Part 3 of 6: Is This Tunnel Really Necessary?

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
image description

Ever since Hurricane Sandy devastated the New York and New Jersey region in October 2012, the tunnels under the Hudson River between New Jersey and Penn Station New York have been described as a ticking time bomb, subject to complete failure at any time; at least any time after 2021, and more likely after 2034.

There has been a considerable change in circumstances recently, especially during April 2019, and attitudes about the solution to problems caused by flooding from Sandy may be changing rapidly and dramatically. Some of the foremost decision-makers may be coming to the realization that it might be feasible to repair the tunnels quickly and inexpensively, resulting in savings of billions of dollars (the current cost figure submitted to FTA for the Hudson Tunnel Project component of Gateway is $15.2 billion), while the specter of potential doom would be lifted. The repair project could also begin almost immediately, rather than eight years from now. It will be interesting to see what changes in the Hudson Tunnel Project these new revelations will bring.

On May 6, 2014, Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman told the Regional Plan Association (RPA) that the tunnels would not last much longer: “I’m being told that we’ve got something less than 20 years before we have to shut one or two [tunnels] down,” and that it would take seven to nine years to complete construction of new tunnels, once a decision is made to start. The existing tunnels have been in service since the original Penn Station opened in 1910, and nobody seriously disputes that they need to be repaired. When and how they should be repaired is suddenly controversial, as recent events surrounding the L-train of the New York City subway system are now demonstrating. Many in New York City are watching that drama as it plays out. Whatever happens, the time for assuming without question that two new tunnels must be built before the existing ones can be repaired has passed. Circumstances have changed, and it will be interesting to see how the Hudson Tunnel Project changes with them.

Many New Yorkers were dreading the impending total shutdown of the busiest part of the L-train, which runs from Fourteenth Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, through the Canarsie Tunnels under the East River to Brooklyn, and across that borough to Canarsie. Trains would still have run in Brooklyn under the plan proposed originally, but not in Manhattan or through the tunnels for 15 months, beginning on April 26 for repairs due to flooding from Sandy in 2012. Gov. Andrew Cuomo stepped in and consulted the deans and senior faculty from the engineering schools at Columbia and Cornell Universities, who offered a second opinion that proposed a less-expensive and less-invasive project. The tunnel’s two single-track tubes would be repaired, but only on weekday nights and weekends. Even then, only one tube would be taken out of service at a time, so trains would run through the other tube in both directions. L-train service would be reduced at those times, but it will never shut down completely. This writer told the story here on the Railway Age website on January 24.

In the early part of the past century, cables inside tunnel tubes were embedded in the concrete benchwalls that ran the length of those tubes. The Canarsie Tunnels will be repaired by mounting new cables on brackets or “racks” on the inside of the tunnel wall. Once that is completed and the new cables are in use, the old ones inside the benchwalls will be abandoned, so the benchwalls themselves would serve only as a walkway surface for maintenance and emergency egress purposes. The small percentage of benchwall structure that is beyond repair will be demolished and replaced with a flat surface. That surface, along with remaining benchwall structure in poor condition will be coated with fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP), a state-of-the-art material for strength, sealing and waterproofing. Sensors will be installed to detect and provide early warning of any benchwall movement. This method will preserve the current level of service on the L-train, except for reduced service late evenings and overnight on weekdays, and on weekends (New York subways run 24 hours a day). According to the MTA, only 10% of riders will be affected. Under the previous plan, all L riders would have lost all of their service to and in Manhattan.

In the January 24 story, we mentioned the possibility of having independent engineers render a similar opinion concerning the Hudson River tunnels on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC), known officially as the North River Tunnels. It appears that the level of damage they suffered form Sandy was less than the magnitude of damage in the Canarsie Tunnels, so it appears feasible to repair them in a similar manner. A report prepared for Amtrak and released in September 2014 by HNTB, and found at https://www.tunneltalk.com/images/article-0105/NYC-HNTB-tunnels-assessment-report.pdf, showed the magnitude of damage.

Both the Canarsie Tunnels and the North River Tunnels under the Hudson were damaged by flooding from Hurricane Sandy, but the amount of tunnel benchwall that was affected is considerably less in the tunnels under the Hudson. In the Canarsie Tunnels, 3,445 feet of the total length of 7,953 feet, or 43%, was flooded. Each tube of the Hudson tunnel are 13,500 feet long. The north tube suffered 1,900 feet of flooding, while 800 feet of the south tube suffered damage. This makes a total of 2,700 feet, or only 10% of the combined length of the two tubes.

Until recently, Amtrak and the Gateway Program Development Corp. (Gateway’s official proponents) have resisted the Canarsie solution, claiming that the tunnels under the Hudson are sufficiently different from the Canarsie Tunnels. Of course, there is no way to know that for certain, unless independent engineers inspect the tunnels thoroughly and make recommendations. At this writing, however, the resistance from Gateway proponents appears to be diminishing.

