Oct
02

Thoughts on some key questions facing the trans-Hudson rail tunnel

By
A glimpse at the Gateway Project area. Click to enlarge. (Via Amtrak)

Some key questions surround the early plans to build a new trans-Hudson tunnel. (Map via Amtrak)

Momentum continues to build for some sort of action on a new trans-Hudson tunnel. It’s not yet clear what proposal will emerge from talks, how much this monstrosity will cost or who will pay for it (though Amtrak is considering a surcharge on their tickets to generate some revenue). Meanwhile, early planning is moving forward, and The Times checks in on the effort.

Emma Fitzsimmon’s article has a few key takeaways, some of which are discouraging and some of which lead to more questions that must be answered. First is the news that both New Jersey Transit and Amtrak will be involved in the development and engineering work for this project. With Port Authority on board as well, I worry that too many cooks are stirring the soup. As we’ve seen with East Side Access, lack of cross-agency cooperation has slowed the project down to a standstill, and we shouldn’t repeat the same mistakes on the other side of Manhattan.

Second, Fitzsimmons reports that, despite the fact that planning for ARC involved many similar studies, all involved expect the environmental review process to take 2-3 years. This is a major barrier to transit progress in the U.S. today. To build a new rail tunnel, the project’s supporters will have to study environmental impact, including air quality concerns. As a point of comparison, it took the MTA nearly five years to produce a final environmental impact statement for the current iteration of the Second Ave. Subway. Considering the need and similar scope of recent projects, this is just an inexcusably slow process badly in need of reform.

With this background on hand, Fitzsimmons raises a series of key questions:

How would the states pay for their share when leaders are already struggling to fund existing infrastructure plans? Could Congress, already wracked by leadership questions, be persuaded to provide significant federal funding? And would the Port Authority, shadowed by scandal and a continuing federal investigation, be the best agency to oversee one of the biggest construction projects in the country?

From where I sit, the Port Authority is never the best agency to oversee construction projects. Of late, their best and perhaps only successful projects have been massively overbuilt and insanely expensive buildings that have little transportation value. The Port Authority board recently admitted that it has no idea how to rebuild its Manhattan bus terminal, as one New Jersey-based commissioner said, “We are so out of our league, we don’t know what the hell we’re doing.” Their $4 billion mall/transportation hub at the World Trade Center shows no signs of wrapping construction even as the group promised a 2015 opening date, and that project is hardly a bellwether for future Port Authority transportation success. And the agency is essentially a pit of patronage, making the MTA look fully competent and efficient.

So that’s where things currently sit, and that seat is very tenuous. We need a trans-Hudson tunnel, but we need one that’s well-planned and efficiently built. The years will tick by, through new administrations in the White House and Trenton and Albany, and the money may or may not flow. Hopefully, forward progress continues, but these questions need answering now, not in three or five or ten years.



Categories : Gateway Tunnel

63 Responses to “Thoughts on some key questions facing the trans-Hudson rail tunnel”

  1. Ian MacAllen says:

    Why not have a surcharge on the rental fees Amtrak charges NJTransit for use of the rail lines, existing tunnel and platforms in Penn Station? That seems like the most appropriate place to collect money. Christie can save face and not have to spend any money building a tunnel. NJTransit riders who will overwhelmingly be the biggest beneficiaries will suck up the cost, but at least they will get to work / home.

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      I don’t think there is a credible surcharge that could collect anywhere near enough money to get this project built.

  2. 22r says:

    Amtrak adding a surcharge fee to cross-Hudson itineraries doesn’t seem like a very good idea.

    Isn’t the NEC currently Amtrak’s only profitable line and its revenues are subsidizing the rest of the network? If that’s the case, then maybe they could redirect some of those fares to where they collected them and stop subsidizing underused routes through Montana, for example.

    Amtrak’s fares are already way overblown anyway compared to international standards and compared to the commuter rail lines and bus services. NJT can get me to Trenton for $15 but due to some agreement they’re not running their trains all the way to Philly, so that Amtrak can charge $55 (if you’re lucky) for a seat from New York to Philly? All this while you can take the bus for $10-20 depending on the demand on that day.

    I speculate that one reason Amtrak’s fares are so artificially high is the tunnels themselves — with more tunnel capacity, they could run more trains, maybe even a private competitor could run trains (i.e. how in Germany there’s private competitors to Deutsche Bahn on many routes). Then the overly-low supply on this route would be increased and prices would go down.

