Proponents of the Gateway Program split a double-header on Feb. 10, 2020, when the Federal Transit Administration released its ratings for projects for which grant applications were filed through the New Starts, Small Starts and Core Capacity Improvement Programs.
The Hudson Tunnel Project, which would build two new tubes between New Jersey and Manhattan on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) line adjacent to the two existing 110-year-old tubes, again received an FTA failing grade of “Medium-Low,” primarily due to an insufficient local funding commitment.
The result for the Portal North Bridge Project, the object of which is to increase capacity by at least 10% by replacing the existing 110-year-old two-track moveable span with a fixed two-track span, won this round with a passing grade of “Medium-High.”
Read broadly as an indication of actual capacity enhancement, the Portal North rating made little sense, but it could be explained by reading it narrowly as a decision that studied individual trees while missing the forest. Still, with one victory and one defeat for Gateway proponents, the future of the entire program—which now may be impacted by a possible doubling of the federal deficit from COVID-19 virus-driven financial stimulus packages to try and stave off a major recession—may be murkier than ever. As well, DOT Secretary Elaine Chao appears to have made a firm decision that the existing Hudson River tunnels should be repaired before new ones are built (Part 9, “Chao Calls for Expedited Hudson Tunnels Repair. Could USDOT Be Listening to Us?”).
Again this year (FY2021), the multi-billion-dollar Hudson Tunnel Project flunked. That project received a rating of Medium-High (B) for Project Justification, but a rating of Low (F) on the Local Funding Commitment side. If funding decisions by the feds were based solely on politics, the latest pair of decisions would be shocking. Politics on both sides of the Hudson River have turned deep blue, as Democrats captured most of New Jersey’s Congressional seats in 2018, along with some on the New York side. Max Rose of Staten Island, one of the new Democrats in the House from a historically Republican stronghold, joined his New Jersey colleagues in campaigning for new tunnels as soon as they can be built, blaming the Trump Administration for engaging in partisan politics while the situation becomes more dangerous, at least in their view and that of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Despite their pleas, project planners failed to commit enough local dollars to the funding effort. An FTA spokesperson was quoted as saying: “The Hudson Tunnel project received a Medium-Low rating because the proposed project assumes unprecedented and unrealistic amounts of taxpayer funding, and leaves unspecified the sources of funding to repay three of the four USDOT Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) loans assumed in the financial plan.” So, the funding improvements Gateway proponents added to the present application were not enough, and like many “locals” who root for the Mets, they will again have to wait until next year.
The ensuing year will have the flavor of a cliff-hanger, as, prior to Secretary Chao’s pronouncements, Gateway Vice Chair and Amtrak Chair Anthony R. Coscia expressed doubt that the existing tunnels will last long enough to meet his planned schedule of completing new tunnels before starting to repair the ones that are now in service (Article 8 in this series, December 30, 2019). As of now, that will require at least ten years.
Advocates for repairing the existing tunnels first suggest adopting the method currently being used to rehabilitate the Canarsie Tunnels between 14th Street in Manhattan and Brooklyn on the New York City Transit Canarsie “L” Line. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called in a group of engineers from the Columbia and Cornell University engineering faculties who suggested covering the tunnel bench walls with a state-of-the-art fiber-reinforced polymer material for protection, abandoning the cables inside, and hanging new cables on racks mounted on the tunnel wall. It appears that the construction in the Canarsie Tunnels is going well, and it should be completed in April.
As recently as Feb. 10, the Daily News again called for this repair method in an editorial: “The Federal Railroad Administration has justifiably refused to give the environmental go-ahead to the proposed $11 billion Gateway tunnel in part because Amtrak has yet to thoroughly evaluate the far cheaper, faster and smarter alternative to repair the tubes using the proven cable racking method that is successfully fixing the Sandy-flooded L train tubes … The law requires the government to use the least environmentally disruptive option. That is racking, which would let one of two existing tubes stay operational on weekends while the other gets fixed … The pols’ way would hold off repairs for a decade or more, on the theory that the old tunnel can’t get upgraded until a new one opens. That makes no sense.”
The Daily News is not alone. On several occasions, this writer has called for a similar evaluation of the existing North River Tunnels by the same Columbia-Cornell team, to determine if they can be repaired using a similar method. The consultants are qualified engineers who do not owe their careers to the major firms who constantly push huge projects with equally huge price tags, and they would know how to repair tunnels. Politicians, who often add more heat than light to the discussion, generally do not.
The good news for Gateway supporters is that the Portal North Bridge Project has received a passing grade, at least for now. The FTA reversed its earlier “Medium-Low” rating and bumped the grade up to “Medium-High,” a passing score.
Before we look at the background behind that change, there is a new issue that these contrasting ratings have raised. While Gateway proponents have always touted Gateway in general as an integrated “program” or series of projects (Part 2 in this series, April 20, 2019), the recent ratings have demonstrated otherwise. In reality, the various Gateway projects are far from an integrated “whole” and are actually separate and distinct from one another.
