) pick up passengers and deliver them to Javits Center. 7 train extension to Javits Center opens in 2015. Buses run between NJT terminals and Midtown Manhattan.

    Buses use Bus Lanes along 42nd St and 34th St. DOT adds Bus lanes as necessary.

  • david vartanoff

    So, here is another instance for the various government entities to show whether they are just exchanging bribes or actually going to build what is needed. Despite wasting New Jersey monies on highways, Christie did us a favor by scuttling the completely wrong design. The new Hudson rail tunnels MUST connect to Penn Station. That said, the NYS decision not to include rail in the replacement Tappan Zee should be reversed, and adding the #7 subway connection to Secaucus is a fine idea. Having more, and better choices for crossing the Hudson benefits everyone. As to the immense costs, it is long past time for the US to scale back the cash sewer with five sides and spend on actually benefitting the taxpayers.

  • Harold Cobin

    Any funding is dead in the water as long as Republicans have a say in the matter. Only the great unwashed ride public transit in their minds.

    • Jerry

      But even the .01% must realize that the yacht-scrubbers and the solid-gold-bathroom-fixture polishers have to get there somehow.

      • Nathanael

        Actually, that’s exactly our problem! Not just for transportation, but for a lot of other problems.

        We’ve got a 0.1% living in a golden coccoon, who literally don’t understand how their servants live. This is why they are doing such stupid-ass things. It’s Versailles syndrome. It cannot end well.

        Billionaires who actually interact with their housecleaners and gardeners often have a clue. The majority of our current 0.1%ers have intermediaries (like butlers or the owners of “cleaning services”) to do that. They are *completely out of touch*.

        They don’t even ride in limos (that would be slumming) — they take private helicopters. They have no clue how the 99% live.

  • So, if I built the Gateway Project myself and charged a toll for trains, would that work? I am pretty sure I can find $15B for that from a nice, friendly neighborhood bank.

  • Jon Fostik

    Most assuredly as Sherlock Holmes would say ” a three pipe problem” !Infrastructure issues are coming home to roost at the same time as a parsimonious and paralyzed Congress governs all of us. Projects competing for funding include NEC bridges, the Baltimore tunnels, Union Station redevelopment, Boston South Station redevelopment and many others. All of those are without knowledge of when the next super-storm arrives. Whether Amtrak is taking a a “Chicken Little ” sky is falling approach or not planning and funding needs to start yesterday. The little trans-Hudson ferries proved of great valuable during the evacuation of Lower Manhattan on 9/11. To my mind they represent one of the best alternative resources in conjunction with others that have been articulated.

  • Dexter Wong

    Whether the solution is a grand coordinated approach by Amtrak, Metro-North and NJT, or a piecemeal approach by each player separately, something must be done to solve how more people get through New York daily or there will be gridlock, no doubt about it.

  • Tomoya Usagi

    I have to say living in New York almost my whole young life (From 12 months to currently in my early 20’s) can teach you some important lessons that Transport or Mobility is a big part of how our Region is developed and it will need to do so in order to be competitive many generations from now in order to do that we need a safe, Clean & Modern transportation solutions to meet those needs. Like a pair of New Tunnels under Hudson for current & future ridership demand a long with a High Speed Rail Link that puts us closer to the rest of the Northeast, A network of Bus Rapid Transit, East Side Access for LIRR to go to GCT, Modernized Subway System, West Side Access for Metro North Trains from the New Haven Line to NYC via new stations on the east side of the Bronx currently doesn’t have it.

  • Tomoya Usagi

    Not to mention over the last 30 years the need for Rail service to and from New Jersey has exploded along with the state’s population. So the service needs to be on-time, reliable & frequent in order to be successful. This project lays the groundwork for Amtrak’s future plans for High Speed Rail in the Corridor.

  • Tomoya Usagi

    We need to get everyone involved and rise awareness that once those tunnels are gone with no replacement the regions economic vitality & Transportation will slowly become crippled. I think it was a bad decision on Governor Christie’s part to spend that money from the ARC Project towards highway improvements in the state, which won’t solve the transportation problem in fact it would it worse by adding congestion.

  • Tomoya Usagi

    The Federal government needs to stop treating Amtrak like private business and see it as a public transit service it is, plus Millions of people don’t to suffer if we make this improvements & eliminate the bottlenecks / choke points along the whole Corridor. By the looks of it this should of been done 15 – 20 years ago. But now it’s the time to do so & if we don’t solve this problem a cluster of other problems will arise in the future.

  • Eric

    The easiest and cheapest way to create cross-Hudson capacity is to use one of the Lincoln Tunnels for an extension of the 7 subway.