    • Ed says:

      I’m actually not in disagreement on the overall argument, but want to clarify some of the side stuff.

      SEPTA goes between Trenton and Philly, so its possible to take a combination of New Jersey Transit and SEPTA for something like $30. Just about any bus is still going to be cheaper and faster (the most direct route between NY and Philly is just not through Trenton, New Brunswick, and Newark). Amtrak is faster than the NJT-SEPTA combination, but I would only use it for emergencies or if I could deduct the fare for business purposes.

      On the use of Amtrak fares from the Northeast corridor to subsidize the rest of the network, they actually have pruned alot of the network back over the years and there is not much room to cut. I think there should be one or two transcontinental routes. Right now there are four, so I would prefer to eliminate the northernmost and southernmost of the four routes. But its a fact of American life that those low population plains states are over-represented in federal institutions, and Amtrak has to deal with it. There is a chance of that route through the Dakotas being cut anyway, since its capacity is needed to haul shale.

      Amtrak overcharges, but I think they are still working through the pensions the freight railways dumped on then. Its really a minor miracle the system functions as well as it does.

      I’m not sure if the high Amtrak NEC corridor fares aren’t simply due to the subsidization of the rest of the system, and the fact that the type of people who have to travel between NY and DC are willing to pay those fares (they just have to stay competitive with the air shuttles). I don’t think the line is really for people just going between NY and Philly.

      • pete says:

        A couple years ago, like maybe around 2010 Amtrak applied AIRLINE pricing to the NEC. Now tickets balloon in price 2 weeks before departure. Every train is yield management-ed so every Regional is a different price throughout the day, the latest in the night trains are the cheapest. The era of “walking up and buying a ticket at the counter” for Amtrak’s NEC is over, doing that is as expensive as doing that with American Airlines.

        In the past Regional was unreserved. Even after it became reserved the ticket price was the same throughout the day. Now each train has a different price.

        • adirondacker12800 says:

          Back when the Amtrak clerk stuck a ticket stamp into a electo-mechanical device, there was a loud thump and ticket spewed out. Back then your commuter ticket was good on Amtrak trains. Later the unreserved trains had low walk up fares. Sometimes you had to stand all the way to Washington too.

        • Ralfff says:

          Yes, and those prices are all too high. Unlike airlines, they aren’t dynamic, they just mindlessly increase until the travel day. Granted, you can travel by night but I don’t think you’re going to get many converts to Amtrak when DC-NYC at 3 AM next Tuesday costs $88.

      • Nathanael says:

        “On the use of Amtrak fares from the Northeast corridor to subsidize the rest of the network, they actually have pruned alot of the network back over the years and there is not much room to cut.”

        It’s misguided to think of NEC fares as subsidizing “the rest of the network”. What they subsidize is Amtrak’s fixed overhead: reservations system, call center, locomotive and rolling stock maintenance shops, etc. etc. This fixed overhead is very, very large.

        Outside the NEC, the majority of operations are actually paid for by state governments, the “state subsidized corridor” trains.

        The remaining list of “long distance trains” is skeletal, and the total *avoidable* subsidy to them totals $151 million/year as of 2012. See this presentation, specifically page 11:
        http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/77.....13-022.pdf

        Notice that the trains to South Carolina and Florida (Silver Meteor / Silver Star / Palmetto / Auto Train), added together, are breaking even. And the avoidable cost of East Coast-Chicago service (Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, Cardinal) totals about $13.8 million per year; for maintaining East Coast-Chicago connectivity, this is a bargain.

        When you see larger “loss” numbers, they’re phoney; it’s because overhead has been “allocated” to trains in an arbitrary and capricious fashion. Overhead is huge for any railroad, including Amtrak. Cancelling trains doesn’t get rid of overhead.

        “I think there should be one or two transcontinental routes. Right now there are four, so I would prefer to eliminate the northernmost and southernmost of the four routes. But its a fact of American life that those low population plains states are over-represented in federal institutions, and Amtrak has to deal with it. There is a chance of that route through the Dakotas being cut anyway, since its capacity is needed to haul shale.”

