Reader Sound-Off: Political obstruction and the Hudson River tunnel project
Monday, February 15, 2016
This is an installment in an ongoing series, titled "Reader Sound-Off," which will focus attention and conversation on readers' and NARP members' opinions on important rail and transportation issues.
New York and New Jersey's new Hudson River tunnel "Gateway" project is making the rounds in the news as it was recently predicted in The Record to become the largest public works project in the country. The article explains how much more funding is necessary because the Gateway project attempts to tackle issues in a broader sense than its canceled predecessor, The Access to the Region's Core (ARC) project.
It turns out the story is a bit more complicated than that.
ARC to Gateway
According to Paul Berger's recent article in The Record, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie put the brakes on an $8.9 billion ARC tunnel project in 2010 citing potential cost overruns. Unbeknown to Christie, this decision may have started a domino effect that led to the proposal of an even larger, federally-run proposal to build tunnels under the Hudson River that could cost around $20 billion.
With the Port Authority taking control of the new project — now called Gateway — planning for the project should be accelerated. The Gateway project will join other area efforts, including a $3 billion overhaul of New York Penn Station that was recently announced by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in an attempt to address the region's crumbling infrastructure.
"Gateway plans to deliver rail tunnels that would double the train capacity into New York City," Berger writes. "And Gateway, like the canceled Access to the Region's Core project, also envisions a new set of tracks that bypass Secaucus Junction, creating a one-seat ride from North Jersey into Manhattan."
However, although the article was informative, there's actually more to the story, according to long-time NARP member and former executive committee/board member J. Howard Harding.
In a response to The Record article, Harding — a retired transportation planner — explained that the project Christie canceled was not only dissimilar to the current Gateway plan, but also would have been massively more expensive than an earlier version. If all sides could have simply agreed, that earlier version could have been a boon for area commuters and rail riders.
Here is Harding's response:
"The project canceled by New Jersey Governor Christie was a bastardized perversion of the original 'Access to the Region's Core' project. ARC, as originally planned, included new trans-Hudson railroad tunnels connected directly to Penn Station, reconfiguration and expansion of Penn Station's track capacity, and an eventual tunnel connection between Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal.
"This latter feature would give New Jersey commuters a one-seat ride to Grand Central and perhaps further northeast. It would also have permitted METRO-North and Amtrak trains to serve both Penn and Grand Central while reducing congestion in the tunnels used by Long Island commuter trains under the East River.
"Once technical issues were resolved related to the varying methods used by NJT, LIRR, METRO-North and Amtrak to access the electric power used to run their trains, each service provider could operate through trains between New Jersey and Connecticut, New Jersey and Long Island, New Jersey and Albany, Connecticut and Long Island, and Long Island and Albany.
"Finally, running trains through Penn Station — rather than stopping and turning them there — would significantly increase Penn Station passenger handling capacity. None of these advantages would be available to Manhattan-bound NJT passengers envisioned in the Christie-canceled plan.
"Although the project Christie canceled may have well-served Manhattan-bound New Jersey commuters, it failed to improve rail passenger service for any other users of the existing ancient trans-Hudson railroad tunnels. Thus, Christie's canceled project, if completed, would have required two more new rail tunnels connecting to Penn Station, costing at least $20 billion more than whatever the final Christie-canceled project cost might have been."
Why then was such an expansive transportation plan that involved multiple commuter rail lines and systems watered down and ultimately canceled due to rising costs, only then to be followed-up with the Gateway plan, which is just as expansive and possibly more costly than both ARC iterations?
It may simply be a sad and all-too-familiar case of politics.
According to Harding: "My understanding is that the original ARC plan was the product of a decade or more of effort led by regional advocacy, planning and operating entities. It [floundered] because its success required extensive cooperation among NJT, LIRR, Amtrak, METRO North and the Port Authority. No two entities could agree with each other about who did what, who gave up what, etc. NJT, in frustration, designed its own project that, predictably only served NJT, requiring little cooperation with other entities."
Also, for Christie's part, there is some debate about whether cost was the real reason he scuttled this NJT-only version of the ARC.
According to a New York Times article, a 2012 Government Accountability Office report found that "while Mr. Christie said that state transportation officials had revised cost estimates for the tunnel to at least $11 billion and potentially more than $14 billion, the range of estimates had in fact remained unchanged in the two years before he announced in 2010 that he was shutting down the project."
In fact, it appears Christie was more concerned with impressing his conservative constituents and peers than he was affecting actual change to the infrastructure of his region.
The article continued noting that "canceling the tunnel, then the largest public works project in the nation, helped shape Mr. Christie's profile as a rising Republican star, an enforcer of fiscal discipline in a country drunk on debt. But the report is likely to revive criticism that his decision, which he said was about 'hard choices' in tough economic times, was more about avoiding the need to raise the state's gasoline tax, which would have violated a campaign promise."
It appears that politics, when unchecked, can be an awful deterrent to progress.
What are your opinions?
Don't hesitate to contact the Hotline Midweek Brief and share your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please let us know if you have an issue on which you would like to "sound off." For anyone who wants to contact or correspond with Harding about this story, he can be reached at email@example.com.
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