Six years ago a there was a hopeful flicker of light at the end of the tunnel for the tens of thousands of commuters who travel back and forth each day on crowded trains between New Jersey and New York City.
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Construction of a third train tunnel under the Hudson River was slated for completion by 2018.
The project, dubbed Access to the Region’s Core (ARC), would have doubled rail commuter capacity between two of the most densely populated regions in the country.
But that flicker of light was swiftly extinguished by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who killed the $12.4 billion ARC project in the fall of 2010 under the premise that New Jersey taxpayers were shouldering too much of the financial burden.
Now the massive infrastructure project is back on the drawing board but the projected cost has risen to more than $20 billion and the new tunnels won’t be completed for another decade and a half, perhaps longer.
“We will have lost 13 years or so as a result of the decision making that led to the cancellation of the ARC project,” said Martin E. Robins, a leading architect of New Jersey’s rail transit system over the past 25 years and the chief designer of the ARC tunnel.
The new project dubbed Gateway is needed “beyond badly,” according to Robins, regardless of the escalating costs, the political and bureaucratic difficulties and all the logistical nightmares that need to be overcome.
“The need has long since been identified going back around 20 years. It’s absolutely urgent that the project be built now,” he added.
There are currently just two rail tunnels connecting Manhattan with New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and beyond. That’s how it’s been for more than 100 years -- the same two tunnels.
In other words, as the population of the metro New York/New Jersey area has multiplied during the past century, a linchpin of the region’s commuter rail transportation system has remained unchanged.
Every weekday during the morning and evening rush hours those century-old tunnels are running at maximum capacity, funneling an estimated 90,000 NJT commuters and thousands more Amtrak passengers in and out of Penn Station underneath Midtown Manhattan.
If something goes awry in one of those tunnels – as it frequently does – thousands of commuters are left stranded, sometimes for hours, on either side of the river, frequently on badly over-crowded trains.
Ironically, a primary reason for the overcrowded trains is that New Jersey Transit (NJT) has significantly improved its service in and out of the city over the past two decades.
Initiated 20 years ago under Robin’s direction, NJT’s Midtown Direct service has proven a boon to a number of suburban towns along NJT’s web of train lines. Luxury condominium complexes within walking distance of train stations have attracted nearby retail shopping, restaurants and coffee shops, re-energizing once-sleepy downtowns in places like Morristown, Montclair and South Orange.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the influx of residents, folks fleeing the ever-higher cost of living in Manhattan or Brooklyn but who still work in the city, has created a sharp increase in the number of commuters trekking back and forth each day across the Hudson River.
That surge in commuters prompted renewed calls for construction of another rail tunnel under the Hudson.
With momentum seemingly headed in that direction in the late 2000s, Christie’s decision to kill the ARC project infuriated many. Former U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) called it “one of the biggest policy blunders in New Jersey history.”
Many suggested the decision was politically motivated, an effort by the ambitious governor with presidential aspirations to boost his 2013 re-election chances and raise his national profile by allowing him to divert billions of dollars in ARC money to help bail out the state’s troubled finances without having to raise the state’s gasoline tax. The Christie administration has denied any political motivation, but that’s water under the bridge, so to speak.
The issue now at hand, according to Robins, is moving the Gateway project forward as quickly as possible. “Time is a tremendous issue,” he said. “There are many problems but they can be surmounted.”
A primary concern is completing at least one of the two proposed Gateway tunnels before one or both of the existing tunnels becomes incapacitated, a situation made all the more likely when both existing tunnels were flooded with salt water in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy, causing extensive damage.
It’s hard to imagine the congestion that would occur each day if there was only one rail tunnel open to NJT commuter and Amtrak trains beneath the Hudson River.
The Gateway project gained a good bit of momentum in the latter half of 2015 when Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed to split 50% of the total costs if the federal government agreed to cover the rest, an important first step. Meanwhile, the Gateway Development Corporation was set up within the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to oversee the project and Congress in December passed a massive transportation spending bill that officials say will provide funding for the new tunnels.
Robins said that in addition to likely construction issues and the “many questions” that still remain concerning the financing, one of the most challenging hurdles will be negotiating with the owners of underground land that currently abuts the existing Penn Station in Manhattan. In order to build the additional tunnels and create terminals for the increased passenger traffic, Penn Station will have to be expanded, and that won’t happen on the cheap.
Fortunately, according to Robins, the debate is no longer whether to build the tunnels but rather how to build them.
“Certainly in our region there is a realization that this project needs to get done. There’s a lot of pent up demand here,” he said. “Young people strongly favor rail travel and understand that rail travel is the future. All that makes it a much easier sell than it was 20 years ago.”