        The northernmost of those routes (Empire Builder) is routinely the one of the four which requires the *least* subsidy. (See that presentation again.) The airlines have practically pulled out of the Dakotas and Montana, leaving air ticket prices super-expensive. There’s not much bus service any more either. The route also doesn’t have an Interstate parallel to it, only old US highways. As a result, it basically has a captive audience, and those shale oil workers are riding it. It also serves Seattle-Spokane, Portland-Spokane, and Minneapolis-Chicago.

        The southernmost of those routes (Sunset Limited) has very low ridership, but mainly because it only runs three times a week, and who can schedule their trip around that? It actually runs through some of the largest-population cites of all four transcontinental routes — Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, San Antonio, Houston, New Orleans.

        It’s actually the *middle two* transcontinental routes which cost the most to run — see the linked presentation again — which is why people shouldn’t make off-the-cuff suggestions as to which routes they’d like to cut without doing their research!

        The middle-north route (the California Zephyr) runs Chicago-Denver-Ski Resorts-Salt Lake City-Reno-Sacramento-Oakland. The problem with this route is the section from the Ski Resorts to Salt Lake City to Reno, which takes a very long time and is nearly always half-empty even when the rest of the train is full. This is why it requires the most subsidy; Denver-Chicago performs well. If I were going to cut anything from the Amtrak network (and I don’t want to), I would want to cut Reno-Salt Lake-Grand Junction.

        The middle-south route (the Southwest Chief) is the fastest of the transcontinentals from Chicago to the coast, so as someone who doesn’t fly I’m fond of it, but it goes through super-tiny towns (smaller than the ones in the Dakotas) and cities with lots of alternative transportation on its way.

        Interestingly, if unsurprisingly, the politics mostly line up with where the riders are. The political support is quite strong for all the trains east of the Mississippi, with the unfortunate exception of Georgia. There’s fierce political support for the Empire Builder and very weak support for the Sunset Limited. There’s strong support for the California Zephyr from the ski areas through Chicago and from Reno to California, but not much support in Utah. The Southwest Chief has a more perverse political situation, with strong political support in the empty quarters of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas, and weak political support on the busier sections from Chicago to Kansas City or Flagstaff to California.

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      Isn’t the NEC currently Amtrak’s only profitable line and its revenues are subsidizing the rest of the network? If that’s the case, then maybe they could redirect some of those fares to where they collected them and stop subsidizing underused routes through Montana, for example.

      Much of the transit system is based on such subsidies. The NYC subway collects the same fare for the 42nd Street Shuttle or a ride out to Far Rockaway, although the latter service obviously costs them far more to run.

      (Many other government utilities work that way too. The post office charges you the same price to mail a letter across town or across the country.)

      Now, perhaps there’s an argument that the train through Montana shouldn’t exist at all. Raising the price to the actual cost of the service would be an excellent prelude to its eventual demise, if that is your aim.

      If you want the service to die, then kill it. Many have wished for that outcome for decades. But like most government functions, Amtrak does not exist to make a profit on each service it operates. To point out that it is unprofitable is really beside the point.

      • Ed says:

        “But like most government functions, Amtrak does not exist to make a profit on each service it operates. To point out that it is unprofitable is really beside the point.”

        I completely agree with this, and I pointed out they already eliminated alot of routes.

        But its an interesting question, and I think there is a strong argument for cutting two of the four trans-continental routes. The trains running between San Antonio and LA run through El Paso, Tucson, and alot of desert. And the only large cities between Chicago and Seattle are Milwaukee, which I think is linked to Chicago anyway by commuter rail, or could be, and Minneapolis/ St. Paul. In fact the only even smallish city on that route is Spokane, much of the rest of the route is almost as spasely populated as the southern desert route. So there is a case for no longer running passenger trains between Chicago and El Paso, and San Antonio and LA. There would be two remaining passenger routes between Chicago and LA and Sacramento respectively.

        • AlexB says:

          There is a whole series of towns in west Texas such as Marfa and Alpine that are not near the interstate and exist because of the railroad. Don’t think it’s a good idea to cut that route entirely. The same is true for northern Montana. If anything, I’d supplement these routes with shorter ones that don’t make useless 3 am stops. No one wants a transportation product that operates at those times.

        • Ralfff says:

          The Sunset Limited as it exists today is a disaster when it’s on schedule, but that’s because the parts of it that should work are super-slow (Houston-San Antonio) or no longer exist (New Orleans-eastward). Also, there’s no real timing for the Crescent connection between New Orleans and New York to the Sunset Limited, which is especially galling since those are the only two trains New Orleans has. Also it runs 3x a week. Obviously they should either improve it or cancel the whole thing.

