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).

Bus Infrastructure New York

Combining Local and Express Bus Services in One Lane

» New York and Chicago debate putting BRT lines in street medians.

Last week, the New York City Department of Transportation announced that in the Bronx’s planned Webster Avenue bus rapid transit corridor, buses will run in lanes along the side of the street — not in the median lanes previously being evaluated. For this 5.3-mile route through the center of the borough, the decision will reduce bus travel speeds, increasing rider commute times and ultimately limiting the benefit of the BRT investment. The move evoked concern that the city was settling for less-than-best when it comes to bus transport in New York.

Yet the issue is more complicated than that, since many BRT lines share their routes with local buses.  This has implications for cities across the country that are investing in BRT.

Here’s the problem: In addition to BRT along Webster Avenue, New York plans to continue offering local bus service that would hail at all the existing, very frequent stops (whereas BRT would only stop every half-mile or so). If bus lanes were placed in the middle of the street, local buses would either be stuck in regular traffic lanes or have to weave in and out of the middle lanes to get to and from local stations. Or the city would have to put up the funds for local stops every block along the median bus corridor, which would be financially — and probably physically — prohibitive, in addition to likely holding up express buses while local buses are stopped.

Moreover, median lanes would quite inconveniently require automobile drivers to either enter the bus lane to turn left, or go around the block to make a turn.

So the city has settled for lanes along the side of the street that can be used both by BRT and local services. In this design, Webster Avenue joins the other BRT corridors already up and running in New York and almost every other city in the country that’s building BRT. Those side lanes will almost definitely get obstructed by car traffic, which will have to move through the lanes to make right-hand turns. In addition, the insistence of community groups and local businesses that parking be preserved along the sidewalk means that parallel parking, positioned to the right of the bus lane, will be a constant source of interference into the BRT traffic.

The Webster Avenue corridor, currently served by the Bx41 from Gun Hill to the Hub, is more than just a local route; it is currently being considered for express service to and from La Guardia Airport, providing the Bronx its first (potentially) quick, direct connection to a major jobs center.

Chicago, which has its own major BRT plans in development, is currently studying whether to place its BRT routes for its Western and Ashland Corridors in the median or along the side of the street. Four alternatives are up for consideration, two of which would include a median routing (and buses with left-side doors), and the other two which would run on the side of the street, sharing the lane with local bus services.

That city’s initial analysis demonstrates the advantages of the median alignment: Faster service for customers (up to 80% quicker than current operations), and a resulting larger increase in ridership. A comparison of options by Grid Chicago provides an overview of those benefits, in the context of their relatively higher cost. If the goal of the transit system were to simply to increase the ridership of the express transit services — ignoring all other issues — the median would appear to be the right place to go.

But it does seem rather incongruous to promote a median-running BRT lane when local services remain relegated to the side of the street, especially when some passengers are likely to choose on the spot between the two options when taking their trips. Does it really make sense to use the bus-only lane half as much as there are buses available to fill it? Shouldn’t dedicated bus lanes be shared by both local and express buses, with the only difference in service being the number of stops at which each calls?

Moreover, the side lanes BRT alternatives being proposed in both New York and Chicago will have considerable advantages for customers, as shown in the rendering below. On Webster Avenue, bus-only lanes will run along 4 miles of the route, and car travel lanes are expected to be eliminated, reducing automobile traffic to one lane per direction. Pedestrian crossings and walking areas are expected to be significantly upgraded. Transit vehicles will be provided signal priority at intersections. Bus stations will be positioned adjacent to sidewalk extensions, making it unnecessary for buses to turn when making a stop.

The New York design does suffer several failings, however, that could be relatively easily resolved. As shown in the plan at the top of this article, the current proposal for Webster Avenue is to stop local buses as is currently done, along the sidewalk, replacing current parking. This makes sense for local-only stops, since a local bus pulled up to the sidewalk would allow an express bus to pass it without moving out of the bus-only lane.

But for stations shared between BRT and local buses, having two separate stops — one along the sidewalk (for the local) and the other next to a bulb-out (for the BRT) — makes little sense. In off-peak periods, when bus headways are 10 minutes or more, smart customers may simply want to take the first bus that shows up, express or local. They shouldn’t have to move to a different place on the sidewalk beforehand, so at shared stops, BRT and local vehicles (neither of which is supposed to be passing the other there) should both open their doors at the sidewalk bulb-out.

