It’s been over two months since New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pulled the plug on the ARC Tunnel project, and the fallout from his decision is still raining down upon the region. While the 7 line extension to Secaucus made headlines in mid-November, all has been quite on the cross-Hudson front. Still, the problems ARC was designed to address and the problems that plagued the ARC project live on.
Two stories — one grander than the other — kept the ARC tunnel in the news this week. First, The Post’s editorial board used the MTA Inspector General’s report on the MTA’s construction cost overruns as proof that canceling ARC was the right idea. Their logic is spurious at best.
“You can’t blame New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie if he feels some satisfaction over news out of the MTA,” Alexander Hamilton’s former paper said. “A new report by Inspector General Barry Kluger found that the transit agency’s major development projects — the Second Avenue subway, the LIRR link and the Fulton Transit Center — are five years late and $2 billion over budget. But they’re all too far along for MTA Chairman Jay Walder to kill them. Which is precisely what Christie did to the Hudson River commuter tunnel, before it slipped into the overrun abyss.”
The Post claims that the problems plaguing the MTA — “lack of oversight and bureaucratic infighting” — are the same as those that would have descended on ARC, and because of those concerns, Christie was right to cancel the project. To me, it would have made far more sense for Christie to address those two concerns and figure out a way to bring the project under budget before killing it. He chose not to tackle those problems, and the way he made his decision should not be applauded.
Meanwhile, the problems ARC was designed to address are alive and kicking. Penn Station has not turned into a panacea of through trains, and the crowded rail hub is facing capacity concerns. As part of an ongoing series detailing concerns about our region’s aging transportation infrastructure, Andrew Grossman of the Wall Street Journal went in depth into the Penn Station problems. He writes:
NJ Transit, LIRR and Amtrak must get 170 trains loaded on 21 platforms in four hours, moving more than 120,000 commuters and long-haul travelers out of Manhattan. It is the nation’s busiest station. If all goes according to plan, a train opens its doors on a platform every 60 to 90 seconds, picking up or dropping off about 900 passengers—the equivalent of two full Boeing 747s.
In 2010, 6% of peak-period NJ Transit trains were late through November, with delays more common on most of the lines that run in and out of Penn. Sometimes the failures are catastrophic and perhaps unavoidable, as following the late-December snowstorm that delayed scores of trains for days. But other delays—malfunctioning signals, overhead wires knocked down by trees that the railroad can’t afford to trim—can be chalked up to factors like human error, poor planning or a lack of funding.
Penn Station is one of many choke points in the aging transit system moving people around metro New York. In an era defined by states’ austerity and tapped-out transit authorities, much of the fundamental infrastructure is outdated and overcrowded. And there’s little prospect of it getting much better without politically unpalatable steps being taken, such as higher fares and tolls or a major reallocation of taxpayer dollars.
All of the trains arriving and departing Penn Station, which opened a century ago, come from two tracks toward New Jersey and four tracks toward Long Island. All must arrive on one of the 21 tracks, but many trains can’t fit on some tracks with shorter platforms. By contrast, Grand Central has 46 tracks—and far fewer delays.
A late Amtrak train impacts a New Jersey Transit train which impacts a Long Island Rail Road train which impacts an Amtrak train. It is a problem that many had hoped ARC would solve and now, as Grossman notes, transportation planners are “scrambling” to find better solutions. New Jersey Transit is at the mercy of Amtrak, but the MTA is trying anything it can find to improve the situation.
The authority, says Grossman, “is investigating whether it can run trains through Penn and into New Jersey, shaving precious minutes off the amount of time each spends on a platform, freeing up some capacity. It’s also looking at running some Metro-North trains into Penn once a project to provide LIRR access into Grand Central Terminal is finished.”
Eventually, something is going to have to give. New Jersey and New York will have to figure out a way to work together to address the region’s cross-Hudson rail capacity concerns. The two states will have to work hard to keep costs on the ARC successor project to a reasonable level and will have to battle overruns. The economic impact of planning and building nothing is too severe for us to wait much longer.