The HNTB report stated: “The limit of inundation was different for each of the tunnels. The East River Tunnel experienced more sea water exposure, with water levels reaching the crowns at mid-river. In contrast, the North River Tunnel experienced less sea water exposure, with water levels reaching above the bench walls at mid-river” (at 2). Table 1 of the report (at 3) shows the cost of removing and replacing the bench walls entirely, compared to other elements of the repair job. The cost of replacing 100% of the bench walls was estimated at $249.4 million for both single-track tunnel tubes; pressure washing at $3.6 million and repairing cracks and delaminations at $1.9 million. The cost of installing direct-fixation track was estimated at $100 million for both tubes.

Excluding the cost of direct-fixation track and concentrating specifically on tunnel repairs, replacing the bench walls completely would account for 97.8% of the total cost of the job. Clearly, if the Cuomo-Cornell-Columbia solution that will be used on the Canarsie Tunnels can be used similarly on the North River Tunnels, the cost savings would be significant—amounting to billions of dollars.

Our January 24 article mentioned the dual role played by John D. Porcari, who served simultaneously as Interim Executive Director of the Gateway Program Development Corp. and President: Advisory Services, United States for WSP, one of the world’s largest engineering firms and successor to Parsons Brinckerhoff. The relationship involving governing boards that want to build projects and firms that are pushing those projects results in expanded project scope that leads to higher prices, which taxpayers and transit riders must ultimately pay through their taxes and their fares. Porcari no longer holds the position as Interim Executive Director at Gateway. He has been replaced by Frank Sacr, who had been Chief Financial Officer. Sacr has a background in project financing, so we will soon know if he will recommend a more-affordable version of Gateway.

When Gateway was introduced in February 2011, few thought of the tunnels to New York City as the greatest risk for a “single-point failure” in the project’s region. Then came Hurricane Sandy, less than 21 months later. By 2014,  Joseph Boardman claimed that the tunnels were at risk and could fail within 20 years. The narrative later became that it would be necessary to build two new tunnels before the existing ones could be repaired. Ironically, it does not appear that any of the Gateway proponents or the local rail operators believe that the tunnels were in sufficiently dire condition that they should be repaired immediately. There was never any urgency concerning when the existing tunnels must actually be repaired; in fact, Gateway proponents only expressed urgency that two new tunnels had to be built before any effort was made to repair the existing, flood-damaged tunnels. Beyond that, it was not expected that the existing tunnels would fail until at least 2030 (officially, anyway), although Boardman raised the remote possibility of seven years (which meant 2021), but they could fail any time after that, without notice. Perhaps, even until now, no official ever mentioned that the “urgency” scenario did not make sense, although Gateway Trustee Stephen Cohen has recently backed off from it.

Proponents of the current Gateway plan have attempted to distinguish the North River Tunnels from the Canarsie Tunnels, claiming that they are structurally different, and that the voltage running through the cables in them for traction (propulsion) power is much higher (12 kv AC) than in subway tunnels (625 volts DC). If the structure of the Canarsie Tunnels could accommodate the repair plan proposed by the Columbia and Cornell faculty engineers, it would require an independent engineering assessment to tell for sure. It seems doubtful that the type of propulsion power alone would render the Canarsie Tunnels (L-train) plan unsuitable for the North River Tunnels. There are higher-voltage traction power cables (25 kv AC) in the Crossrail Tunnels now under construction in London, and they are hung from racks on the inside of the tunnel walls, as will be done inside the Canarsie Tunnels. While the Crossrail tubes are larger than the North River Tunnels (20.3 feet vs. 19.0 feet inside diameter), the North River Tunnels have far more side clearance (4.25 feet vs. 2.62 feet) than the Canarsie Tunnel tubes, with their tight 15-foot inside diameter. If space alone is an issue, it is reasonable to expect that there would be enough room in the North River Tunnels to retrofit new cables mounted on the wall, as will be done in the Canarsie Tunnels.

New York’s Daily News argues that the approach being used to repair the Canarsie Tunnels will work for the North River Tunnels, too. In an editorial from February 23 entitled Gateway vs. the right way: Why not rack the cables in the Hudson River tunnels, too? Explore a cheaper, faster rehab option?, the editors said: “As Gov. Cuomo and the engineering deans of Columbia and Cornell revealed by taking a second look at the L train tunnel rehab plans, the two existing Hudson tunnels can be fixed right away, by elevating and racking electrical cables rather than burying them in the bench wall. No need to wait for a brand new tube to get bored so that they can be shuttered entirely” and “Digging a new tube—and upgrading bridges to handle more trains—can then be done cost-effectively on its own terms.” The same editorial also rebutted the argument that the tunnels at issue are sufficiently unlike the Canarsie Tunnels that a different approach is needed: “Amtrak bosses say they’ve explored and ruled out the smarter rehab plan. Why? One excuse is that the L train uses 625 volts DC, which makes it feasible to put those cables on side racks, whereas a non-starter for the 12,000 volts AC that Amtrak trains rely on” and concluded: “Really? London’s new Crossrail tunnel has 25,000 volts AC and they hang cables the L-train way. If the Brits can figure it out, so can we.”

