Elections Finance New Jersey New York

Elections Have Consequences

» In canceling the ARC tunnel project, Governor Christie was fulfilling his mandate, bad decision or not.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s decision yesterday to cancel work on the development of the ARC tunnel project, designed to double rail capacity between his state and Midtown Manhattan, was undoubtedly a problematic one both for existing riders facing increasing congestion on commuter and intercity trains and also for the state’s future growth prospects, which are intertwined with its connections to the global financial center.

Some have equated this week’s announcement to the 1975 decision to cut off construction on New York City’s Second Avenue Subway. That delayed the completion of a project that is vital for the mobility of hundreds of thousands of residents of the city’s Upper East Side by almost forty years.

But despite the appearance of similarities, there are significant differences in the causes of the two events. One was the product of the virtual bankruptcy of the city government: Construction ceased on the subway project in April 1975 due to a complete lack of municipal funds (at the time, capital projects were funded by the city); by June, the Municipal Assistance Corporation, basically a group of bankers, had taken over the administration’s finances with the goal of proving to the stock market that their investments in the city were sound. The result was austerity imposed by a undemocratic regime forced down the throats of the city’s inhabitants. With little ability to raise taxes on a shrinking city population and no continuing support from the state (or the federal government), the subway expansion had to be put on pause.

The other case, also supposedly a case of a government incapable of managing its affairs and therefore unable to pay for major capital expenses, actually comes about in a far different context.

Whatever the positives and negatives of the ARC program, Governor Christie’s announcement falls directly in line with what can only be considered the manifestation of his political agenda, endorsed by voters when they elected him in November 2009. As a candidate, Mr. Christie made clear his dislike of government and specifically said he would not consider raising gas taxes to pay for transportation programs. Though he apparently was in support of the ARC project then, his focus on austerity — cutting government budgets for the purpose of cutting above all else — should have presaged his action this week. With only slight evidence that the project was over budget, the Governor made no attempt to raise support for finding a new revenue source in case it was needed. This shouldn’t come as a surprise for anyone who understands the perspective from which this man is coming.

Almost two years ago, I questioned the future of the Second Avenue Subway (now under construction), asking whether the recession and cost increases could put the project back on hold. Despite those expected construction price escalations coming true, the project remains on track, but only thanks to the support of politicians at the state level (which controls the subway-running MTA). Even with all the shenanigans in New York State politics, at least for now the government has agreed to step in and pay for cost overruns, something New Jersey apparently will not do. This is not a reflection of the better circumstances of the New York economy but rather a demonstration of a willingness to find the means to increase government investments.

If there is something really wrong with what happened this week, it should framed by the election of Mr. Christie in November last year, not minimized as some sort of foolhardy choice he has made now. We must assume that the agenda politicians promote during their campaigns has some effect on actual decision-making, and from that perspective it would be unreasonable for the Governor to act in any other way. If his brand of “fiscal responsibility” means cutting away at the government’s investments, then when faced with an opportunity to eliminate funding for the biggest transit project in the nation’s history, of course he would follow through.

New Jersey may be faced with an historic decline in revenues thanks to nationwide economic difficulties, but it remains one of the country’s wealthiest states in one of the world’s richest countries; it would certainly have been possible for it to find the money to cover the cost overruns, which at a maximum of $5 billion (spread out over many years) would have represented just over 1% of the annual gross state product. Isn’t the state’s arguably most important infrastructure project ever worth such an investment? Wouldn’t the benefits gained from the construction of ARC far outweigh its costs, both in terms of travel-time reductions for New York-bound commuters and the opening of new areas to redevelopment and future growth?

But Governor Christie didn’t care whether the project was, as some transit proponents argue, “desperately needed.” Nor would he have likely been influenced even by changes in the project that fixed many of the flaws inherent in the most recent plan. He simply did not want to spend his political capital on a project that might involve an increase in government expenditures. That stance is not in contradiction with Mr. Christie’s clearly stated feelings about the need to “restrain” government, so it should not come as a surprise whatever his previous comments in favor of the scheme.

Voting is not a meaningless game. Though most candidates claim that they plan to act as “rationally” and “reasonably” as they can in office, each — whether right, left, or center — comes into the game with his or her own agenda motivated by ideological preferences. Mr. Christie made clear from the start that his goal was to reduce the size of government. Perhaps we should have taken that mode of thinking more seriously.

Note that it is perfectly possible that a political compromise either at the state or federal level is reached that sets ARC back into motion, but I believe that the argument made here still applies no matter the ultimate result.

Update, 9 October: Governor Christie has agreed to reevaluate his position on the tunnel over the next two weeks. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood may have offered an incentive to change the governor’s mind…

Commuter Rail New Jersey New York

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

Elections New Jersey Virginia

Today’s Governor’s Races Put Transportation on the Ballot, Indirectly

» First in a series of three articles on today’s elections. The second considered ballot measures; the third reviewed mayoral races.

Two governor’s races will be the highlights of the day, which some are claiming to be a “referendum on President Obama.” Whether or not that’s the case, the citizens of New Jersey and Virginia will be deciding a lot about how they want their states to be run in their respective elections. Top on the agenda: transportation.