          The Empire Builder (which I have a minor personal stake in) is more complicated. There’s serious consideration to running a second Twin Cities-Chicago train along that route every day—and it is a daily train. Actually, more than once I have gotten on the train late in eastern North Dakota, have it make up the time to St. Paul, and then slow to behind schedule there because of traffic in the city, so although that second train might avoid the Plains freight traffic, it’s not as simple as said traffic being the sole cause of the terrible delays it’s suffered since the oil boom got underway.

          Also, at least in eastern North Dakota, buses threw in the towel, and the train is the only east-west public transport available along the northern line of towns. Not that this is a reason not to cancel it but it has resulted locally in increased ridership for sure.

          Also, the North Dakota/Montana part actually was very successful for a time carrying roughnecks- although of course the train had to compete for space with the huge oil train traffic that they created at work. Also… they’re roughnecks, so not the best ride for everyone else.

          Also, there was a tremendous harvest season for the last 12 years or so, resulting in record ag freight train traffic.

          Finally, the towns from the Twin Cities to the ND border, while not big, are relatively unsuburbanized, and trains have a better prospect there than they do in other parts of the country, if they’re done right.

          All this is not to say that the line absolutely shouldn’t be cut- in a perfect world of the right priorities, it might well deserve that. And I’m not going to defend Amtrak, which turns the best views of the country into a stalled hell that one prays to escape on a weekly basis. I’m just saying that while it may look like a lot of nothing on these routes, there are factors other than distance and town size.

        • Nathanael says:

          Ed, see my comments on the finances above. Basically, you’re picking the wrong routes, because you haven’t looked into it in detail.

          The most expensive routes to operate are the two which you propose keeping. This shows why it’s not good to make off-the-cuff suggestions about Amtrak service before doing your research.

  3. Stephen Smith says:

    I’m fine with a two- to three-year environmental review process, if it means that things like ARC Alt G (for the uninitiated: a tunnel from NJ through Penn to Grand Central and up to Metro-North territory) will be given a fair shake.

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      The environmental review and planning process is a substitute for actually building something, not a prelude to it.

      When they are broke, studies get them in the newspaper as doing the right thing. That is what this is all about.

      • Marc Shepherd says:

        That is not correct. Many environmental reviews really DO lead to built projects, even though some don’t.

      • AlexB says:

        The environmental impact statement is a document that is legally required for a project to be built. The 2-3 years it will take to prepare the document is a huge public expense, a target for lawsuits, and an insult to the entire northeast region. If someone finds something wrong with the document, they can sue and stop work or cause further delay. For some poorly defined projects, it’s genuinely helpful to go through the exercise and narrow 50 options down to 1. For the new Hudson River tunnels, we all know what has to get built. The problem at this point is not a lack of analysis, it’s a lack of decisiveness. The Port Authority is a terrible organization. This tunnel is not a bi-state issue, it’s a regional and national one. Obama should step in and appoint a czar to have the tunnel up and running in 3-5 years.

        • Chet says:

          Couldn’t agree with you more.
          If the current tunnels fell in on themselves tomorrow, does anyone think for a second there’d be a review process at all? Of course not. The Feds would pony up whatever was necessary, NY and NJ would scrape up a few billion as well, and we’d have two perfectly new, modern tunnels up and running in two to three years.
          A Los Angeles area earthquake some years back took out a large piece of major freeway. In normal circumstances it would have taken years to replace; even longer to build new. There was no review process; a reliable contractor was given a contract, and the highway was back in place- stronger than ever- in less than six months.
          Want to find a place to chop hundreds of millions in cost and years from the time line- put a deadline of six to nine months on the environmental reviews and a one or two days for a judge to decide if any lawsuits have merit. If they do, the case is heard and settled within 30 days.

          • Larry Littlefield says:

            The environmental review process has been hijacked by NIMBYs.

            None was required for the widening of the LIE.

            • Duke says:

              This is by design. The current environmental review process was created in response to the Robert Moses era of infrastructure building, where the agencies responsible were basically free to build whatever they could get the funding for regardless of what the locals thought or what impact it had on the environment or the neighborhoods it passed through. Now instead we have the opposite, where we can’t build anything unless we bend over backwards to ensure no one’s toes are stepped on… which in a place like New York City basically means we can’t build anything period.