The Hudson Tunnel project was evaluated as a stand-alone and failed to meet FTA funding standards. The Portal North Bridge project was also evaluated that way, and passed this time. Other Gateway components, such as the proposed Penn South Station and Portal South Bridge, have not yet entered the grant application process. When they do, they will also be rated independently. The recent confirmation that the projects are actually independent for evaluation purposes may adversely affect the credibility of Gateway supporters when they claim that the program should be treated as a single, unified entity.
What changed with Portal North that caused the FTA to upgrade its rating? There was an improvement in funding commitment on the local side, but that would not have been enough by itself. The “project justification” side had flunked for several years, because it would not have increased capacity by the required 10%. That did not change substantively this year either, but the fortuity of independent events outside the purview of the project gave New Jersey Transit (NJT), the project’s lead agency, an issue upon which it could hang its hat when claiming that merely replacing a two-track bridge with another two-track bridge would increase capacity by 10% or more.
Those fortuitous events for NJT are a severe shortage of engineers to run the trains, along with delays in complying with requirements to install Positive Train Control (PTC). Preparing equipment for PTC operation made it necessary to take some equipment out of service and take trains off the schedule in 2018, and purportedly until early last year. An additional year has passed; none of the trains at issue on several lines have returned to the schedule, and there is still no end in sight. As part of these service cuts, NJT reduced the number of seats on trains going to Penn Station New York during the busiest hour of the morning peak-commuting period, the official measure for evaluating capacity.
Because the number of seats was artificially low when they were counted in October 2018, the amount of available capacity six years from now (anticipated completion date for the proposed new bridge) is artificially high in comparison with 2018 ridership. In comparison with 2015 through 2017 ridership, the purported increase would continue to flunk the FTA’s 10% test. NJT’s announced intention to return one specific train to the schedule (Train 3122, which used to leave New Brunswick at 7:10 on weekday mornings for New York) and replace single-level cars on all morning-peak trains with multi-level cars with more seats did not seem to matter to the FTA. The Feds looked only at the schedule NJT was running in October 2018, not the schedule that NJT should have been running or had promised would soon run again.
Every year, in the middle of October, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC) compiles actual ridership counts on NJT, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road in its Hub Bound Report, the source for the following year’s ridership and capacity calculations. It is a snapshot of all ridership into New York City on a specific day. Looking forward, NJT plans to add more capacity by restoring Train 3122 to the schedule, changing all consists from single-level cars to multi-level cars with more seats, and lengthening consists where they can. Those moves would certainly add capacity, but they have nothing to do with the bridge over which the trains roll on their way to the City.
NJT has made it clear that it intends to increase capacity over the next several years with higher-capacity cars. Nobody is seriously disputing that the agency should do that, because commuters need seats. That plan to enhance capacity can be analogized to the story line in a motion picture, as it develops during the length of that picture. However, in this instance, it does not appear that the FTA sat in a screening room and viewed that motion picture, so to speak. Instead, it looked at a single frame from October 2018 and an artistic rendering of NJT’s claimed capacity picture in 2026.
None of the frames between those two seemed to matter. For the FTA to base its decision on the data from a single frame from the past, rather on the evolving picture, does not seem to make sense. Even worse, taking the motion-picture analogy further, the data that comprised the 2018 ridership frame was corrupted. It revealed an artificially low seat count because NJT was only running 20 inbound trains during the hour at issue, rather than the customary 21.
It is difficult to fathom that the FTA would not have known about the purportedly temporary nature of the schedule in effect at that time and still is, and how that aberration depressed the seat count just enough to move NJT’s projections over the line and into “passing” territory. Not only this series, but the Daily News and a number of rider advocates in the region have sounded that particular alarm publicly. Typical of the newspaper’s position was an editorial published on Jan. 30, 2020 entitled “Bridge to Nowhere” that urged the Feds to flunk NJT’s application again, saying: “The agency was hoodwinked by the Gateway gang starting in 2016. The Port Authority got Portal North through the door for consideration for a different pot of money called New Starts—which has no 10% capacity increase attached. Only later did they switch to seeking Core Capacity cash. That let them do an end-run around the program’s required 10% gain … Clever, but not kosher.”
On Jan. 10, the newspaper opined: “The new span would boost ridership 0%, as it will carry the same 21 peak-hour morning rush trains into Penn Station as the old bridge. NJT claims that ongoing worthy improvements to make all trains [multi-level] and add cars are dependent on the bridge … It ain’t so. Almost every train is already [multi-level], which NJT has long failed to tell Uncle Sam. The remaining three will be converted when new equipment arrives in 2023. The additional rolling stock will also allow several trains to be lengthened.”
Reacting to the FTA’s rating for the project, longtime New York advocate and former LIRR Planning Director Joseph M. Clift said that the agency “willfully ignored reality.” It appears that the improved rating came from the funding side, rather than the capacity side. Ryan Hutchins reported on Politico: “‘The overall rating for the project improved to Medium-High because NJT took important steps that were recommended by FTA staff to improve the project’s financial plan,’ an FTA spokesperson said Tuesday morning.”
Hutchins reported the proposed funding arrangement this way in the same story: “In its latest funding application, which sought $811 million in federal grant money, New Jersey said it would pay for its share of the project by borrowing $555 million, dedicating $187 million from New Jersey Turnpike revenue and earmarking another $40 million from its Transportation Trust Fund, which is supported by the state’s gas tax. It also added a new cushion for cost overruns.”