Governor of New Jersey

Jon Corzine (D-incumbent) vs. Chris Christie (R) vs. Chris Daggett (I)

Update: Chris Christie wins the race with 49% of the vote, compared to Corzine’s 44%.

If there was one moment that defined Governor Corzine’s first term, it was his fateful car crash in 2007. A state trooper, at the Governor’s orders, was driving him at over 90 mph on the Garden State Parkway. The SUV hit the guardrail and Corzine, not wearing a seat belt, was severely injured. The Governor’s recklessness in his vehicle is indicative: during his four years in office, Mr. Corzine has been reckless with state transit funds.

The Transportation Trust Fund, which pays for New Jersey Transit operations expansion, is languishing, and Mr. Corzine’s response in 2006 was to borrow $6 billion to pay for its continued survival. That’s an irresponsible use of state money when raising taxes now will save money in the future, especially when the Trust Fund will be out of money by 2011.

Of course, Mr. Corzine has also encouraged a massive increase in state transportation capital expenditures, providing funding for new North Jersey lines, expanding the offerings in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and, perhaps most importantly, securing funds for the Mass Transit Tunnel/Trans-Hudson Express/Access to the Region’s Core project. These initiatives have made a more transit-friendly future for the state realizable.

Mr. Corzine has in recent weeks argued that he’d be willing to consider a gas tax increase — something his competitor Chris Christie has ruled out. Mr. Christie’s support for light rail expansion comes in the context of his dislike of the DMU River Line between Camden and Trenton, which cost $1.1 billion but only serves about 8,000 daily users. His primary campaign theme also appears to be cutting taxes; anyone with that point of view is not going to be able to support true transit improvements. Mr. Corzine should win this race.

Chris Daggett is also running in this campaign with a strong transportation platform, but he’s a distant third in polling.

Governor of Virginia

Creigh Deeds (D) vs. Bob McDonnell (R)

Update: Bob McDonnell wins an easy victory over Creigh Deeds. Perhaps the most damaging result of the night for transit advocates.

Bob McDonnell stirred controversy during the campaign when his college thesis berating women and gay people was released to the public — but Creigh Deeds has run a lackluster campaign that he’s now likely to lose.

That’s too bad, because Mr. Deeds has presented a solid, well-considered project for the state’s transportation problems, with a focus on mass transit. His own transportation plan provides strong evidence that he’d support high-speed rail for the state, that he’d ensure the completion of the Dulles Metro to Loudoun County, that he’d sponsor direct state grants to localities investing in bus rapid transit and light rail, and that, most importantly, he would connect transportation with “smart land use decisions.” He’s also been clear in his willingness to consider new taxes to support transportation financing, an essential campaign platform. Can’t get much better than that.

Mr. McDonnell, on the other hand, has suggested lowering taxes in this congestion-prone state. As the Washington Post put it:

“Mr. McDonnell… proposes to pay for road improvements mainly by cannibalizing essential state services such as education, health and public safety — a political non-starter. And rather than leveling with Virginians about the cost of his approach, as Mr. Deeds has done, Mr. McDonnell lacks the political spine to say what programs he would attempt to gut, or even reshape, in order to deal with transportation needs… Mr. McDonnell, champion of a revenue-starved status quo, remains in denial. He professes to feel the pain of Virginians struggling with financial hard times. In fact his transportation policy, a blueprint for stagnation and continuing deterioration, would subvert the state’s prospects for economic recovery and long-term growth.”

Though Mr. McDonnell has mentioned Dulles Rail and high-speed rail in his platform, his priority is clearly on paying for more roads in Northern Virginia. That’s the exact opposite of the approach the state needs.

New Jersey

Making Links in North Jersey

North New Jersey Transit Plans

Passaic-Bergen and Northern Branch Corridors would improve cross-county connections

New Jersey, it seems, is excited about its transit systems. Just a day after Delaware River Port Authority officials announced that they’d be pursuing a major expansion project in Philadelphia’s suburbs, New Jersey Transit reached an agreement with a private railroad operator to connect Hawthorne and Hackensack with a transit line. The Passaic-Bergen connection, if built, would run eight miles on an existing freight corridor and stop at nine stations in Hawthorne, Paterson, Elmwood Park, and Hackensack in two counties.

The project will use diesel multiple unit (DMU) light rail cars and cost between $150 and $200 million to build. It will serve an estimated 1,800 riders a day. The line won’t require significant track work, because the corridor is already operated by the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway (NYS&W); in all likelihood, NJ Transit will negotiate to run passenger trains during the day and freight trains at night, much like the River Line, which only operates until 10 pm on weekdays. Work on stations and sidings could begin in the next few months, with operation by 2012. A connection to a Main Line commuter rail station will be within walking distance in Hawthorne; the line will pass over or under the Bergen County and Pascack Valley Lines, but there will be no transfers for lack of adjacent stations.