        • Alon Levy says:

          For some poorly defined projects, it’s genuinely helpful to go through the exercise and narrow 50 options down to 1. For the new Hudson River tunnels, we all know what has to get built.

          “New tunnels from Jersey to Penn Station” is more poorly-defined than you think. There are a bunch of questions, which an EIS should address (but probably won’t):

          – Should the tunnels go north or south of the existing tunnels?
          – Should there be a connection to Grand Central? If not, should there be a third tunnel pair across the East River?
          – Should there be extra tracks at Penn Station?
          – Should there be any ancillary electrification on the NJT side?
          – Should there be any new track connections, e.g. the Secaucus Loop?
          – Should the tunnels include a station at Bergenline, to serve north Hudson County?
          – What is the service plan, both peak and off-peak? What is the proposed schedule with the new tunnels built?
          – Which lines on the NJT side should run through to the LIRR (or Metro-North), if any?
          – What rolling stock does NJT plan to acquire for increased service?

          • Yes. This is a good point, and to be clear, I’m not saying there should be no environmental review. I’m saying it shouldn’t take 2-3 years.

            • adirondacker12800 says:

              2 to 3 years would be short. If you don’t take 2 or 3 years people then sue because you didn’t give them enough time… to figure out what else they are going to sue about.

            • Alon Levy says:

              I completely forgot a key question: should there be new railyards for the new trains, and if so, then where?

              The Alt G answer to that question was “expand West Side Yard,” which is not the right answer; the right answer is “expand yards at the outer ends of lines if necessary, and run trains more frequently off-peak instead of parking them in Manhattan.”

              This is one example of how the service plan and the infrastructure interact: if the plan is to maintain the current very high peak-to-base ratio then railyard expansion in or near Manhattan is required.

              • SEAN says:

                Don’t forget about the power supply to the trains. Like the New Haven Line, NJT’s EMU’s & engines draw power from catenary wires. The “Train to the Game” services proves that through running in some way is possible with or without alt G. As disruptive as alt G can be, it returns tremendous utility & bang for the buck.

          • adirondacker12800 says:

            Should the tunnels go north or south of the existing tunnels?

            They decided, for ARC, that tunnels north of the station would be the choice. They examined other options which is where the hallowed Alt-G came from. Amtrak wants tunnels south of the station.

            Should there be a connection to Grand Central? If not, should there be a third tunnel pair across the East River?

            ARC had provisions for a connection to Grand Central. I thought through running was gonna solve all capacity problems, cure teenaged acne and make the bubble gum save it’s flavor on the bedpost overnight, why would they need more tunnels to Queens?

            Should there be extra tracks at Penn Station?

            Six in the case of ARC. Seven for the Gateway option.

            Should there be any ancillary electrification on the NJT side?

            Outside of the scope of the project. ALP-45s provide an interim solution. After the hordes of new passengers appear the case for electrification becomes more compelling. And easier to phase since they will have a better idea of where the demand is.

            Should there be any new track connections, e.g. the Secaucus Loop?

            Outside of the scope of the project. It has utility without them. ARC’s documents show them being there.

            What is the service plan, both peak and off-peak? What is the proposed schedule with the new tunnels built?

            More trains? Whether that’s express trains from Long Branch or local trains from Rahway or once an hour from Harriburg that detours through North Philadelphia without stopping or from Scranton, is outside of the scope of the project. And would be out of date by the time it’s completed. Which is why they change schedules a few times a year.

            Which lines on the NJT side should run through to the LIRR (or Metro-North), if any?

            Outside of the scope. Management and their consultants take into consideration that train crews get overtime after 8 hours, cannot work more than 12 without a rest and dastardly deed indeed, produce urine while they are at work. That they like to dispose of. And do more in a work day than staff trains.

            What rolling stock does NJT plan to acquire for increased service?

            ALP-45s? and whatever cars they can scare up? Maybe they can lease the excess ones to CDOT for Penn Station Access service. Any rolling stock they select now would be hopelessly obsolete by the time they issue the request for proposals.