Of course, it bears repeating that as the Chicago study demonstrates, placing buses along the edge of the roadway significantly increases travel times compared to median-running buses. Even if buses in the side lanes make the most sense overall, they pose a challenge to actually speeding up riders, which is what BRT is supposed to do.

The advantages of running buses along the outside lanes of the roadway address the problems of places where there are both BRT and local services offered. But along certain routes, one might argue that differentiating express and local services is inappropriate and that the most important goal is to provide the highest quality operations on all routes, not just those designated “BRT.” In Paris, many of the Mobilien “BRT” corridors have relatively frequent stations, but buses are often placed in the median lanes, with stations in the center of the roadway. There are no local or express services, just good-quality buses that hail at many stops but at least don’t get caught up by traffic in between them.

Footnote: My thoughts go out to the people of New York City, who are surely more interested in recovering from the storm than debating how to build BRT. But perhaps this will be a welcome distraction. Apologies for the extended period away from new writing at The Transport Politic.

Images above: At top, corridor plans for Webster Avenue, from New York City DOT; at bottom, a rendering of the corridor, from NYC DOT.

Commuter Rail New York Social Justice

A Chance for Faster Commute Times in the Bronx

» New stations in the Bronx could significantly speed up travel times for people who spend too long getting to work every day. But there must be reasonable service frequencies offered at a reasonable price.

The Metro-North commuter railroad offers convenient service from Grand Central Terminal to Connecticut and Upstate New York. Though all of its trains run through the Bronx, the population there rarely uses its services, because they are simply not designed for transit-reliant city dwellers. They stick to the bus and the subway, despite those modes being slower.

The opening of the East Side Access project at the end of this decade will direct certain Long Island Railroad trains to a new station under Grand Central, opening up capacity at Penn Station for Metro-North trains. This service change offers many opportunities for dramatically improving the commutes of thousands of people in the Bronx — if it is planned right. A potential new service along an existing Amtrak line is up for discussion this month.*

New York, of course, is hardly alone in needing to dramatically improve the use of its commuter rail lines. Cities from Boston to Chicago provide service on rail lines with few inner city stations, miserably low frequencies, and much too expensive fares. But because of Gotham’s huge size and the continued concentration of jobs in central Manhattan, opportunities for improvement there are greatest.

In the case of the Penn Station Access Study (PSAS), the benefits could be enormous.** The proposal is considering whether to invest in four new stations in the Bronx — at Co-op City (a 55,000-person community completed in 1971 and isolated from rail transit stations), Morris Park, Parkchester, and Hunts Point. Certain Metro-North New Haven Line trains, which currently run along the Metro-North Harlem Line into Grand Central, would be redirected onto what is now the Hell Gate Amtrak-only route from New Rochelle to Penn Station, along which the new stops would be built. This relatively cheap project would require little investment in the tracks, which are in reasonable condition and far under capacity.

Penn Station Access proposal for Metro-North, from MTA.

There is strong evidence for the value of improving connections between the Bronx and Manhattan. As the chart below shows, more than 10% of workers in the areas surrounding the stations planned for new service work in West Midtown, directly adjacent to Penn Station. Another 20% or so work in Downtown Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, and the Upper West Side, all of which would be easier to access through direct service to Penn Station.

Work destinations for residents of four proposed station areas
 Within 1/2 mile radius of proposed stationsWithin 1 mile radius of proposed stations
Total resident workers (within 50 top zip codes)36,226113,930
West Midtown3,81211,489
East Midtown2,5377,835
Downtown Manhattan3,52310,079
Downtown Brooklyn2,6127,939
Upper West Side1,1593,625
Long Island City4561,477
Elsewhere22,127 (61.1%)71,486 (62.7%)
Data: U.S. Census Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics 2010

Moreover, those residents currently have very long travel times to get to their jobs in the city. New Yorkers already suffer from the longest commutes in the country, but residents of the Bronx and particularly Co-op City, which is far from any subway line, are particularly cut off. As the below chart shows, more than 36% of workers who live in Co-op City have commutes of more than an hour, and less than 30% have travel times to work of less than 30 minutes. Despite this fact, people continue to rely on transit for their daily travel, because commuting by car is too expensive and, in New York, just as slow.

