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.