            • Alon Levy says:

              In the public documents, all options had the new tunnels going south of the existing tunnels, and landing the trains in the low-numbered tracks. Alt P also had a cavern that swerved north (it’s so deep it can cross under Penn), but it initially also had a track connection to the existing station, coming from the south.

              All of the things that you claim are outside the scope of the project would be critical information in other places. The benefits of the project critically depend on how many trains they’re planning to run, and it matters which lines those trains are going to be on. In Switzerland voters get sample schedules. It’s relevant to voters who are expected to fund these projects – or vote for bullies who will cancel them. Do you not think a voter in Bergen County cares whether they’re going to get a direct EMU to Manhattan, a direct diesel (i.e. slower and less reliable), or the same bupkis they get today?

              And the things you say are done deals, like the number of extra tracks at Penn, were never really studied, at least not publicly. Amtrak has never put out proposals for Gateway with and without Penn South, with differences in costs and capacity (including a service plan).

              • adirondacker12800 says:

                34th Street and Macy’s Basement is north of Penn Station.

              • eo says:

                You or whoever else can insist on studies and “more information” from now till the end of the world. It all does not matter in a world where we can hardly afford to build two simple tubes (without anything else). In a world where there is no money for Secaucus Loop, Meadowlands Yard, service to Scranton or hourly service to Harrisburg all decisions have already been made for us (and you) by our inability to finance any of these things:
                1. Alt-G is out. As in dead unless money starts growing on trees. Just damn too expensive.
                2. Tunnels are going to be on the south of the existing ones. If you do not know whether you will ever have the money for a new station (of any kind) you are better off connecting to the old one. At this point with the Hudson Yard decking already done west of 11th Ave, connecting to into the West Side Yards is not going to happen, so only game on town is Amtrak’s Box.
                3. Third pair of East River Tunnels — again, until money starts growing on trees, all necessary planning is this: they will connect to the stub 1-4 tracks (and/or Penn South).
                4. Electrification on NJT — it is NJ’s problem to fund and solve. You better assume it is not happening.
                5. Track connections in NJ — assume NJ will scrape some money for a loop — Bergen County is just too powerful. Also a loop justifies NY paying.
                6. Station at Bergenline — no way. It just won’t happen — too expensive and not invented here (there is no precedent of a station in a deep bore tunnel in the US(is there even one outside of US?)).
                7. Through running — don’t plan on it. It will not happen on a scale to make a difference even if Metro-North and NJT eventually through run a couple of trains.

                Whether people like it or not, the answers of all these questions are well known. That is not to say that the EIS should not cover them, but it will not come up with different answers: it all boils down to — build while not precluding anything else, but don’t spend any money on provisions that might never be. Indeed imagine that the EIS comes with different answers — be very scared of that case — then the EIS itself will be questioned, so unless somehow cost-benefit analyzes of any of these can be flipped by orders of magnitude, the EIS coming in favour of them will delay the project with another two decades. What I am really saying is that unless the EIS is really sure that a stop at Bergenline will generate $10B in revenue during the first year while costing $100MM, it cannot come out in favour of such a stop.

                So really the only question is whether we will build the tunnels and find the money for them or not. All other things are “bells and whistles” and we can ask for them once the constriction of the tunnels is halfway or more complete, but clouding the decision process with other unnecessary (and expensive) nice-to-have-s is not going to help get this thing built.

                • Nathanael says:

                  Alt G was actually the CHEAPEST option, last time they studied it. And they were trying to sandbag it at the time.

                  If it’s too expensive, then it’s too expensive to do anything.

                  • adirondacker12800 says:

                    No it wasn’t – midtown real estate is expensive and hasn’t gotten any cheaper. It also risks the Lexington Avenue subway.

          • AlexB says:

            Those are all important questions, but shouldn’t interfere with beginning work on the two tunnels immediately, connected to the south side of the yards where a tunnel box was recently added. No service pattern has to be planned now – they didn’t include that in the EIS for EAS. The other questions can also be addressed while the initial tunnel pair is under construction because no matter what the answers are, you still need a new pair of tunnels. All those other things will still be buildable later and there’s not much money to be saved by doing them simultaneously with the tunnels.

    • AlexB says:

      Except Alt G was not chosen, and it’s the obviously better option, so it wasn’t given its fair shake. ARC is the best project NJ Transit was capable of delivering, not the best solution for the regional transportation problem. No environmental review can address these political/jurisdictional issues.