An NJT press release said that the state had increased its contribution from $300 million to $600 million.
Even if the FTA gives Portal North the requested grant, which is not certain yet, it is unclear how much good it would do to advance the overall Gateway program. The companion Hudson Tunnel Project flunked with a “Low” rating and not merely a “Medium-Low,” an indication it will take a massive infusion of local dollars to bring that project up to standard. It would literally require billions of dollars at a time when NJT, the New York MTA and Amtrak are all experiencing financial difficulties. That amount is an order of magnitude beyond the increase in potential funding that persuaded the FTA to change its mind about Portal North.
The situation is complex, and there have been inaccuracies in all the grant applications that have been filed for Portal North since the first one in 2016. A detailed look at the numbers and the history of the grant applications for funding Portal North is below.
Portal North has won a battle, but it has not yet won the war. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao can reverse FTA staff on this rating or any other, and it is at least arguable that it was an error by FTA evaluators to base their rating decision on data that reflected a temporary situation, unrelated to the issue at hand. It is unclear who, if anyone, might attempt to reverse the newly favorable rating. The statute, 49 USC §5309(g)(1)(B), requires that a project continue to meet its legal requirements. If NJT made it through the requirements this time because there were temporarily fewer seats into Penn Station, then restoring Train 3122 to the schedule would also restore almost 1,100 seats for commuters. According to my calculations using the FTA’s template, that scenario would fall short of the required 10% capacity enhancement, and the project could revert to a failing grade.
In effect, NJT is faced with a difficult decision. It could restore Train 3122 to the schedule as soon as possible and continue to replace single-level cars with multi-levels, thereby giving commuters more seats. Or, it could inconvenience the very commuters who it claims would benefit from all the projects in the Gateway Program by refraining from making capacity improvements that do not require the bridge to be replaced, for the sake of improving the likelihood of getting a grant to help pay for it.
NJT has combined two apparently unrelated initiatives in an effort to secure a grant for one of them. The agency has purchased high-capacity rolling stock and has plans to buy more. That sort of expenditure, no matter how beneficial it may be, is not covered by the grant programs under Section 5309. NJT is also pushing for a bridge that by itself will not add new capacity. It would have the same number of tracks as the bridge it is slated to replace.
Replacing a bridge may be a good project to keep the railroad in a state of good repair, although replacing a moveable bridge that lies 23 feet above mean high-tide with one that lies 53 feet above sounds like a huge waste of precious dollars, especially now that the existing bridge is hardly ever opened. In short, neither project fits squarely into the categories for awarding grants, but NJT is hoping it can produce a synergistic effect that will somehow deliver the result it wants. If neither the changes in equipment alone or a new bridge alone can produce the required capacity improvement, can only the synergy between the two ineligible initiatives bring them into compliance with the statutory requirements? Time will tell, while politicians and managers hope that only this synergy can deliver they money they want.
The battle over the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) Project, Gateway’s predecessor, raged for seven years. Gateway was first proposed slightly more than nine years ago, and has been controversial ever since. This battle will probably continue for years to come. As Yogi Berra famously said: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” To mix metaphors, the fat lady has not sung yet, and probably will not for several years.
My recent reports have covered the Hudson Tunnel and Portal North Bridge Projects. While those are the Gateway components that attract the most attention at the moment, they are not the only ones. The other component of the Gateway program that we discussed previously was the proposed Penn South Station, which would extend southward from the existing Penn Station to 30th Street. Recently New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a project similar to Penn South, but with some differences. As he introduced his proposal, what he did not say may have more bearing on the future of the Gateway program that what he did say. We will have more to report on that development in the next article in this series.
Background Report: A No-Longer-Needed Bridge Over No-Longer-Troubled Waters
On Jan. 9, 2020, the Daily News ran an unedited Letter to the Editor from NJT CEO Kevin S. Corbett, along with an editorial in response. The rhetoric on both sides was strong.
When we last reported to you about the Portal North Bridge Project in Part 4 of this series, June 18, 2019 (“Hey! Wanna Buy a Bridge?”), the prospects for NJT to get a Core Capacity Capital Improvement Grant (CIG) from the FTA did not look good.
The Core Capacity grant program was established under Section 5309 of the federal transportation statutes (49 U.S.C. §5309(e)) to give grants to transit providers for adding capacity to existing lines, as distinct from the New Starts program under the same statute. The grants are not for replacing existing infrastructure or keeping it in a state of good repair (§5309(a)(2)), or to buy rolling stock alone (§5309(b)(2)), however important those goals may be. The project must create at least 10% additional capacity. The Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) on the L-Train line of New York City Transit (14th Street to Canarsie, with the tunnels between Manhattan and Brooklyn being rehabilitated at this writing) allow more trains to move along the line each hour, to accommodate more riders. Similarly, lengthening platforms on the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) light rail system to accommodate longer vehicles will also provide more capacity because each will be able to carry more passengers.
