Archive for ARC Tunnel
In addition to increased cross-Hudson capacity, one of the primary benefits New Jersey commuters would have derived from the ARC Tunnel concerned travel speeds. As New Jersey Transit, its equipment and its lone Hudson river crossing are configured, riders along the Raritan Valley and North Jersey Coast Lines do not enjoy one-seat rides into New York City. Through a combination of equipment upgrades and capacity increases, commute times would have dropped and property values would have increased.
With ARC off the table and its replacement years or even decades away, New Jersey Transit officials are trying to deliver on that one-seat promise without a new tunnel. Earlier this week, NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein pledged that he would work to make the one-seat ride a reality along the Raritan Valley and North Jersey Coast Lines. Larry Higgs from the Asbury Park Press offers up a little bit more:
In both cases, NJ Transit officials will go forward with equipment purchases that were part of the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel project, canceled by Gov. Chris Christie in October over concerns about cost overruns the state would have had to absorb. “One of the issues is acquisition of more bilevels,” Weinstein said. “There are 100 on order and we’ll go forward with that.”
The first of 36 dual-mode electric and diesel-powered locomotives, which will be essential to providing one-seat ride service on rail lines now served by diesel locomotives, is scheduled to be delivered to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s testing facility in Colorado, Weinstein said.
“I don’t think anything precludes a one-seat ride,” he said. “We’re going forward with the dual-mode locomotives. There are issues we have to work out at some point to provide a one-seat ride.”
Beyond Higgs’ story, news reports don’t add much to this revelation, and I’m curious as to where it will go from here. The main problem is that the Hudson River tunnels cannot handle increased traffic, and if New Jersey Transit is promising new one-seat rides along certain routes, it will likely have to take away some river crossings from other routes. That’s not going to be too popular among commuters.
Meanwhile, an alternative to Amtrak’s Gateway alternative is making the rounds. As Higgs also reported earlier this week, New Jersey rail advocates have proposed yet another plan to build a tunnel. He reports:
The plan, outlined by Joseph Clift, a member of the Regional Rail Working Group and a past Long Island Railroad planning director, would put off building some of the more potentially expensive parts of the Gateway project to a second phase. As a first phase, the group proposed building a new two-tube tunnel, a new bridge next to the existing Portal Bridge and a second set of tracks on the Northeast Corridor line from Kearny to the Hudson River to relieve bottlenecks.
Gateway’s plans to build a “Penn Station South,” consisting of seven tracks and four platforms under Manhattan’s 31st Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, would be deferred to a second phase under the group’s plan. That phase would include Gateway’s proposal to construct two new sets of tracks between the Passaic River and west of Secaucus Junction, a second set of platforms at that station and some new bridges.
“It is a much more accomplishable project,” Clift said. “You would have a project that is more affordable (to start) because all the Manhattan property cost (for Penn Station South) goes away.”
Funding would come from a variety of sources. New Jersey would reapply for the $3 billion in federal funds it sacrificed when Gov. Chris Christie canceled ARC while the Port Authority would contribute its billions as well. New Jersey and Amtrak would contribute money as well.
With all this talk though of replacement plans and one-seat rides, I have to wonder if too many cooks are stirring the cross-Hudson soup. New York is working on formulating a plan for the 7 line extension with New Jersey while Amtrak is requesting $50 million to start planning on NEPA work on their Gateway Tunnel. This third proposal throws yet another variable in the mix and could garner support from state officials in New Jersey. At some point, the region will need a concerted, unified and funded effort if cross-Hudson rail expansion is to be realized any time soon.
Editor’s Note: With the announcement that Amtrak would seek funding for a proposed Gateway Tunnel from New Jersey to New York City, one-time Second Ave. Sagas guest writer Jeremy Steinemann started a new blog called Gateway Gab. He’s going to track the progress of the Gateway Tunnel there, and he is allowing me to post some of his analysis here as well.
Yesterday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie viewed the Gateway announcement as a vindication of his decision to cancel ARC, but as Steinemann explains in the post below, Christie is off base. From the cost comparisons to the benefits to his state’s commuters, Christie and his criticisms shouldn’t enjoy a moment in the sun, and although Gateway would help alleviate the congestion into and out of New York City, it doesn’t have the same impact for commuters as ARC would have. What follows is Steinemann’s analysis.