      • adirondacker12800 says:

        Alt-G had fatal flaws. Your idea of better options may differ from other people and their idea of fatal may differ from yours. ARC was going to actually get built. Something built is much better than something planned that won’t get built.

        • Brooklynite says:

          For the record, what were those fatal flaws?

          • adirondacker12800 says:

            Depends on who you ask. The official documents say too expensive or too risky depending who reads them which way. The true believers have a different view.

            • Brooklynite says:

              It seems that this is a similar situation to the PATH-Lex connection: totally feasible and relatively inexpensive for the benefit it would bring, but bureaucratically awkward so it was not done.

              • Nathanael says:

                The last official documents which were released to the public say that Alt G was the cheapest option.

                The official reason for rejecting Alt G was anticipated difficulty negotiating with the owners of the very valuable real estate in midtown Manhattan.

                Really. That was it.

                Now, hey, maybe that is a legitimate reason to reject it, but they could have at least *talked* to those owners to find out whether the difficulty would be real or not, before rejecting it.

            • Alon Levy says:

              The official documents are not available for the public to view, despite years of FOIA requests.

              • adirondacker12800 says:

                Normal people find the stuff published adequate.

                https://web.archive.org/web/20090427092352/http://arctunnel.com/library/

                • Stephen Smith says:

                  Don’t be so snarky when you don’t know what you’re talking about. The ARC alternatives were thrown out in the major investment study, which is only provided here as a summary report (it’s the final document on the list).

                  The details that led them to throw out ARC Alt G – including the assumptions they made about operations (likely that NJT and Metro-North would not merge operations and take advantage of the new through-running infrastructure) that led them to conclude that Alt G would have dramatically lower capacity than similar projects abroad – are safely hidden in the full report, which has never been released.

                  • adirondacker12800 says:

                    No it didn’t. It very easy to claim that the super secret report that no one has ever seen says otherwise.

                  • Nathanael says:

                    The last official documents which were released to the public — the summary of the Major Investment Study — say that Alt G was the *cheapest* option, both in capital cost *and* in long-term operating cost.

                    The official reason for rejecting Alt G was anticipated difficulty negotiating with the owners of the very valuable real estate in midtown Manhattan.

                    Really. That was it. I read it, did you?

                    Now, hey, maybe that is a legitimate reason to reject it. But they could have at least *talked* to those owners to find out whether the difficulty would be real or not, before rejecting it.

                    I would have believed “The owners of 10 Park Avenue, under which we would need to build the tunnel curve, have vowed to fight us tooth and nail”… but we didn’t have any statement like that.

            • Stephen Smith says:

              The major investment study did not say it was too expensive – when they costed it all out, Alt G was found to be cheaper than what they went with (Alt P). What the major investment study summary report did say was that it had the most real estate cost risk. They also didn’t quantify they real estate risk, instead just claiming it was “high” or something.

              In retrospect, the idea that they threw it out for (in part) its real estate acquisition cost risk is absurd, given the overruns that have happened on the Grand Central cavern at East Side Access, which has a design that’s flawed in the same way as ARC Alt P would’ve been.

              • Jon says:

                What I find especially baffling about the real estate cost risk is that it assumes that the real estate acquisition is a sunk cost. It doesn’t consider that the expensive land isn’t likely to become any less expensive when it’s re-sold after construction is complete. Hell, NYC could even up-zone the land as their contribution to the project, so the real estate acquisition might even make a profit.

      • johndmuller says:

        The ghost of Alt-G gets tossed around a lot, but I don’t think that it means the same to everyone.

        The general idea – that of connecting Penn Station to Grand Central is something that should be reconsidered and hopefully executed in some fashion if it can be made doable and affordable (each being on the difficult side).

        Some of the approaches are not ideal, like the one that was the last G standing with ARC which involved connecting the ARC deep cavern under about 33rd St. to the ‘Lower Level’ of GCT (upper GCT, not ESA). Connecting anything to the upper GCT is challenging and deep caverns are probably not in fashion for this project while still in the throes of ESA.

