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).

Amtrak High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail Metro Rail New Jersey New York

ARC Revived as the Amtrak Gateway Project

» New rail tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan, left for dead a few months ago, comes roaring back as the Gateway Tunnel. Yet it now faces competition for limited funds.

Amtrak will not allow itself to miss the train for President Obama’s effort to “win the future.” Two weeks after the State of the Union address, in which Mr. Obama announced his intention to promote a high-speed rail system that connects 80% of the country’s population, the national railroad has made its first move.

This morning, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman and New Jersey Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez headlined a press conference in which the railroad articulated a basic framework for a new rail tunnel into Manhattan. The connection — named the Gateway Project — would generally follow the alignment of the Access to the Region’s Core project, a $10 billion link that would have carried New Jersey Transit commuter trains into a new terminal before it was cancelled last October by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who cited state budget concerns for his decision.

In connection with the replacement of the moribund Portal Bridge just west of Secaucus Station, the Gateway Tunnel would represent the first, $13.5 billion, step in Amtrak’s $117.5 billion plan to upgrade the entire Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston to 220 mph speeds. Completion of this stage is proposed for 2020.

Though the necessity of a new rail link between New Jersey and Manhattan has been evident for years because of increased passenger traffic and decaying infrastructure, the decision by Mr. Christie appeared to have put any such project on hold for a decade or more, since funds committed to the project — $3 billion from both the Port Authority and the Federal Transit Administration — would be redistributed. But this announcement from Amtrak changes the equation significantly. In light of the President’s active support of high-speed rail and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica’s excitement about the Northeast Corridor, it may well be a viable program.

No funding is currently available for the project, even the $50 million necessary to kickstart engineering studies. In addition, the Gateway Tunnel faces competition that has arisen since ARC was cancelled: A potential extension of the New York Subway’s 7 Train, a project that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has endorsed in recent months.

That project could arguably be constructed for fewer funds, since it would require little new tunneling under expensive Manhattan real estate. In addition, the Subway link would have the serious advantage of direct service to Grand Central Terminal and Queens, 24 hours a day — something neither New Jersey Transit or Amtrak will be able to offer. (Amtrak proposes to loop the 7 Train east along 31st Street to serve the station, a questionable proposition.)

Nonetheless, the Gateway Tunnel would service to reinforce the Northeast Corridor intercity rail system far more significantly, and even more than ARC would have. That’s because, unlike ARC, the Gateway Tunnel would be connected to Penn Station, allowing Amtrak trains running from Washington to Boston to use the link. Several new dead-end platforms would be constructed just south of the existing station, forming a new terminus for New Jersey Transit and opening up more space in the existing Penn Station for Amtrak and potentially Metro-North trains from Upstate New York and Connecticut.

ARC would have dead-ended into a cavern far underground, making it both incompatible with the existing rail network but also deeply inconvenient to its riders, who would have had to ride long escalators to the top.

The new tunnel’s capacity would be split between Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, with 8 intercity trains and 13 commuter trains per hour (added to 12 and 20, respectively, today). This represents a decrease from the 25 additional hourly commuter trains ARC would have provided. The plans to connect the Bergen and Passaic lines to ARC to allow for direct service to Manhattan have been abandoned.

Yet the advantages of allowing through trains to use this facility ultimately mean Amtrak will not have to build yet another link under the Hudson in the coming years, as it had planned. In addition, the Gateway Tunnel would provide a vital backup in case something goes wrong with the 100-year-old tunnels currently serving trains between Manhattan and New Jersey.

Amtrak will have to construct a very careful case for its project in order to assemble the necessary funding, especially in the context of a Republican Congress that has made cutting national investments its major priority. Unlike ARC, Gateway would serve intercity as well as commuter traffic, so it is unclear whether the Federal Transit Administration would agree to sign up to aid in sponsoring it. On the other hand, the Federal Railroad Administration, which administers high-speed rail funds, might want to get involved — but this project would do nothing to speed up trains, since it would simply duplicate a service that already exists.

Ultimately, the national railroad’s best argument for the project is that it would serve national economic growth objectives, providing just the sort of infrastructure repair that the President has so forcefully recommended. It would be difficult even for conservative Republicans to argue that this project does not fulfill Washington’s mandate to improve the nation’s transportation systems, since it is of course at its core a connection between two states.