As part of yesterday’s announcement of the proposed Amtrak Gateway Tunnel, Senator Frank Lautenberg’s (NJ-D) office has released a comparison of the three trans-hudson tunnel projects: Gateway, the now-defunct ARC tunnel, and the 7 train to Secaucus. This nifty chart is available at Lautenberg’s website, but take a look:
If anything, the chart is a testament to just how beneficial the ARC Tunnel promised to be, noting, for example, that ARC promised to connect commuters to the subway lines at Herald Square. The biggest difference between the two projects, however, are the compromises that Gateway requires of NJ Transit. For passengers on trains from Bergen, Passaic, Rockland and Orange Counties on the Main-Bergen and Pascack Valley lines, Gateway will not provide the long-promised, one-seat ride to Manhattan (at least not at first).
Furthermore, NJ Transit will have to coordinate operating control of the new tunnels. The current tunnels — technically known as the North River Tunnels — are controlled solely by Amtrak, whose trains take precedence over NJ Transit — wreaking havoc on the commuting schedule when an inter-city train is delayed. In contrast, ARC promised a set of tunnels operated solely by NJ Transit. The details of the Gateway operating arrangement are not clear, but improvements over the current arrangement are essential. Finally, as I noted yesterday, Gateway increases NJ Transit’s peak train capacity by only 13 additional trains, as opposed to ARC’s 24 additional trains.
The Gateway project, however, also includes a grab-bag of brand new items. Whereas ARC mentioned it as a possible future project, new access for Metro North at Penn Station is a full component of Gateway. In fact, a presentation on Lautenberg’s site promises capacity for six hourly trains on Metro North’s New Haven and Hudson Lines. The Harlem Line would not have access to the station.
In addition, Gateway’s new Penn Station South adds four new platforms serving seven tracks underground between 30th and 31st streets from 7th Ave. to just west of 8th Ave. Finally, Amtrak’s proposal also suggests extending the 7 train not westward but eastward from its future terminus at 34th St. and 10th Ave to Penn Station. It seems the cost of this extension is not factored into Gateway’s estimated price.
A critical benefit of Gateway, that is not being widely touted, is the system redundancy that the connectivity to Penn Station provides. The ARC tunnels were to be completely separate from the existing Penn tubes. If, for some reason, a train dies in one tunnel, as happens frequently now, the Gateway tunnels will provide a back-up. Due to the complicated nature of the train platforms underneath Moynihan station, however, it seems impossible for NJ Transit and Amtrak to utilize three of the four tunnels for peak-directional flow as the LIRR currently permits in its four tunnels under the East River.
The price comparisons between Gateway and ARC, reported at $13.5 billion and $10 billion respectively, are also misleading. The Gateway Tunnel also includes the Portal Bridge Replacement project, which ARC critics demanded should have been considered part of ARC’s total cost. Like ARC and the Portal Bridge projects, Gateway will double the right-of-way from Newark Penn Station to New York Penn Station from two to four tracks. Any changes to the connection between the Northeast Corridor and NJT’s Morris & Essex and Montclair Lines (located just west of the Portal Bridge) remain unclear at this time.
To view the full PDF presentation on Gateway, click here.
Since Gov. Chris Christie first announced plans to put a hold on and then cancel the ARC Tunnel, New Jersey’s Democratic Senate delegation has been at odds with the state’s Republican executive. Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez have criticized Christie for sacrificing $3 billion in federal funding as well as the opportunity to expand rail access to New York City. Today, the two Senators have announced a plan to achieve greater cross-Hudson rail capacity while working with Amtrak and bypassing Christie’s control entirely.
Enter the Gateway Tunnel. This tunnel that Amtrak believes will take ten years to construct could be another answer to rail crisis the ARC Tunnel had been designed to address. It is similar to ARC’s Alt G plan and modeled on numerous Amtrak studies. Based on numerous reports, it may cost anywhere from $10-$13.5 billion, and once or if completed, it will allow 21 more trains per hour — 13 New Jersey Transit trips and eight Amtrak trains — into New York. The dearly departed ARC Tunnel would have allowed 25 more New Jersey Transit trains into the dead-end deep cavern underneath 34th St.