As we concluded our last episode of the Portal North Bridge saga, the FTA had flunked three yearly applications with “Medium-Low” ratings (a grade of D), when a rating of “Medium” (C) is required to pass. As expected, NJT applied again, updating its submission with some changes, which the FTA required. This time NJT claimed that its plan would pass, and it did, but there is reason to believe that the application passed more due to luck than on its merits.
As we reported previously, the original Portal Bridge Capacity Enhancement Project from the 1990s was linked to the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) Project, which had an auspicious beginning with its Alternative G. That plan, one of three under consideration, would have brought some NJT trains to Grand Central Terminal on the East Side of Midtown Manhattan. Alternative G was scrapped, the project was downgraded and disconnected from Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC), and many trains were to be moved into a deep-cavern stub-end terminal about 20 stories down (dubbed “THE Tunnel to Macy’s Basement”). Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie killed the ARC Project in 2010 because it had become too expensive and had lost desirable features like access to Penn Station and connectivity with the NEC, but the Portal Bridge Project lives on as a two-track Portal North Bridge and an additional two-track Portal South Bridge. Nobody has requested funding for Portal South yet.
What does the proposed Portal North Bridge have to do with enhancing capacity, especially since NJT plans to replace an existing two-track bridge with another two-track bridge? For that matter, why does NJT consider a new bridge necessary, when the agency is already providing more seats for commuters by switching from single-level cars to multi-level cars on the peak-hour trains, with the specific objective of providing those seats when they are needed the most? In searching for answers to these questions, the agency’s “Commuter Rail Fleet Strategy 2014-2020” plan is instructive. So is what NJT told the FTA for several years after announcing that fleet plan.
The “Commuter Rail Fleet Strategy 2014-2020” was issued in September 2014 and can be downloaded here:
The 2014 document did not mention the proposed Portal North Bridge as part of a strategy to enhance capacity into Penn Station at peak-commuting time, but it described in detail how multi-level equipment would accomplish that goal. As stated in the Executive Summary (at 3): “The centerpiece of the Strategy is the replacement of aging single-level equipment with modern customer-friendly Multilevel railcars that have greater capacity.” In fact, “The Fleet Strategy is a near-term (horizon year 2020) approach that is driven by the current infrastructure configuration, its programmed improvements and the use of higher capacity vehicles” (Id.). The document went on to predict (at 4): “Peak period seat capacity into Penn Station New York will grow 8.4% over the baseline year. Importantly, seat utilization—during the peak hours of Penn Station New York service—will grow from 91% in baseline year 2010 to 102% in 2020.”
NJT had anticipated retiring its late-1970s-vintage Arrow III single-level electric multiple-unit (EMU) equipment sometime this year and replacing it with multi-level cars, but that has not happened yet. NJT is still following that plan, and expects to implement the former 2020 prediction in 2023. NJT addressed capacity later in the document (at 20): “The Fleet Strategy addresses the most pressing need through equipment configuration to produce a measure of short-term relief until a new trans-Hudson physical infrastructure is in place … Given the fact that Penn Station New York limits the number of trains per hour and the number of cars per train, the Fleet Strategy overcomes these constraints and expands capacity by increasing the number of seats in each consist” (Id.).
So, according to NJT’s stated intention, the Fleet Strategy was supposed deliver a capacity increase in excess of 10% on its own, without help from a new bridge. The actual yield is calculated at more than 12% (102/91). On its own, it would deliver the increased capacity required by the FTA for a Core Capacity Improvement project, without any new infrastructure. So what would be the purpose of piggy-backing a new bridge onto the process of replacing single-level equipment with multi-level equipment? A two-track Portal North Bridge replacing the existing two-track Portal Bridge cannot reasonably be expected to deliver a significant capacity increase, if any at all. Any benefit that a new bridge could deliver is actually about keeping the railroad in a state of good repair, which is expressly excluded by statute as a legitimate purpose for a Core Capacity Improvement project under 49 USC §5309(a)(2).
Applications, templates and other documents first unearthed by the Daily News show that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey initiated the Portal North Bridge Project and filed the first application in 2016, but NJT filed all subsequent applications and continued to report the identical baseline ridership and capacity numbers first reported on the 2016 application (at 35; 2015 ridership counts), in 2017 (at 36), 2018 (at 37) and 2019 (at 38), even though the agency had already changed some of the consists from single-level to multi-level cars. So NJT was using outdated numbers for its baseline. The actual counts of riders and available seats were material facts that would have affected the FTA’s funding decision, and NJT misrepresented those facts—an omission that could render the application fraudulent under New Jersey law. That would have given the FTA separate grounds to reject NJT’s application, irrespective of any other grounds for rejection. A material omission constituting equitable fraud is sufficient to rescind a contract, even without actual intent to deceive.
Ironically, the FTA looked favorably upon the “Project Justification” (infrastructure) side of the applications that contained data based on the outdated 2015 baseline. The other requirement for a grant is passing the “Local Financial Commitment” test, and NJT received failing grades for that (“Medium-Low” ratings), so the applications filed through 2019 flunked because of weak local funding. In addition, in 2019, the FTA became curious about the outdated ridership and seating-capacity numbers.