Images above: Amtrak Gateway Project Maps, from Amtrak

Light Rail New Jersey New York

A Light Rail Extension for Staten Island?

» As the Port Authority plans for improved ship access, Staten Islanders hope a renovated Bayonne Bridge could mean new rail links.

When it opened in 1931, the Bayonne Bridge was the longest steel arch span in the world. Today it remains an impressive work of infrastructure, its magnificent girders visible from throughout the New York metropolitan region. The Port Authority-controlled link, which allows commuters to get to and from Staten Island and New Jersey, is an important connection in the regional road network.

With cargo ships getting bigger and bigger, however, the bridge has become an impediment: Its roadway hangs too low to allow for the easy passage of new Panamax-class ships readied for an expanded Panama Canal now under construction. Without clearing the way through the Kill Van Kull — the waterway over which the bridge runs — the Port of Newark will have trouble accommodating more commerce. For the region’s continued economic strength, that could be a major problem.

Thus the Port Authority has begun studying options for its replacement; right on cue, transit advocates have stepped in, arguing that the new structure could allow for better transit between the Island and the mainland. The major possibilities include lanes for bus rapid transit or an expansion of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Line, which will be extending a few blocks south to 8th Street in Bayonne on January 31st. Trains could cross the new bridge, then potentially run south towards the West Shore Expressway, in whose median a 14-mile light rail line has previously been proposed. This would ensure rail transit operations on both sides of the island (the eastern half is already served by the Staten Island Railway). Running the line along the North Shore, where a 5-mile abandoned rail right-of-way is ready to be reused, is also a possibility.

The Hudson-Bergen light rail line currently runs north to Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen, via the “Gold Coast” business centers in Jersey City and Hoboken where thousands of jobs have been created over the past decade. Plans to extend the route northwest to the Meadowlands, southwest to the Hackensack River, and north to Tenafly are also afoot.

The light rail line is destined to serve an increasingly important role as a north-south connector on the west side of the Hudson River. But just how useful would an expansion into Staten Island be?

Consider the commutes made by inhabitants of this New York City borough today.

As demonstrated by the map above — created using Census data from 2008, the most recent year available — most Staten Islanders work in their own borough. Those that don’t generally work in downtown and midtown Manhattan and on the western edge of Brooklyn. A few work in Bayonne, Hoboken, and Queens’ Long Island City.

Ridership on existing bus services confirms this bent towards New York, rather than New Jersey, jobs. A significant number of riders — about 20,000 per weekday — use the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s express buses into Manhattan business districts. The two most popular “regular” buses on the Island, including the S53 and S79, which total almost 20,000 riders alone, head to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where a connection to the R Subway is possible. The third, fourth, and fifth most popular — the S48/98, S46/96, and S44/94, totaling about 23,500 daily riders — link up with the Staten Island Ferry Terminal at St. George, at the tip of the Island. The Ferry attracts about 75,000 users daily with service to the Battery at the tip of Manhattan.

For comparison’s sake, the only public bus that runs across the Bayonne Bridge today, the MTA’s S89 to the Hudson-Bergen light rail line’s 34th Street stop, only moves about 900 daily riders. Is there really a case for the rail line’s extension onto the Island? Or would improved direct services into Manhattan and Brooklyn be more useful?

When considering potential routes for a extension of the light rail line, the argument for it appears relatively shaky.

As shown above (click to expand), people living within a half-mile of the proposed North Shore and West Shore rail lines — the two likely routes for any light rail extension — are not particularly likely to be attracted to working in neighborhoods along the existing Hudson-Bergen line. Inhabitants of both areas are most likely to work in downtown Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan, and Midtown Manhattan — not New Jersey. This is largely similar to the working patterns of people who live within half a mile of the existing Staten Island Railway. And yet none of them have a fast route towards those employment centers, fault of the lack of a New York Subway link and express buses forced to use crowded highway lanes shared with private automobiles.

Should light rail be extended across the Kill Van Kull?