While the Gateway Tunnel expansion would allow fewer trains into the city, the new proposal addresses the biggest concerns ARC supporters — and opponents — had with the previous project. As Jim O’Grady for Transportation Nation and WNYC has reports, “Whereas ARC was supposed to terminate at platforms under Macy’s, a block east of Penn Station, Gateway would end a block to the south, nearer to street level. The block—West 30th and West 31st Streets between 7th and 8th Avenues—now mostly holds small businesses like restaurants, bars and a repair shop for musical instruments.” Metro-North too would be able to service the new Penn Station South. (For more from today’s unveiling of the Gateway Tunnel, check out this pdf.)
O’Grady had more on the early plans and the hopes that the Gateway Tunnel could usher in high-speed rail in the area as well. He writes:
A staff member for an elected official familiar with the project said Amtrak, which is taking the lead on the tunnel, would have to assemble properties on the Manhattan block to make it feasible. He said on the New Jersey side, Gateway would use a hole that construction crews had already started digging for the ARC Tunnel at Tonnelle Avenue near Secaucus…
An important part of the work would be to raise the Portal Bridge, a notorious bottleneck between Kearny and Secaucus over the Hackensack River. Trains must now slow to cross the 100 year-old bridge, or stop altogether while it is moved to let boats to pass by. A modernized bridge, along with a new tunnel’s added capacity, would speed up Amtrak’s service along the Northeast Corridor and help set the stage for future high-speed rail, should it ever arrive.
Meanwhile, Mike Frassinelli of The Star Ledger, who broke the story late last night, reports on how the Gateway Tunnel may conflict with New York City’s plan to send 7 train to New Jersey. The Senators and Amtrak are putting forward this proposal as an alternative to Bloomberg’s subway-based idea, and the federal officials hope to send the 7 not across the Hudson but to Penn Station. He writes:
Some transportation officials think the Gateway plan makes more sense than expanding the No. 7 subway line from New York City to Secaucus Junction, an idea floated over the last three months by the staff of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Under Amtrak’s best-case scenario, the No. 7 line would also be extended to Penn Station, between 31st and 33rd streets, two blocks west of the Empire State Building.
During the afternoon press conference announcing this tunnel, current Amtrak board member and former Port Authority head Anthony Coscia denied a conflict with the 7 extension. “Regardless of whether the 7 extension happens, in order for there to be high-speed rail in the Northeast corridor, Amtrak would still need to build this project,” he said.
According to Frassinelli, Lautenberg, the more vocal critic of Christie’s politicized move to block the ARC Tunnel, has been working with Amtrak since the fall. “New Jersey is facing a transportation crisis,” he said. “Our commuters are fed up with train delays that make them late to work and endless traffic that traps them on our highways when they want to be home with their families. When the ARC tunnel was canceled, it was clear to me that we couldn’t just throw up our hands and wait years to find another solution.”
By turning away from state-based solutions and relying instead upon a federal rail provider who would ideally use a mix of infrastructure dollars and private investment for this project, Lautenberg can effectively cut Christie out from the bulk of the decision-making. Although New Jersey and New York will likely be asked to add some money to the pot via New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority, if Amtrak takes the lead, it — and not New Jersey’s reticent governor — will be in charge of securing the finances and arranging construction.
Right now, as O’Grady notes, the parties have yet to figure out financing and haven’t set construction plans. Amtrak is requesting $50 million this week for an engineering study and hopes to rely on work previously completed for ARC. Even as questions remain, though, rail proponents who have recognized the cross-Hudson congestion are thrilled that Gateway is on the table even if it is ten years away.
“This is not ARC,” Martin Robins, director of Rutgers’ Voorhes Transportation Center, said to The Star-Ledger. “In some respects, it is a lesser project. But it is still a very significant project. There will be benefits that will reverberate throughout New Jersey. This can be a wonderful alternative.”
While speaking at a House Committee hearing on transportation and infrastructure last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned of an impending crisis in the northeast. “The Northeast is approaching a transportation crisis,” the mayor said. “Our airports are among the most clogged, our highways are among the most congested, and our train corridor is the most heavily used in the country. And all of that is just going to get worse, as the region’s population is expected to grow by 40% by 2050.”
