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Commuter Rail Intercity Rail New Jersey New York

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).