If the project were to decrease travel times significantly into Manhattan, it might be useful. Beginning at the end of the month, the Hudson-Bergen line will travel from 8th Street to Exchange Place in 20 minutes and from 8th Street to Newport in 27 minutes. From Exchange Place, a trip to Lower Manhattan’s World Trade Center on PATH takes 4 minutes; from Newport, a trip to Midtown’s 33rd Street takes 15 minutes on PATH. For people along the North and West Shore lines hoping to get downtown, a trip in 45 minutes minimum seems possible with a light rail extension, taking into account transfer times. But a trip to Midtown would be at least ten minutes longer; a commute to Brooklyn would be much more lengthy via New Jersey.

More direct routes on express buses could be equally or more effective for residents of Staten Island, if funds were allocated to dedicate lanes for transit on the highways that carry them. If Staten Islanders currently suffer from the longest commutes in the country — 42.5 minutes per direction on average — one can envision the advantage of investing in improved express buses that could speed past traffic on such choked arteries as the Gowanus Expressway. A light rail extension would not be as fast into Manhattan and Brooklyn — and it wouldn’t be direct, either.

Taken from a regional perspective, though, a light rail extension might make more sense. Were New York and New Jersey to work together on increasing employment and residential construction in areas along the corridor — in both states — the route could be a useful economic development generator, helping to build up a counterpoint to the dominance of Manhattan in today’s regional employment market. Perhaps the lack of Staten Islanders working in New Jersey now is not a consequence of people “not wanting” to do so, but rather the result of poor transit connections to and from jobs there.

Metro Rail New Jersey New York

To Replace the ARC Tunnel, a Subway Extension to New Jersey?

» A more than $5 billion extension of the 7 Subway could ease congestion into the city center and offer New Jerseyans a relatively painless path to the East Side of Manhattan.

Out with one transit mega-project, in with another.

Faced with the decision last month by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to eliminate state funding for the ARC tunnel — effectively ending the project — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg silently instructed municipal staff to begin studying the possibility of stretching the city’s subway system into the state across the Hudson River. Now preliminary news on the proposal has surfaced. A roughly four-mile extension of the 7 Subway Train from the West Side of Manhattan to Secaucus Junction would cost $5.3 billion and provide the extra trans-Hudson rail link the New York region has been demanding for years.

The 7 Train is currently being extended 1.3 miles from Times Square to 11th Avenue and 34th Street at a cost of more than $2 billion.

The plan is in the earliest stages of development — no assumptions can be made about the exact route trains would take on their way to Secaucus. The MTA, which runs the subway, has not been consulted on project documents. Engineering efforts and the construction period would require ten years before opening, at least. No funding is secure.

Yet the construction of a subway connection to New Jersey would be unique in the history of the city: Thus far, no MTA-controlled lines have made it past city borders. And though the cost of the project is and will remain by far the biggest obstacle, the potential of a subway line to transform the relationship between the two states involved could be big enough of a vision to inspire radical new thinking about financing.

The important question, though, is whether this is the project the New York metropolitan region needs or even wants.

Put in the context of the ARC Tunnel, an extension of the 7 Train would have as its primary purpose relieving the congestion of commuter and intercity trains traveling along the existing pair of tracks connecting Penn Station to the mainland. Of course, unlike ARC, this proposal would offer metro-type services and would be incapable of hosting mainline trains. This would have two primary consequences: One, it would require commuters to transfer from New Jersey Transit trains to the subway at Secaucus, a connection that would not have been necessary had ARC been built; and two, it would require the 7 Train to absorb all new growth in new commuting across the Hudson, because the existing rail infrastructure is over capacity at rush hours.

While the required transfer at Secaucus would have its major downsides, the ability to jump onto the subway would have some huge advantages, namely allowing New Jerseyans to travel directly to Grand Central Terminal, the East Midtown business district, and the rapidly expanding Long Island City in Queens. Access at Secaucus is ideal because the station already serves as the hub for all of the agency’s Manhattan and Hoboken-bound commuter trains. In addition, the existing Manhattan stations that would be used by 7 Train commuters are far closer to the surface than ARC’s deep-cavern Penn Station terminus would have been, and connections to other subway lines throughout the city would be more convenient.