        I can’t see an actual implementation of somthing Alt-Gish happening in any compressed time frame as there would doubtless be technical/environmental issues to work through and lots of extra money to boot. It would, however, be nice to get some agreement on the route and perhaps do some preliminary work on whatever could be designed in a short enough time frame so as not to slow down the tunnels themselves. Things like maybe needing to shift one of the #6 lines tracks need plenty of time to work out.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Where do you get that Alt G had a cavern? It didn’t; it had a connection from the existing tracks 1-5 of Penn Station to the lower level of Grand Central. Alt S had a connection from the same tracks to Sunnyside instead, via a third East River tunnel pair. Alt P, the one that was chosen, had no connection at all, but an additional cavern built under Penn Station to add more terminating tracks; during the cost overruns, the cavern was retained, but the connection from the new tunnel to tracks 1-5 was severed.

          • johndmuller says:

            So that was wrong, eh? I don’t really know where I got it from; probably from something I read on the internet – either something that was itself wrong or something I misinterpreted. duh! I guess I’m a walking demo of what I posted above, that Alt-G doesn’t mean the same to everyone. LOL.

            So it was the plan of taking the southern tracks out under 31st St. and taking a left on or about Park, similar to what has been recently talked about on several blogs, only with that new (ARC) tunnel still coming in on the North and probably not being able to connect to it?

            • Nathanael says:

              Yep.

              The official reason for rejecting Alt G was anticipated difficulty dealing with the real estate owners around Park avenue and 31st-34th street. But they didn’t actually talk to any of the real estate owners or specify any actual difficulty; they were just making it up. I would have accepted the rejection if they had a list of property owners who had sworn to cause trouble if Alt G was selected, but they didn’t.

  4. rustonite says:

    I wonder if it would be worthwhile to consider transforming the PA into something like the RATP: a state owned, privately run enterprise that operates transportation assets. The RATP primarily runs the Paris Metro and bus system, but it also takes private contracts to run transit systems in other places. That way you develop the operations expertise to run transportation assets. I would imagine creating a public benefit corp, with NJ and NY as the only shareholders, and then transfer the PA’s assets into it.

    • pete says:

      50% of the budget of a private transit operator would goto no-show consultants and lawyers “suggested” by the govs. It can’t be done in the tri state area like in other countries.

  5. AMH says:

    I found the bit about the environmental studies confusing. Fox said that NJT would lead the study, but later on the article says that they are giving Amtrak their earlier ARC studies, which sounds like all there is to it. Do they really have to repeat everything for a project that is essentially the same?

    • AlexB says:

      Environmental reviews don’t last forever. They expire after a few years. The Final Environmental Impact Statement for the 2nd Ave Subway will have to be re-done after they finish Phase 1 for example. So much of this process is nonsensical paper pushing. The better way to build these projects would be to take all the money on environmental studies and put it towards soil samples. It’s crazy the law requires us to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars studying the adverse impact of traffic created by a transit project but not on extensive soil samples and probes that would likely make a tunneling project more predictable and help control costs.

      • Ken says:

        A new environmental review sounds like a waste of resources. What is the shelve life of an environmental review, even if a new similar project has been proposed? It is hard to believe that an environmental review completed ten years ago would be less that 80% current now, especially in an area that has not seen any real environmental change in the last ten years. This sounds more like an full employment contract for the consultants and government entities that would complete the review. Was a environmental review required when the tunnels were originally built? Without the review, the tunnels have provided critical resources for over 100 years.

        • Spuds says:

          If either the regs or laws have changed in the interim then they essentially have to start from scratch outside of being a footnote.

  6. rex says:

    And to support the position that the PA shouldn’t run anything, the Bayonne Bridge deck raising project is going to run two years later than expected, because it was a bad winter

  7. Brandon says:

    Nothing about the waste of money, perpetuation of agency siloing, and obsolete operating practices that is “Penn Station South”?

  8. Ken says:

    To limit costs and increase timeliness, open a contest to see who can come up with the cheapest, best way to build the infrastructure. Pass a law that approves this outcome. Set up a process to bypass or limit government regulations and labor laws. Let the team that wins the contest run the contract at the approved cost. Set up a payment schedule based on work completed. If work is not completed, let the government take over with no penalty. Based on efforts after crisis situations, things can get done quickly under estimated cost. The current ways to build infrastructure are not working. There must be entities that would do the work better, faster, and cheaper.

    • Alon Levy says:

      To limit costs and increase timeliness, open a contest to see who can come up with the cheapest, best way to build the infrastructure. Pass a law that approves this outcome.

      This is already the law: in New York State, contracts must go to the lowest bidder.

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