On the heels of that committee meeting, the Regional Plan Association issued a report on the state of our airports. The tale they tell is not a new one; we’ve known for years that the metropolitan area’s three major airports are well above capacity. Yet, the numbers they throw out — a need for an additional 78 peak-hour flights per day — are staggering. The need to expand is one that could have dire economic consequences.
“The crucial link between air travel and economic prosperity is threatened by a lack of adequate capacity in our aviation system. We need to start planning now for future growth,” Robert Yaro, president of the RPA, said. “The cost of building airport capacity, while significant, must be weighed against the even greater toll on the region’s economy if we do nothing.”
Enter Stewart Airport. Located just 60 miles outside of Manhattan, Stewart has been the go-to airport for saving the region from air congestion for as long as I can remember, and the plans to use it have never made much sense. In 2007, the MTA announced a study to explore a rail link between Manhattan and Stewart. For $600 million, the authority would have provided a 90-minute ride to the tiny airport, and I long believed this to be a waste of money. Stewart is just too far away and adds too much time to a trip to be as popular as it must be to alleviate the pressure at Laguardia, JFK and Newark.
As ARC hit the ground running, though, it seemed as though Stewart would be eligible for a rail link via the new tunnel, but now that ARC is dead, so too seems Stewart Airport’s future. The RPA study doesn’t believe Stewart is a viable fourth airport, and they believe the Port Authority is overplaying the importance of its upstate property which is on pace to draw only 400,000 passengers this year. Patrick McGeehan of The Times has more:
Jeffrey M. Zupan, an analyst with the Regional Plan Association who led the study, said he forecast that Stewart would draw only about half the traffic the Port Authority hoped for. By the time the four airports controlled by the Port Authority are drawing 150 million passengers a year, only about 3.5 million of them, or just over 2 percent, will be using Stewart, Mr. Zupan said….
The best prospect for luring travelers from the city and close-in suburbs to Stewart is an express train, Mr. Zupan said. But elected officials, most notably New York’s senior senator, Charles E. Schumer, had pinned hopes on running trains from Midtown Manhattan through a new tunnel under the Hudson River and up the west side of the Hudson.
Now that New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, has scrapped the plan for that rail tunnel, the idea of direct trains to Stewart appears to be fading. Senator Schumer said, however, that a rail link to Stewart was still more feasible than some of the ideas for airport expansion laid out in the study last week, like filling in part of Jamaica Bay to add a runway at Kennedy.
“Stewart will still be a needed airport, but without the rail link, the chance of its really alleviating the overcrowding at the other airports is minimal,” Mr. Schumer said in an interview. “It will be a secondary airport — important but secondary.”
Ultimately, the airport issue is part of a wider problem. New York needs better access. Uniquely situated on an island, the city’s central business district is choked by a lack of expansion. We haven’t added roads, rails or airport capacity to the area in decades, and the economy will begin to suffer as congestion and delays worsen. Stewart won’t be and never was the answer, but something will have to give.
When Gov. Chris Christie canceled the ARC Tunnel in the fall, transit advocates from around the region were exasperated. Although the project had its design flaws on the Manhattan side, 20 years of planning and lobbying were flushed down the toilet by one stroke of the Governor’s pen. Furthermore, the region needs improved cross-Hudson rail access and simply cannot afford to wait another two decades to see shovels hit the ground.
Luckily, the major players involved in the region’s transportation policy seem to recognize the importance of cross-Hudson crossings. In a talk last week, Anthony Coscia, the chairman of the commissions of the Port Authority, spoke with financiers and construction magnates on the need to build. Transportation Nation was there and offered up a transcript. Coscia spoke a length about the need to reform pricing and the cost of building as well as the funding mechanisms. He pushed for more private sector investment opportunities as well.
The part that caught my attention was his bit on the ARC Tunnel. I’ll quote at length:
The Port Authority’s role was as a financing partner in the project. We did have certain responsibilities in terms of acquiring real estate on the New York side, but that was more a legal function of our ability to acquire land in the state of New York, which New Jersey Transit didn’t have. Our real role was: we were a $3 billion partner in the project. The reason we were a $3 billion partner in the project is that our mission is to move people between New York and New Jersey. We’re of the view that building another lane in the Lincoln Tunnel isn’t really going to solve that problem, even if we could do it, which we can’t. Mass transit or intercity rail was our way of addressing that problem.