    This is technically possible: The Lincoln Tunnels have a maximum grade of 4%, while the 7 already goes through the Steinway Tunnels which have a 6% grade. The Lincoln Tunnels are quite wide, and they have a much larger turning radius than several existing turns on the 7 route.

    The 7 line would branch around the Port Authority bus station, with one branch (currently under construction) continuing to the Hudson Yards, and the other branch using the northernmost Lincoln Tunnel to get to New Jersey. There, a new bus terminal and HBLR transfer could be built west of the entrance to the tunnels.

    In a second stage, this 7 route could be extended using the current HBLR tracks to Hoboken Terminal, with the lost HBLR section being replaced by a new street-running route through downtown Hoboken. The 7 could then take commuters from Hoboken to Midtown Manhattan, bypassing Penn Station.

    The required construction would be limited to about 300 meters of cut-and-cover tunnel on undeveloped land west of the PA bus station, plus the placement of tracks and equipment in the existing Lincoln Tunnel and on the surface in New Jersey, plus some sort of bus station in New Jersey.

    The only other loss would be to remove 1-2 lanes in the Lincoln Tunnels from car use. However, this might actually improve traffic in the tunnel, since the improved NJ-Manhattan rail service might divert a number of drivers, and surface traffic in Manhattan would certainly be improved with fewer NJ cars feeding into it.

  • Marta

    I have not gotten the hang of Twitter, but I want to comment on US nationwide HSR system. Instead of a HIGH SPEED system, if the government would create an INEXPENSIVE “AUTO TRAIN” system across the country, it would be used! The problem with HSR or any rail service between cities. You have to have transportation to GET to the Rail Station. And when you arrive, you need transportation to get to exactly WHERE you want to be. We, need our cars with us as much as possible.

    • CrossingPotomacRail

      Not so, pollution will hail a ride with you. Auto trains everywhere? I don’t think so. We don’t have the capacity to do so. That just promotes sprawl, and we-do-not-want-that. Just because gas prices are at a five year low doesn’t mean it will stay that way for a while. The Gateway Project is essential for NYC’s economic growth. If we don’t take any action, New York will be crippled and brought to a standstill.

      Listen to this: My Revising of the press release is…

      Federal Government, get your corrupted bee-hind off the seat and off the ground and DO SOMETHING FOR ONCE! Stop taking economic matters that seem to be arguable, preventing the region from doing something and ALLOW US TO FIX THIS! I want the donkey and the elephant ship-shaped NOW, before another drastic thing happens!

      Okay, got that out. Anyway, $13.5 Billion is a lot, but we need to start now before the North River Tunnels are dealt an ending blow.

  • Tom Marney

    What’s especially maddening about the situation is that six years after the crash, the nation is still awash in capital that can’t be put to good use because government has largely abrogated its role as the agent by which investments with large but diffuse returns can be made:

    “In a world where the real rate at which the U.S. Treasury can borrow for ten years is 0.3%/year and in which the tax rate is about 30%, infrastructure investment fails to be self-financing only when the comprehensive rate of return is less than 1%/year.”


    Not to mention the downside risk in the event of, say, Sandy 2.0.

    How about this: The Federal government borrows the money, disperses it through grants to the relevant agencies so construction can begin ASAP, and nobody worries about exactly how the direct benefits and positive externalities fatten the public purse.

  • Hey everyone check out my new urban development blog dedicated to Northern Virginia/DC. Still a work in progress but give it a look.


  • Chris

    The Federal government and state governments need to find a way to bring the private sector into provision of public-transit infrastructure, such as these tunnels. There is plenty of excess capital floating around the private sector.

    • Nathanael

      There’s a very simple way to do that. It’s called “tax the rich”. Woodrow Wilson did it, FDR did it, Eisenhower did it. There are those who are sitting on billions of dollars in excess capital; take that capital back to the government who originally printed the money, and then spend it on something useful like these tunnels.

      But that would make too much sense.

  • Louie

    There’s a very simple way to do that. It’s called “tax the rich”. Woodrow Wilson did it, FDR did it, Eisenhower did it. There are those who are sitting on billions of dollars in excess capital; take that capital back to the government who originally printed the money, and then spend it on something useful like these tunnels.
    I agree, tax the rich which they sure could afford it & problem solved but don’t tax or raise the price fare on the middle class!

  • andrew

    take a little bit from all the millionaires in tax and lets get our intrastructure back to the way america should be

  • […] Freemark at The Transport Politic writes that the situation wouldn’t be as dire if New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had not […]

  • joe

    Chris Christie — what a moron

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