The project is projected to cost roughly half as much as the ARC tunnel because it would require no significant new tunneling under Manhattan and would not need a major interlocking to connect with the existing rail system. Mayor Bloomberg has suggested that the 7 Train could use the ARC tunnel’s route, but I have yet to see any evidence that the extension currently under construction would fit in with those plans, since its tail tracks would extend south to 26th Street, far below the 34th Street route of ARC.

Nevertheless, this change of route would open up the welcome possibility of improving rapid transit service to the very dense New Jersey “riviera” just across the Hudson from Manhattan, north of where PATH rapid transit services already run. If the 7 Train extension were designed to include a station under the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail at 9th Street in Hoboken or at Lincoln Harbor, for instance, commuters from this relatively isolated — yet central — section of the region would have far easier access to the metropolitan core. A direct east-west subway connection into Manhattan would mean a large increase in ridership along the light rail line’s north-south route.

Neither the states of New Jersey nor New York are particularly well-off from a budgetary perspective; significantly, the Garden State’s Transportation Trust Fund is virtually broke. Plans for a station at 41st Street and 10th Avenue along the currently under construction extension of the 7 Train have been put off due to a lack of funds at the municipal level. How would any local government be able to finance the construction of another massive new transit project?

The Port Authority and the Federal Transit Administration each agreed to contribute $3 billion to the ARC tunnel; in theory, this sum would be enough to complete this new 7 Train project. But Washington’s dollars are likely to be redistributed to schemes elsewhere that could be under construction within the next year or two, not ten.

Yet the direct link between the construction of the 7 Train and the build-up of the Hudson Yards on the west side of Manhattan should not be ignored. This massive redevelopment area is poised to become New York City’s fourth major business district, with dozens of skyscrapers planned, representing a total investment of $15 billion or more. The arrival of the subway to the area and a better link into New Jersey would improve the prospects for this zone. The subway system could be financed through a neighborhood tax increment financing district.

The fact that this project can be envisioned in a realistic fashion, however, does not prove that it would be the most reasonable use of the public purse. Further studies must be conducted to evaluate whether it is even possible from an engineering perspective. Mayor Bloomberg’s imagination today could be forgotten tomorrow.

An increase in the rail travel capacity between New York and New Jersey is one of the region’s top transportation needs. But moving more commuters does not require the construction of a new tunnel: Cheap changes to rail cars could be simple to implement and eventually a re-orientation of the metropolitan commuter rail system so that it operates more in the mode of regional rail could significantly improve convenience and carrying capacity along existing lines.

Moreover, it is an open question whether an investment in a 7 Train extension to New Jersey should be enough of a priority for the region that it bypasses other long-planned proposals. While the Second Avenue Subway’s first phase is under construction between 63rd and 96th Streets, other extensions of the line — north to 125th Street and south to the Battery — are essential to improve access to Manhattan’s East Side. Direct rail access to JFK Airport from Lower Manhattan has been pondered for decades. And streetcars on the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts were promoted by Mayor Bloomberg in his last reelection campaign. Whither these ideas? Should they be condemned to the scrap heap as a 7 Train extension moves forward?

Update: In a press conference this morning, MTA Chairman Jay Walder discussed the potential 7 Train extension to New Jersey. He argued that the agency needs to focus on the system’s existing mega-projects, including the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access, and the current (shorter) 7 Train extension. The MTA, he noted, has no funds for this project. Any funding for this project would have to come from another source.

Commuter Rail Finance New Jersey New York

ARC Project Definitively Cancelled, But There Are Other Ways to Improve New Jersey’s Transit Future

» Capacity on New Jersey Transit can be expanded by transforming the system.

Access to the Region’s Core was to be the nation’s largest investment in transit, ever: At a cost of $8.7 billion, the project would have dramatically expanded rail capacity between New York and New Jersey by doubling the number of rail tracks available for use under the Hudson River. The result could have been a large increase in service on New Jersey Transit’s commuter rail and Amtrak’s intercity rail operations.

The project is now dead. After a two-week review demanded by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has reaffirmed his decision to stop all work on a scheme for which he argues the state has no money. In other words, the ARC tunnel is low on the Governor’s priority list and certainly not worth raising taxes for: Instead, he has increased transit fares by more than he has road tolls and has done nothing to shore up the major deficits looming in the state’s Transportation Trust Fund. In consequence, Mr. Christie has shown himself to be uninterested in investing in infrastructure for the state’s future.