I have to say that—since finance is really where my professional activities have been—I’ve never gone through an episode where I raised $3 billion dollars and it hasn’t been used. That’s never happened. But then it happened. We did raise $3 billion for the project, but I think [Governor Christie], for a lot of reasons that are fundamental of the time we’re in right now, was not comfortable going ahead with the project.
We are still looking for solutions to trans-Hudson commuting, and those solutions will come in some form. I also serve on the Board of Amtrak and I know that Amtrak has remained pretty dedicated to finding a solution to that issue as well, because the Northeast corridor is very dependent upon it.
We have the $3 billion and we are reinvesting it in other projects that hopefully will add to the region’s transportation strength. In terms of “will a new tunnel be built?” I think the answer to that is yes, but it will be in a configuration, of a financial model, that will be acceptable to a broad variety of stakeholders, and that’s still a work in progress.
It’s interesting here to see Coscia talk directly about the funding. Christie has long maintained that New York was not a solid funding partner, but due to its contributions to the Port Authority, a good deal of money came from New York. It wasn’t as a big a contribution as New Jersey’s portion, but considering which state’s residents stand to benefit more, it was arguably a fair allocation of dollars.
Meanwhile, it’s comforting to hear that the Port Authority is still working toward an ARC-like solution. Unfortunately, it sounds as though concrete plans are still a few years off, but hopefully, with a groundswell of support and an obvious need, the region can find something to build before the decade is out. We can’t afford to wait much longer.
We join this episode of As The ARC Turns already in the progress…
When last we heard from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, he had recently announced a plan to borrow billions after quashing ARC over concerns over cost overruns. The federal government had asked Christie to return $271 million in New Starts funding, but Christie balked at the request. Today, he fired back in a big way.
“We are not paying the money back,” the New Jersey Governor said on Ask the Governor yesterday, and today, the state’s lawyers made that position official. In a 55-page filing, embedded at the end of this post, New Jersey insists that it both cannot afford to pay back the $271 million and is not legally required to do so.
Jim O’Grady from WNYC has more:
Tuesday’s submission to the FTA, filed by Washington, D.C., law firm Patton Boggs, argues no repayment is required because the project was cancelled for reasons beyond the governor’s control — or more precisely, of New Jersey Transit’s, which was overseeing the project. It was the project’s estimated over-runs in a time of “severe financial stress” for New Jersey that made shutting down the project unavoidable, the filing argues.
The filing further claims the FTA is only authorized to ask for money classified as New Starts funds and that $225.5 million of the $271 million doesn’t fit that description. “The FTA overstates the funds that are even at issue and makes a demand for repayment that is far broader than authorized by statute,” read a statement accompanying the filing.
Christie is also claiming that preliminary engineering for the ARC tunnel is proving useful to the study of other projects, such as the proposed extension of the No. 7 subway line from Manhattan to New Jersey and upgrades to Amtrak service in the Northeast Corridor.
Ultimately, the submission says that New Jersey is not in a fiscal position to remit the money, even if it will get half of it back. “Repaying any amount would be deeply counterproductive and harmful to the citizens and taxpayers of NJ,” it states. “The work produced with these funds has enduring value to future projects. Moreover, compelling NJT to repay these funds will force NJT to cancel projects it can afford to undertake to reduce congestion, enhance the condition of critical infrastructure and create needed jobs.”
The FTA has yet to comment.
Meanwhile, Christie let slip this week that he has had talks with the Bloomberg Administration over the mayor’s plan to send the 7 to Secaucus. He didn’t say much, but his words offer up a tantalizing glimpse at a project I still think is a pie-in-the-sky fantasy.
“We’re having conversations with Mayor Bloomberg and others regarding the extension of the No. 7 train to Secaucus, New Jersey, which would do what we really wanted the ARC tunnel to do originally,” the governor said. “We’d like to get [commuters] in a more efficient way over to the East Side of Manhattan,” he said. “That was the original ARC plan. It got morphed into this plan that has a multibillion-dollar terminal in the basement of Macy’s, blocks away from any other connecting train.”