The project’s low projected ridership has much to do with a variety of structural problems with the line: few people are expected to need to take the eight mile (or less) journey between the affected towns, and the connection to the Main Line rail corridor will still leave these commuters fifty minutes or more away from New York Penn Station, including a transfer at Secaucus Junction. The 2017 opening of the ARC tunnel, which will allow Main Line trains direct access into Manhattan, will shorten commutes, but not by a huge amount. The construction of the Passaic-Bergen connection, in other words, isn’t going to change commuting patterns dramatically.

But what if the project were extended towards the Hudson River to shorten commutes and improve accessibility between areas that currently lack a fixed-corridor transit option? As illustrated in the map above, NYS&W’s tracks extend down to North Bergen at the terminus of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system, and then extend to Croxton, near Secaucus. With a future extension of this project towards North Bergen, commuters in Hackensack and Paterson could have a direct connection to the Gold Coast of Hoboken and Jersey City. With a prolongation further south and a few hundred feet of new track, the system could head straight into Secaucus Junction, where connections to all of New Jersey could be made. In short, this project could be the start of a brand new day for transit in North Jersey.

This is where the Northern Branch Corridor, also pictured on the map, comes in. This line would extend north directly from the North Bergen light rail terminus to Tenafly, hitting the towns of Fairview, Ridgefield, Palisades Park, Leonia, and Englewood along the way. Though that project isn’t as far along and remains in planning, its construction in conjunction with the extension of the Passaic-Bergen line would make North Bergen Junction into a veritable grand central. Trains could operate on the Northern Branch using the same vehicles as planned for the Passaic-Bergen line, because both projects will be designed to use DMU trainsets.

New Jersey Philadelphia

DRPA Announces Significant South Jersey Transit Proposals

South New Jersey Transit PlansTripartite project would extend DMU commuter rail, improve existing Atlantic City line, and implement bus rapid transit network

Yesterday, the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) announced that it had completed its two year-long alternatives analysis study for improving transit between Center City Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, and that it was ready to advance a diesel multiple unit (DMU) light rail line between downtown Camden and Glassboro as the first stage of proposed improvements.

DRPA, which operates the PATCO rapid transit service between Philadelphia and Lindenwold, recommended the cheaper DMU over an extension of the more expensive (and faster) PATCO line, which requires entirely separated right-of-way because its trains are powered by third rail. Additional improvements, including a bus rapid transit line along routes 42 and 55 and improvements to the New Jersey Transit Atlantic City line, were also advanced, though DRPA has prioritized the DMU project.

Southern New Jersey — though just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia — currently suffers from a lack of rapid transit offerings, especially when compared to northern areas of the state, which have a number of NJ Transit commuter lines heading into New York City as well as PATH rapid transit and the Hudson-Bergen riverfront light rail. DRPA’s study was intended to point to transit options that would improve the relative quality of public transportation in these areas.

Like the River Line, which runs between Camden and Trenton, the proposed 20-mile DMU line will operate on improved but existing railroad right-of-way and slow to city speed limits in town centers. A PATCO expansion along the same corridor would have required sealed grade crossings and significantly sped up operations as well as provided direct access into Center City Philadelphia through the existing tunnels, but it would have cost more than a $1 billion more to build, money New Jersey simply doesn’t have; the new ARC commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River, at $9 billion, is consuming the majority of the state’s transit expansion budget at the moment.

On the other hand, the lesser investment needed for the DMU proposal, at $1.3 billion, is more manageable. The state has already committed $500 million for the first phase of the project, which would extend light rail 8 miles to Cooper Street in Woodbury, though additional financing would be necessary to fund the entire route to Glassboro. DRPA is likely to apply for and win Federal Transit Administration New Starts money for this line, since at a projected 27,000 daily riders, the line would meet the cost-effectiveness ratings required for dollars from Washington. Passenger service could begin by 2014; it would be operated by either DRPA or NJ Transit.

The secondary elements of the plan, priced at an estimated $700 million, would start bus rapid transit along two major roadways to the east of the DMU line and improve the Atlantic City commuter rail line line with a connection to Atlantic City’s airport and the construction of a new station in Woodcrest.

It’s undoubtedly good news for these Philadelphia suburbs that they’ll receive more transit, thanks to a commitment from the transit-friendly New Jersey government. The choice of DMU service, however, has a number of drawbacks. The primary problem is that commuters won’t be getting direct access to Philadelphia, their primary destination. Instead, they’ll have to transfer at the Walter Reed Transportation Center to PATCO trains. Riders on the proposed bus rapid transit lines would get direct service to Center City.

Second, because DMUs operate in right-of-way that is frequently crossed by cars, they’re slower than a potential PATCO extension would be. It’s not as slow as you might think, though: the trip on the River Line from downtown Camden to Trenton takes an hour to complete, while reserved right-of-way SEPTA R7 service from downtown Philadelphia to Trenton takes almost as long.

If PATCO technology is indeed too expensive, I do think that it makes a lot of sense to make this line an extension of the same-technology River Line and have it operated by NJ Transit. Doing so would allow customers not only to commute to Camden, but also to get from, say, Glassboro to Riverton or even Trenton without changing trains. NJ Transit runs a tight ship and would be good service provider.

Image above: Proposed Southern New Jersey transit improvements, from DRPA