NJT’s 2019 application was dated Sept. 13. Seven days later, the FTA demanded updated information about the project, including current numbers for riders and seats, from NJT as project sponsor and Amtrak as project partner. The document resembled an interrogatory—a list of questions sent to an adversarial party to be used for discovery in a litigation. In response, NJT’s “update” report filed on Oct. 3 included a revised Core Capacity Template for FY2021 (the year of the requested grant). It updated most of the consists that had changed, reducing the number of single-level consists from eight to four, and claimed 24,581 available seats during the peak-hour (down from 25,834), as well as an increase of 3,763 seats at project opening, for an eventual total of 29,244. NJT claimed an increase 26% larger than the claim they had made three weeks earlier. How could that have occurred?
The answer is that NJT has reduced its schedules over the past two years or so due to difficulties unrelated to any Gateway projects. The Positive Train Control (PTC) program has caused NJT to remove several trains from the schedule, and nobody at the agency has yet said when they will come back, despite numerous inquiries. NJT is also suffering from a shortage of engineers, even with recent new-hires, and a less-severe shortage of conductors. Even with the recent rounds of service cuts, trains still on the schedule are canceled with disconcerting regularity. That will probably continue until enough new crew members can be trained and certified, which could easily take another year, and possibly as long as two.
One of the casualties was Train 3122, a morning peak train that originated at New Brunswick on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) and was scheduled to arrive at NYPenn at 7:43, with an 8-car multi-level consist containing 1,088 seats. That train was “temporarily” removed from the schedule earlier in 2018, and NJT reported to the FTA on Oct. 3, 2019 that “3122 is no longer a train.” NJT managers knew that, if it were not for the “temporary” schedule reductions due to crew shortages and PTC, 3122 would have kept running. Beginning on Jan. 8, 2018, it terminated at Newark. Months later, it was “temporarily discontinued” according to an NJT release dated May 3. The discontinuance began on June 4 and, according to NJT: “These schedule adjustments are temporary and will be restored in early 2019” (emphasis in original). At this writing, one year later, it has not yet been restored (and neither have other trains discontinued “temporarily”).
Still, the riders have been led to expect that it will come back someday, and NJT should have disclosed that fact to the FTA in the updated 2019 application. Train 3122’s 1,088 “seats” that were “temporarily” removed, but are supposed to return, should have been included in the baseline figure. In addition, Train 3224, which runs on the North Jersey Coast Line, has undergone some changes to its consist. It ran as nine multi-level cars in 2015 and 2016, as nine single-level cars in 2017 and 2018 (although NJT still reported the 2015 consist through September 2019), and it is now nine multi-level cars again. On the Oct. 3, 2019 template, NJT cited 2018 numbers (rather than the 2015 numbers used in the four prior applications), and reported it as carrying single-level cars with a capacity of 1,035 seats. In previous submissions, it was reported as running with multi-level cars and carrying 1,224 seats. Now that it runs with multi-level cars again, it carries 189 seats more than NJT claimed in the most recent report to the FTA; an inaccurate report because it under-counted the baseline by 1,277 seats.
Looking at the Core Capacity Template from Oct. 3, 2019, NJT reported 25,482 riders competing for 25,481 seats; a “100.0% seated load” and a “medium” (passing) rating. NJT expects 29,244 seats to be available upon project completion, and claimed a 13% increase in capacity. This gives rise to some brain-teasing questions: Why did actual ridership as measured by NYMTC increase by only 214 riders, or only 0.85% from 2015 to 2019? How did NJT’s claimed capacity improvement increase from 10% to 13%? The former question matters, because the 2016 application said: “Trans-Hudson daily rail ridership is projected to grow at 1.5% each year over the next 5 years based on Metropolitan Planning Organization forecasts (equal to 7,100 trips)” (at 10). It is clear that actual ridership growth has lagged significantly below the expressed expectation, which leads to the question of whether any predictions of high ridership growth are currently credible. That question is critical, and the apparent answer is that NJT omitted 1,277 seats that should have been reported.
In his Jan. 9 letter to the Daily News, Corbett said: “I specifically want to address the assertion that the addition of Train 3122 somehow improperly influenced the calculation to meet the 10% increase in future peak hour seating capacity, which is the FTA requirement. We rightfully show 3122 back in service in the future “build” scenario (after the new bridge is open), as the Positive Train Control project and the locomotive engineer shortage that contributed to its temporary suspension will be resolved by then. I am particularly disturbed by this allegation regarding this train as the increase in peak hour seating capacity still exceeds the FTA’s 10% requirement, even if we didn’t return train 3122 to service—a rather glaring omission by the Editorial Board. I’m confident we’ve made our application even stronger by addressing the issues raised by the federal government.”
The FTA has a template for making the necessary calculations when submitting a grant application. The applicant fills in the number of available seats in “before and after” snapshots, and the template calculates whether or not an application meets the threshold test of sufficient improvement in capacity. It can be considered a “black box” for this purpose, but it is the FTA’s black box, and the FTA determines whether to fund a project or not. If a transit provider’s numbers do not produce enough improvement, the template will show an “N/A” indication, and it flunks. If there is enough additional capacity for an application to pass that hurdle, the template indicates a rating of “Medium” or better.