After the jump, read New Jersey’s filings with the FTA. Read More→
Charles Schumer, my neighbor and the senior senator from the great state of New York, took to the stage this morning at Crain’s breakfast forum. His topic concerned the city’s aging public transportation infrastructure and the need to expand the system within the city’s five boroughs and improve interconnectedness outside of it. I’ll tackle what he did and didn’t say about the MTA later, but for now, let’s look at Schumer’s choice words for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
As the Senator touted New York’s investment in rail, he spoke at length about the East Side Access project, the Second Ave. Subway and the 7 line extension. These three efforts are the MTA’s key capital projects and are all supported by federal dollars to one extent or another. New Jersey though has earned Schumer’s ire.
To open his talk on Christie, Schumer did not mince words. “Though I am extremely sympathetic to the fiscal problems Governor Christie clearly faces and I recognize there are not easy choices to make,” he said, “I believe pulling the plug on ARC was a terrible, terrible decision.”
Schumer touting the ARC Tunnel job creation numbers and the “starkly evident” traffic mitigation impact the tunnel would have had. He spoke of the RPA study that showed how ARC would raise property values throughout New Jersey and how we must improve connections westward as well as eastward.
Yet, his strongest words were reserved for Christie’s current political machinations. The New Jersey governor is making a play to grab the ARC money to help cover his state’s budget gap, and Schumer fears for the future. I’ll quote at length:
Governor Christie, faced with very real and very difficult budget decisions, has turned to the Port Authority, and the money that was originally dedicated to the ARC project. While I would certainly support using the funding the Port Authority had committed to ARC to extend the 7 train to New Jersey, I do not think it is appropriate to use Port Authority funds for what are essentially maintenance projects.
Governor Christie’s proposed idea that $1.8 billion of what was originally committed by the Port Authority for the ARC for other projects is to compound one mistake with another, perhaps even a greater one. These are smaller projects aimed at maintaining existing roadways that would otherwise be funded with New Jersey transportation dollars. In essence, the Governor wants the Port Authority to help fill his budget gap…Asking the Port Authority to take capital funds and redirect them on this scale, a scale never before contemplated, would be a mistake that rivals, and perhaps even surpasses the cancellation of the ARC tunnel as a risk to our region’s future.
It could well begin the cannibalization of Port Authority dollars and could mark the beginning of the end of the long-term ability of our region to respond to its major transportation needs. The Port Authority as an agency has always been committed to the long-term, the future, to building out the infrastructure of the region so that we can accommodate future growth. While it is a creature of politics, and certainly not immune to them, it has also managed to retain over its history an independence that has served the entire region. Because it has dedicated revenue stream, the Port Authority has been able to plan and complete projects, regardless of the momentary crises that the states themselves have sometimes faced. We cannot allow the agency to be cannibalized in order to solve short term budget problems, however acute. Following New Jersey’s lead, New York could well request the Port Authority to provide dollars for similar repairs, like fixing the Belt Parkway. And were this to become the norm, then where would be? If we allow the Port Authority to be turned into a rainy day fund, used year to year to fill gaps, or if we allow it to become a bank of last resort to make up for shortfalls, it’s the end of the agency as we know it, and of its ability to fulfill its function, which is to support the future economic growth of the region.
Christie, through a spokesman, fired back later this afternoon. “Where was the senior senator from New York with funding alternatives to a project that was predicted to run billions over projections – all of which were to be borne by New Jersey and its taxpayers?” Michael Drewniak said. “This was a ‘bi-state’ project for which Senator Schumer’s state and the federal government were set to pay zero, zilch, nothing for the cost overruns. We can live with the criticism while protecting taxpayers from this boondoggle, which was simply a bad deal for New Jersey.”
Of course, Christie never tried to work out a funding agreement on cost overruns with New York, the feds or anyone. He simply pulled the plug and tried to keep the federal dollars. He’s shown no willingness to respond to Mayor Bloomberg’s pie-in-the-sky proposal to extend the 7 line to Seacaucus and now wants to use dedicated ARC dollars to cover the Transportation Trust Fund’s sinking budget.
Ultimately, New York and New Jersey will have to work together to address these cross-Hudson concerns. New York, through the Port Authority, was footing some of the ARC costs, but the state will likely need to come up with more to make a project work. Yet, Christie should not be playing fast and loose with the Port Authority money. As Schumer said, “There are too many important current projects on the Port Authority’s plate…for us to allow it to be diverted from its core mission. Nothing less than the future of the agency and the future of our region are at stake.”