It’s a disappointing coda to a month of suspense about a project that plenty of New Jerseyans assumed was guaranteed after construction began a few months ago. And it means that it will be virtually impossible to add any more New Jersey Transit or Amtrak trains between New Jersey and New York — for several decades.

All hope for the future of transit connections between the two states, however, is not lost.

New Jersey Transit and Amtrak have a unique opportunity to take advantage of the limitations in tunnel capacity to reform the way they do business, to improve and speed up operations in ways that will bring some benefit to their customers but also seriously increase the number of people that can travel under the Hudson River to work every day. Without making changes, trains will become more and more packed and the total ridership of the services will be limited.

Here’s a comparison worth taking in: Whereas New Jersey Transit carries roughly 275,000 riders a day on its entire rail system, Paris’ RER Line A — one corridor, running through the center of the city using just two tracks — is able to handle a million users daily. It’s a squeeze, and the region is planning to build an relief line, but it still works. How can New Jersey Transit be facing such constraints with so many fewer riders?

The explanation is the agency’s steadfast adherence to the rule that commuter trains are different than rapid transit ones — primarily, that they have to offer each and every one of their riders a comfortable seat. This limits maximum train capacity to about 1,400 passengers when using ten multi-level cars such as the ones pictured above. While this may seem like a lot of people, with only limited tunnel capacity there are only so many trains that can make the trip into Manhattan during peak hours. If the agency were to simply remove a dozen seats or so per car and replace them with standing areas, trains would be capable of carrying up to 2,000 people apiece. There’s a huge bump in capacity, at virtually no cost. The RER A has a relatively even mix of standing and seating areas, and that’s one of the primary reasons it’s able to move so many more people.

Of course, this would come at a comfort cost to the people who now ride the trains, since what had once been a comfortable ride may be replaced by a standing-room only train. But that may be the price to pay if New Jersey Transit wants to ensure that it can transport all the people that need to get into New York City every day.

Amtrak would not be able to make a similar compromise, since it would be unreasonable for any intercity rail service to force its riders to stand, but the lack of additional Hudson River capacity should encourage the national rail operator to expand the length of its trains so that it can carry a larger number of people using the same amount of tunnel space. It is outrageous that the Acela Express service — which hogs 20 of the slots through the Hudson tunnels in each direction daily — only has six passenger cars, one of which is half-filled by a cafe. All of the stations at which these trains stop have the ability to handle at least two more cars per train; if Amtrak desired, it could add these cars to its current rolling stock.

In other words, neither New Jersey Transit nor Amtrak need more capacity under the river right now. They simply must find a way to adapt their existing operations to these newly imposed constraints. Will they be able to do so, or will they leave some potential customers behind?

Governor Christie has been a weak proponent of transit, as is manifested by his decision to cancel ARC. Yet the sudden availability of $3 billion in Port Authority funds once dedicated to the project and the theoretical availability of a similar amount of state money once designated for the program mean that this is also an intriguing moment for thinking about new ways to invest in New Jersey’s transit system. If Mr. Christie obliges, rather than insisting that local dollars go to roads and encouraging the Port Authority to spend away in New York City, some of the funds could go towards the rehabilitation of the Northern Branch and Passaic-Bergen corridors; others could be spent on improvement projects in the Philadelphia suburbs. These would have a minor effect on overall travel patterns compared to the ARC tunnel but would be far less expensive and still worthwhile.

While harping on the importance of ARC has been an essential effort — how else to defend it? — at this point Governor Christie is not going to change his mind. Thus transit proponents have a responsibility to find constructive, helpful ways to define a different mobility future for New Jersey that does not include it, at least for the next few decades. They have a choice: Should they let Mr. Christie control the transportation agenda entirely by refocusing the state’s funds on roads? Or can they play an important role in demanding that the limited funds are spent on prioritized investments that will benefit the state’s public transportation network?

Image above: A New Jersey Transit train in Metropark, from Flickr user Phillip Capper (cc)