To test Corbett’s assertion, I added 1,277 seats to NJT’s reported baseline to obtain a number consistent with today’s operation of Train 3224 with multi-level cars and NJT’s promise to return 3122 to the schedule. Adding those seats to NJT’s reported baseline of 25,481, I got an updated baseline of 26,758 seats. NJT’s prediction of 29,244 future seats represents an increase of only 9.29% over today’s baseline, which is not enough. To confirm the results, I plugged the updated baseline number into the FTA template. The result for Congestion Relief went down to only 8%, and the Estimated Overall Project Rating became “N/A”!
Simply stated, it flunked. I made the same basic calculation, but as if 3122 did not return to the schedule, as Corbett had asserted. That time the increase in capacity was only 9%, according to the FTA template. The numbers flunked that way, too.
I contacted NJT to get an update since I last reported this story, and NJT said in pertinent part: “The data used for the Core Application for Portal Bridge North application was examined, verified and approved by the FTA as part of the application process. Train consists and operating plans are subject to change to reflect and adapt to current operating conditions at any given time, such as to reflect fall and spring schedule changes, for example, or to account for maintenance-related track outages that may alter train schedules. NJ TRANSIT followed FTA guidance in the submission, and FTA accepted NJ TRANSIT’s planning documentation as meeting the requirements.”
That statement is identical to the one I included in Part 4 of this series.
Since my last report, the FTA demanded information from NJT, which the agency supplied on Oct. 3. In its response to my inquiry, NJT also referred to a press release from Sept. 13, the day the 2019 application was filed with the FTA and one week before the FTA demanded updated information about capacity. The document concerned changes in the financial part of the application and began: “NJ TRANSIT today submitted an updated financial plan for the Portal North Bridge Project to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The revised plan was adjusted to reflect FTA and United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) feedback on a previous submission, making more local money available for the project while keeping costs in check …The majority of the feedback from the federal government involved concerns over whether enough funding sources were identified and committed in the proposal to meet project costs and potential cost overruns. To demonstrate that the funds would be in place for the project, NJ TRANSIT and Amtrak have worked together to identify and commit specific funding sources for the project. Amtrak has also committed an additional $55 million from passenger revenues toward project costs. These funds are in addition to the December 2018 agreement between NJ TRANSIT and Amtrak that provided another $182 million for projects in New Jersey such as the Portal North Bridge Project.”
Typically for such press releases, NJT expressed its hope for a favorable result: “‘We are confident NJ TRANSIT has made our application even stronger by addressing the issues raised by the federal government,’ said Kevin Corbett, President & CEO of NJ TRANSIT. ‘We look forward to a prompt review that will improve the project rating and move us closer to a Full Funding Grant Agreement and the start of major construction.’”
The current plan has passed muster, at least for now, but NJT’s release did not address the capacity issue. NJT acknowledged that fact in its statement for this article: “You’ll see that the core capacity issue isn’t even mentioned. The reason for that: It’s not a substantive issue. The overarching issue[s] remain funds and funding availability. However, the addendum did update various numbers, including using more recent ridership and consist information—which strengthened the case.”
The FTA’s latest ratings from Feb. 10 improved the project’s position, but on the basis of changes in the funding plan, rather than capacity improvements.
As noted earlier in this report, Capacity Improvement grants are not for acquiring rolling stock alone, nor are they for state-of-good-repair projects. By acquiring multi-level cars over the past several years and into the future, as well as multi-level powered cars beginning in 2023, NJT will increase capacity, but not in a manner whereby an FTA grant would defray some of the cost. By the time the proposed Portal North Bridge is slated to open for service in 2026, it would add very little capacity, if any. In short, it would function only as a state-of-good-repair project, which is also not covered by the FTA grant program. For a project to advance from the project development phase to the engineering phase (or further, to the construction phase) requires a determination that “there is a reasonable likelihood that the project will continue to meet the requirements under section (§5309(g)(1)(B)).” That provision imposes a continuing duty to deliver the required capacity improvement. The new cars are not covered, but they will have generated enough additional capacity that the proposed bridge will not be able to add enough capacity on its own. Neither project qualifies alone, and they cannot be combined to qualify.
Ironically, as NJT intended, the agency has successfully increased capacity by switching from single-level cars to higher-capacity multi-level cars. The original 2015 ridership count from NYMTC was 25,268 with 25,834 seats available. The service that should be running today, with multi-level cars on 3224 and 3122 considered part of the schedule, would offer 26,748 seats for 25,482 riders. The 2015 baseline had 98% of the seats filled, while the updated baseline calls for 95% of available seats to be occupied. That represents substantial progress, and with the future conversions to multi-level equipment that NJT anticipates (including hybrid consists with multi-level power cars), as well as adding 11 more cars to the 202 now arriving in New York during the hour at issue, the agency should be able to provide enough capacity without the need for the proposed Portal North Bridge. With the proposed bridge not needed for capacity, NJT would also not qualify for a grant from the FTA to help finance it.