When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie killed the ARC Tunnel project last fall, he did so because the project would probably have gone overbudget by anywhere between $1-$5 billion. It wasn’t responsible for the state to borrow that much to pay for a rail connection, he said. Well, last week, Christie said he would pay for road, rail and bridge upgrades throughout his state by borrowing $4.4 billion and foisting the rest on the Port Authority.
If this plan comes to fruition, it would divert some turnpike toll money into the state’s depleted Transportation Trust Fund and the Port Authority would pick up the slack. To gain New York’s Port Authority approval, the PA would also spend some of its dollars on similar projects in New York. It is, said The Star-Ledger, a clear money grab designed to keep the state’s gas tax at its low level, and it’s a move that reeks of the same financial irresponsibility that Christie has railed against for months. It also elevates road-building over the need for new cross-Hudson rail connections.
NJ Senator Frank Lautenberg did not have kind words for Christie. “The Governor’s transportation plan is short on details, but it made one thing very clear. The plan is more proof that the Governor killed the critically-needed new tunnel to Manhattan so he could use its funding as part of a fix for his political problems. Transportation is the economic lifeblood of our state – the most densely populated in the country – and Governor Christie’s policies are undermining years of planning and hard work to keep New Jersey on the move,” he said. “During Governor Christie’s campaign for office, he said borrowing to finance the Transportation Trust Fund is ‘unconscionable.’ Why is it now acceptable? All he is doing is piling more debt on the state.”
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.
When last we heard from the various parties involved in a dispute over the ARC Tunnel funding, the federal government had leaked word that Gov. Chris Christie knew he would have to return the federal money, and Christie was still going forward with plans to challenge the refund request. In an effort to reach an amicable solution with the great state of New Jersey, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has promised to give New Jersey back around half of the $271 million it owes as long as it returns the money first.
There’s a catch though: Sen. Frank Lautenberg arranged this offer with the FTA, and Lautenberg and Christie are, on no uncertain terms, bitter enemies. Thus, while LaHood has extended the offer only to the state’s Senators so far, Christie hadn’t committed to it until he personally has his offer in hand. By the weekend, he had changed his tune. “The offer was a nice start,” he said.
The letter, obtained by NorthJersey.com and available here as a PDF, explains why the feds need the money back. Essentially, the Early Systems Work Agreement is a contract, and the money can go toward only the project under consideration. The state will have to return the money to the feds, and the feds will grant it back to the state under less onerous terms.
In his letter, LaHood dispelled many of Christie’s claims concerning the enforcement of the contractual ESWA refund provisions. He wrote:
In the history of the FTA’s New Starts program, there have only been five Early Systems Work Agreements (ESWAs) executed for projects like ARC. The New Jersey Transit ARC project is the first, and only one, of those five projects in which the sponsor abandoned the project after receiving an ESWA. All projects under the earlier ESWAs have been completed or are well along in construction. Specifically, the Seattle “LINK” light rail, the New Orleans Canal streetcar, and the Salt Lake City-Weber commuter rail project are in operation. The New York City Second Avenue Subway, Phase One, is now under construction.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is required by Federal statute, 49 U.S.C. § 5309(g)(3)(B)(iv), to obtain repayment of Federal financial assistance expended under the ARC ESWA. Governor Christie was informed by the U.S. Department of Transportation officials that if the state of New Jersey failed to live up to its final commitments to the ARC project, as spelled out n the ESWA, New Jersey would have to repay the Federal funds awarded under the ESWA.
The FTA is being fair and equitable in its treatment of New Jersey (NJ) Transit. The FTA is not seeking repayment from NJ Transit of funds expended for Alternative Analysis, Preliminary Engineering, and environmental analysis totaling more than $22 million. The FTA is seeking repayment only of the funds expended under the ESWA.
However, should NJ Tranist fulfill its obligations under the law and repay the $271 million, DOT will transfer $128 million back into the State of New Jersey’s Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ) account to replenish the CMAQ funds originally expended in this project for future use for other eligible projects.
And so the stage is set. The federal government has made it clear what Christie’s and New Jersey’s obligations are under the governing law, and the FTA has made a more than generous offer to a state that is effectively trying to hold it hostage. Christie should accept the grant, and the state should begin new efforts to identify a solution to its trans-Hudson rail travel woes.