Commuting by mode and travel times in the Northeast Bronx
 Co-op CityNearby AreasThe Bronx
Working Population14,9375,952
Transit Mode Share to Work51.8%37.3%58.3%
< 30 min commute28.8%43.0%31.9%
30-39 min commute15.7%16.4%16.7%
40-59 min commute19.1%16.7%19.9%
60-89 min commute22.2%18.7%23.5%
> 90 min commute14.2%5.2%8.0%
Data: U.S. Census 2006-2010 American Community Survey

The clearest explanation for the slow travel times is that the two modes of transit available for Co-op City residents are not particularly quick. The express BxM7 bus runs from Co-op City to East Midtown in 52 minutes, but it is more expensive than subway service and does not provide direct access to the West Side of the island. The Bx26 bus connects Co-op City to the 2 train, which does run to West Midtown, but that trip takes 74 minutes at best, no picnic in the park. The proposed new Metro-North station would connect the neighborhood with Penn Station in just 27 minutes and be linked to a neighborhood bus circulator to ensure that everyone in the area has easy access to the stop.

Residents near the proposed Morris Park, Parkchester, and Hunts Point stations would see similar benefits, though those stations are closer to existing subway stops and the residents suffer less from long travel times to work.

Alternatives for travel from the Bronx to Midtown Manhattan
RouteMinimum travel time to MidtownPeak Cost (with Monthly card and 40 trips)*Avg Weekday Frequencies (7-9 AM)Avg Weekday Frequencies (11 AM-3 PM)
BxM7 from Co-op City52 min (to 5 Av/51 St)$5.50 ($5.00)9/hour2/hour
Bx26 from Co-op City; (2) train74 min (to Penn Station)$2.25 ($2.60)7/hour5.25/hour
Metro-North from Fordham16-23 min (to Grand Central)$7.50 ($4.45)2/hour2/hour
Metro-North from Marble Hill19-23 min (to Grand Central)$7.50 ($4.45)3.5/hour1.25/hour
Proposed Metro-North from Co-op City27 min (to Penn Station)???
Data: MTA

Based on existing Metro-North service to the Bronx, however, there is reason to question how many people will take advantage of the Metro-North service to these new stations. As the chart above shows, Metro-North trips are considerably more expensive than subway or bus journeys, even over the same distance. In addition, commuter rail service is infrequent both at peak and off-peak times, meaning that customers have to rely on schedules, limiting the travel time benefits compared to slower bus or subway service.

It is therefore unsurprising that the mode share for commuter rail services is so low in three representative Bronx Census Tracts where subway and commuter rail service is offered, as shown in the chart below. With so few trains to actually take to work and such a high cost to do so, no one can justify taking Metro-North. If the new stations in the Bronx similarly run only twice an hour and cost twice as much as the subway, few will be able to take advantage of the time savings into Manhattan the trains will offer. This is a failure of the existing service, but one that we are capable of addressing.

We don’t yet know how much Metro-North is planning to charge for travel on its new service, but it will likely be similar to what is already being demanded of Bronx riders. And frequencies will also likely be limited to just two trains an hour or so. But those policies will seriously constrain the potential ridership at these stations; what’s the point of investing millions in new stops if they’re not used?

Travel Mode Share for Bronx Neighborhoods
Census TractMetro-NorthSubwayCar %Subway %Metro-North %Other % (mostly bus)
399.01FordhamFordham Rd (B/D)12.941.42.243.5
309Marble HillMarble Hill-225 St (1)
429.02Williams BridgeGun Hill Rd (2/5)20.842.80.036.4
Data: U.S. Census 2006-2010 American Community Survey

One could make the argument that people who live further from the center of a city should pay more to travel, as they are benefitting from cheaper housing costs. But in New York City, apartments are expensive everywhere, and most jobs are in the center of the city. The transportation system thus must provide reasonable cost service for everyone to get to work in Midtown or Downtown in a reasonable amount of time. Charging people double the price to take a faster trip or giving them a very slow but cheap alternative, represents a social injustice that relegates people with lower incomes to wasting their lives in transit.

The improvements in Metro-North service that would provide for increased frequencies in service would require more train cars, but directing existing subway passengers to Metro-North would relieve congestion on the subway, which would have positive spill-over effects. Lowering the fare to subway levels for in-city commuters would also require a significant subsidy, but there is no reason to think that a well-managed commuter rail system would cost any more to operate than the subway system if they’re both attracting many passengers.

A note: In public meetings (presentations for Co-op City and Morris Park), the MTA has argued that the primary beneficiaries of the new service will be Bronx residents who work in the suburbs and use the trains for reverse-peak travel. A 2002 study indicated that 82% of ridership from a proposed Co-op City stop would be for people living there but working in the northern suburbs. This fits with Metro-North’s existing rider profile, in which of the 13,200 daily boardings in the Bronx, 2/3 are outbound.