The 2016 report (at 13) stated: “The purpose of the Portal North Bridge Project is to replace the 106-year-old Portal Bridge with the result of enhancing capacity on the NEC. In addition to increasing capacity to meet current and future demand along the NEC, the Project will improve service reliability and operational flexibility while minimizing conflicts with maritime traffic.” As stated before, it is difficult to fathom how replacing one two-track bridge with another two-track bridge can, by itself, deliver any significant increase in capacity; especially an increase as large as 10% or more. Merely replacing the bridge, without more, does not add any new space for trains.
As for future demand, data from the past four years demonstrates that predictions of future growth based on 2015 ridership were overstated. The expressed prediction was a yearly increase of 1.5% for five years, or 7.7% overall. In raw numbers, the 2015 baseline ridership of 25,268 would increase to 27,221, or 1,953 new riders. The actual ridership growth in four years was only 214, or 0.85%, so it can be expected that a fifth year might bring the total ridership increase to slightly above 1% by this October. Even if there are 300 new riders this fall compared to 2015, about 85% of the new riders who were anticipated never materialized.
Service reliability, operational flexibility and conflicts with maritime traffic are no longer impediments, as I previously reported in Article 4 of this series. The existing Portal Bridge poses even less of an operational obstacle at this writing than it did when I last reported on it. The 2016 application attempted to justify the need for a new high-level bridge by saying (at 13): “The improved reliability achieved with a new fixed-span Portal Bridge will provide NJ TRANSIT with greater certainty of being able to access longer platforms at Penn Station New York, allowing for longer trains and multi-level passenger cars that provide approximately 11% more seats per train. At PSNY, NJ TRANSIT trains are almost exclusively assigned to Tracks 1–4, which are stub ended, accommodate limited train lengths, and have limited vertical access (Tracks 1–3 can accommodate an 8-car train and Track 4 a 9-car train). Tracks 5–13 can accommodate longer trainsets, and have more vertical access locations (including the extended West End concourse).”
The application did not mention that it would cost far less to improve vertical access from the platforms to the station concourse than to build the proposed bridge.
NJT has implied in the past that the proposed new bridge would somehow be needed to allow the longer trains to operate, intimating that Tracks 1 through 4 cannot accommodate the proposed longer consists. The current operation does not indicate that, as shown in the 2019 template. Seven trains would be 12 cars long under that projection, one-third of the trains now arriving at Penn Station during the hour at issue. They could be accommodated on Tracks 5 through 16, as could all of the other trains, which would either be nine or ten cars long. Tracks 1 through 4 are not as constrained as NJT would like the FTA to believe. As early as 2015, Track 4 actually accommodated a 9-car multi-level consist. Tracks 1 and 2 accommodated nine-car multi-level consists on Oct. 16, 2018. The projection for the future calls for four nine-car consists and two eight-car consists, which can use any track. The other eight trains would be ten cars long. NJT claims it could only use Track 5 or a higher-numbered track for those trains, but the October 16, 2018 data disputes that allegation. Train 3322, a ten-car multi-level train from the North Jersey Coast Line, used Track 3 that day, so we now know that a consist of up to ten multi-level cars can use any track, even Tracks 1 through 4. Even if such an operation is not optimal (and it appears not to be), it is still feasible.
As we reported in Part 5 of this series (“Can We Keep Penn Station From Going South”, July 2, 2019), it has been suggested that the platforms serving those tracks (Platforms 1 and 2) be lengthened, a project previously recommended as part of the now-defunct ARC Project. It may not be absolutely necessary to lengthen them, but it would facilitate arrivals. Even if those two platforms could be extended by only one car length, they could easily accommodate all trains, except for the seven 12-car consists.
The final stated justification for the proposed new bridge is: “The new bridge itself will further allow for an increase of two new trains per hour on the bridge above the current 26 trains per hour capacity (21 NJ TRANSIT + 5 Amtrak). It is important to note that this increase in capacity cannot be realized until the Gateway program elements (new tunnels and station capacity) are complete. These benefits are not quantified as a benefit of the Project” (Id.).
Whatever that statement may claim or allege, it is speculation, and not fact. By NJT’s own admission, that particular purported benefit cannot be quantified, so it cannot even be said that there would be any benefit at all. The proposed Portal North Bridge certainly would not provide any independent utility, because new tunnels and “station capacity” (that means the proposed Penn South station, which is probably unnecessary and for which no provision for funding is even being considered) would have to be completed first. Like the proposed Gateway Hudson Tunnels Project, that could take many years; probably until 2030 or later.
Whether Gateway supporters want to admit it or not, Portal Bridge seldom opens anymore. In Article 4 of this series, we reported on a Coast Guard initiative that would keep it closed before and during peak commuting hours on the railroad: from 5 to 10 AM, and from 3 to 8 PM, with limited exceptions. That rule went into effect on a temporary basis last March, and no trains have been delayed on account of bridge openings since then. Now the Coast Guard has proposed making that rule permanent. A Notice to Mariners for the first week of this year announced that the rule would remain in effect for two more months. Presumably it will be made permanent by then. NJT’s commuters hope so, too, if they even bother to think about it. They are concerned that their train traverses the bridge quickly, rather than being forced to wait for a boat. Very few boats pass under Portal Bridge today; about one every six weeks, as we reported previously. So there is no need to build a bridge 30 feet higher than the existing bridge, with the significant cost of building mile-long approaches on both sides of the proposed span in the environmentally sensitive Meadowlands. Today’s commuters, and at least the operating side of railroad management, can now enjoy a reliable bridge that will not get in the way; the functional equivalent of a fixed bridge without having to spend the money to build a new one (or two).
The Coast Guard’s new rule effectively eliminates the validity of the argument that, when the existing bridge opens during peak commuting hours, the result is a catastrophe for NJT and its commuters. Whether or not the situation was actually as bad as NJT and Gateway alleged, the Coast Guard has essentially eliminated the problem. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Section 117.723 now says that Portal Bridge “need not open for the passage of vessel traffic from 5 AM to 10 AM and from 3 PM to 8 PM on weekdays.” It still allows bridge openings at other times on at least two-hour advance notice, a provision that also applies to “tide-restricted commercial vessels” between 7 AM and 8 AM and between 5 PM and 6 PM, an undesirable feature.
The new policy was announced on Feb. 18 and will take effect on March 19. It essentially enshrines a policy that went into effect “temporarily” last year and, according to Joseph M. Clift, “Not a single peak-period rail passenger has been delayed by Portal openings since the Coast Guard’s opening restrictions went into effect March 15 last year—zero!”
If the bridge did not open at peak commuting hours during the past year, there is little or no reason to believe that it would do so in the future, especially since there are no more commercial vessels plying that part of the river.
“This is great news,” Clift said. “Without anyone spending a single penny on planning, permits, design or construction, the Northeast Corridor crossing of the Hackensack River becomes a fixed bridge for all 10 weekday peak periods,” or, at least, the functional equivalent thereof. He added that the change was “better 20 years late than never.”
While the Coast Guard did not mandate a large-scale change in actual operation, the restrictions announced as “temporary” last year are now permanent. This action by the Coast Guard one week after the FTA gave the Portal North Project a favorable rating may reflect a change in circumstances; typically part of the standard for reopening and reversing administrative decisions of that sort. The Coast Guard’s ruling certainly goes to the cost-effectiveness of the Portal North Bridge project, since it now appears that that NJT and its commuters will continue to have priority during peak commuting hours, which are the only times when capacity is constrained and Core Capacity Improvement projects matter.
In the same article, I also discussed Portal Bridge and opportunities for rehabilitating it or replacing it. That discussion is still valid. The existing Portal Bridge can be rehabilitated or replaced with a similar bridge (although a fixed, bascule or lift bridge would make more sense than a swing bridge) for a modest cost. It only cost $154 million for Amtrak to replace “Old Nan,” the historic bridge over the Niantic River in Connecticut with a newer structure. Service on that part of the NEC was disrupted only for a single weekend, and there was no need to design or build new approaches.
A newer bridge, functioning and maintained for reliability, could provide all the capacity that is required now. Such a rehabilitation or replacement would go well with the suggested rehabilitation of the tunnels into Penn Station, in the manner now being implemented on the Canarsie Tunnels. There may be a need for more bridge capacity in the future, but not yet. It might be possible to replace the existing bridge with a three-track span and add a short approach track at ground level, a project that would be more likely to increase capacity, due to the third track. That should provide enough capacity for the foreseeable future.
A somewhat more expensive yet possibly more cost-effective solution would be to replace the existing bridge with one newer span, and then install another essentially next to it, with new, short approach tracks at ground level. That would provide four tracks of bridge capacity—all that would be needed any time in the future, without spending $3.4 billion, the current estimated cost of Portal North Bridge and the proposed Portal South Bridge (the latter only under consideration for the relatively distant future). Portal North Bridge as proposed is now estimated at $1.6 billion, and the FTA would pay only about half that amount, at the most. Two bridges for the price of one, without having to endure the FTA grant process, sounds like a good deal.
Despite these facts and numbers, the FTA still gave the Portal North Bridge project a passing grade, at least this time. As we noted in the main part of this report, it is still too early to tell whether or not such passing grades will continue long enough to fund and build NJT’s high bridge. This time, NJT was lucky (and politically clever), and circumstances outside the proposed project’s scope intervened. Can NJT’s luck hold out for years to come? Time will tell, while we watch the situation and report to you.
So, if you still believe what NJT says about Portal Bridge, somebody may have a bridge to sell you. You might even have your choice of Portal North or Brooklyn, and buying either of them could end up doing you about the same amount of good. The FTA may be buying one, for the moment anyway, but that could change in the future, too.
David Peter Alan is Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent non-profit organization that advocates for better service on the Morris & Essex (M&E) and Montclair-Boonton rail lines operated by New Jersey Transit, and on connecting transportation. In New Jersey, Alan is a long-time member and/or board member of the NJ Transit Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee and Essex County Transportation Advisory Board. Nationally, he belongs to the Rail Users’ Network (RUN). Admitted to the New Jersey and New York Bars in 1981, he is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and a Registered Patent Attorney specializing in intellectual property and business law. Alan holds a B.S. in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1970); M.S. in Management Science (M.B.A.) from M.I.T. Sloan School of Management (1971); M.Phil. from Columbia University (1976); and a J.D. from Rutgers Law School (1981).