Yet the analysis of existing work patterns show that the vast majority of people living in proposed station areas in the Bronx work in New York City. Only 47 of more than 36,000 employees work in Stamford, supposedly a big destination, and Westchester County cities have employment from the Bronx zones maxing out in the hundreds, a pittance compared to central Manhattan employment. The likely explanation for the choices of today’s Bronx riders is the lack of alternative (there is no subway service out of the city); in other words, the existing performance is not worthy of imitation. If anything, we should be looking for ways to expand capacity along commuter rail lines to allow many more people to benefit from faster travel into work in Manhattan.

* Also under discussion is the re-routing of some Metro-North Hudson Line trains along Manhattan’s Empire Corridor, a new service that would include the construction of two new Manhattan stations, one at 125th Street, and the other at 60th.

** The less likely improvement of Long Island Railroad service in southeast Queens could produce even more travel time savings for riders, but that is on no one’s agenda at the moment, unfortunately.

Image at top: Proposed Co-op City Station, from MTA

Infrastructure New York Urbanism

Taking Back the Street

» The fact that street space is about more than just automobile movement has yet to be recognized by a big swath of the population.

The recent furor over the installation of bike lanes along Brooklyn’s Prospect Park West is indicative of the myopic perspective too many people continue to hold on to in regards to the use of the most basic transportation resource, the street.

Even in a city as progressive and transit-friendly as New York, the work of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan to reapportion a very limited portion of total street space to pedestrians, bicyclists, and buses — usually in areas where people in automobiles are outnumbered — have been greeted by lawsuits and calls for the commissioner to resign.

The absurdity of these efforts is difficult to comprehend. Already, the majority of public space in this country is devoted to the circulation of automobiles. Is the integration of a few complete streets in a network of usually single-use roads so tough to accept?

Try taking a toy away from a child and telling her that — after years of playing alone — from now on she must share. That, in effect, is how automobilists must feel about their precious rights-of-way. Convinced of the importance of driving from place to place, they cannot imagine a world in which the street’s purpose is broadened to include fulfilling the needs of people relying on other vehicles. Who cares about the inefficiency of the fact that they hog the street all day and night? What difference does it make if other transportation modes are pushed away or greatly inconvenienced? The street, after all, is designed for the car.

If transportation alternatives must be offered, this crowd says, buy another toy — put them underground, out of sight, no matter the costs. The street must be preserved for the car’s advance.

This attitude must be fought. People who live in dense parts of cities like New York, or Boston, or San Francisco are pedestrians at heart. Their residents face the sidewalk and they rely on neighborhood stores for their daily needs. And yet too often they suffer the daily indignity of the poorly designed street. As automobiles pass in every direction, they are confined to sidewalks often too small and a dearth of public space. When they hop on their bikes, hoping to extend their trips, they are caught between fast-moving and dangerous cars, despite their pollution-free form of travel. When they get on the bus, they are stuck in congestion despite the fact that they take up far less of the overall travel corridor than their driving peers.

These are the problems that policies like those that have been implemented in New York are attempting to address.

For those reading this article, these points are likely more than obvious, and yet it is clear that the motivation for opening our streets to users other than those stuck behind the wheels of their private vehicles remains murky for a significant percentage of the population. Even in New York, where most people have corner stores to which to walk and transit lines on which to ride, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are desperately convinced that if you were to remove a car lane and replace it with something else like a pedestrian plaza or a bike lane, chaos would result: Congestion would overtake the streets.

The removal of automobile traffic from parts of Manhattan’s Broadway including Times Square has been delightfully trouble-free.

Compounding this problem is the fact that people who drive, despite often constituting a small percentage of overall users, frequently command a high degree of influence thanks to their greater wealth, which allows them not only to drive but also to pay lawyers able to sue transportation commissioners for doing their jobs well.

All this hoopla, however, may be just a predictable slowdown in what is inevitably a slow process. It may be obvious to some that bike and bus lanes are beneficial, but many will remain attached to their automobiles and fight any attempt to reduce their dominance for years to come. There is opposition to these improvements today, but there will be less of it as more and more people experience the benefits of good biking facilities, effective bus service, and comfortable pedestrian street space.

Image above: Mock up of a contraflow bus bike lane, from Boston Complete Streets

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