The Daily News went even further on March 4, with an editorial entitled: The end of the tunnel: It’s past time to scrap Gateway and do it the right way, which challenged Amtrak’s argument that a full shutdown would be needed to repair the tunnels. It said: “The bulk of Phase 1 of Gateway, as planned, is digging a new tunnel, which wouldn’t move a single additional train. As envisioned, it will take another $16 billion for Phase 2 before commuter capacity increases one iota. We can’t wait that long and spend that much.” The editorial went on to say that Gov. Cuomo had found a way to keep peak-hour, mid-day and evening service going on the L-train, with only a service reduction on nights and weekends, not a shutdown: “There is no reason Amtrak can’t do likewise. The objections don’t pass the smell test. A voltage problem? Nope; London’s new Crossrail tunnel uses racks for cables that carry twice the juice of Amtrak. A space issue? Nope; the L-train tube’s diameter is 15 feet, the Hudson is 19 feet and Crossrail a bit more than 20 feet. Nope also on issues about the railbed, concrete wall strength and emergency egress.”

We cannot be sure of what independent engineers might find, but what if they find that it is feasible to complete the repairs on the North River Tunnels in a similar manner? That could be accomplished over about a two-year period, nights and weekends, with no service disruptions that would be any worse than riders experience now. Amtrak takes one of the tunnels out of service every weekend, and has been doing it for many years, with the single exception of Super Bowl weekend in 2014. The same March 4 editorial said: “What ought to seal the deal is the fact that weekend trains are already squeezed into a schedule for a single tube, allowing the other tube to be closed from Friday night though Monday morning for non-stop repairs. But Amtrak only rarely uses this precious time. We know, because we got hold of actual tunnel usage and work schedules, discovering Amtrak wastes 93% of these available 55-hour-long weekend periods” and concluded: “Stop looking for excuses. Stop spending month after month and millions upon millions digging in heels. Make the smarter, better, cheaper plan happen.”

At this writing, it appears that the efforts by the advocates and the media may slowly be moving toward success, as MTA officials have endorsed the Canarsie Tunnels plan and linked it with Gateway.

On March 25, MTA Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber said that the Columbia/Cornell procedure for repairing the Canarsie Tunnels on the L-train line will reduce the amount of benchwall demolition by 99% from the previous plan to demolish and replace all of it. If that procedure can also be applied to the North River Tunnels under the Hudson, very little of the existing benchwall would be demolished, and the overall project cost would shrink to only a few percent of the original cost estimate. Lieber described the cable rack as “a bracket with an arm to support cables” and attested to its potential effectiveness. He also endorsed the FRP that would be used to seal surfaces against future water damage. With the structural FRP system proposed, Lieber said that they could reduce benchwall demolition to 1% and overall demolition to 7% of the original plan (including duct banks). He added that the material to be used for the project is also used to support and strengthen bridges, and that it has a 100-year life span (MTA Board NYCT/Bus Committee meeting, March 25, 2019, available here).

On April 1, Patrick Foye, the new MTA Chair whom Cuomo had recently appointed, described the MTA and the industry that designs and builds major transportation projects as the “Transportation Industrial Complex,” as Cuomo has also done. Foye criticized the old L-train plan as a “collective, colossal failure of imagination” from the “three large, internationally traded firms involved in the project’s planning and execution, with its unnecessary and costly scope in dollars, time and impact on customers.” He went on to mention the L-train and Gateway together and cited the Daily News editorial page as also doing so, and he continued by saying: “I think that the industry and the MTA have got to do better” and the L-Train tunnel plan is “the right execution for that project” (MTA press conference found on YouTube here).

Foye also criticized the the current state of transit agencies and large contractors by recalling President Dwight Eisenhower’s long-ago warning of the Military Industrial Complex and its “cozy familiarity between the military and large defense contractors.” Foye said, “The same, unsurprisingly, happens in the Transportation Industrial Complex.” He also said that firms that were “protected from normal market forces by their near-monopoly position … with the possibly of endless frustration and cost overruns to the agency and our customers.” Foye made these statements at a Capital Projects Oversight Committee (CPOC) on April 15 (MTA CPOC meeting, archived here).

The Trustees of the Gateway Program Development Corp. may have heard what Foye had to say; at least in the first statement quoted here. On April 2, they held a board meeting and a press conference, and all of them went on record as supporting an examination of the plan to install new cables on racks inside the tunnel walls, as recommended by the Columbia and Cornell engineers for the Canarsie Tunnels. Brenda Flanagan of NJTV News reported that night: “Officials are talking to experts about the options for racking cables in the tunnel.”

Flanagan’s report quoted Gateway trustees as ready to explore the procedure that will be used on the Canarsie Tunnels. “Racking sounds interesting and it definitely warrants exploration. And we are doing that, frankly, as we speak,” said New Jersey attorney and Gateway Chair Jerry Zaro. Gateway Vice Chair and Amtrak Chair Anthony Coscia (also a New Jersey attorney) said: “We have an obligation to make sure those tunnels are serviceable as long as possible. Would it create durability that would last for a decade? All of these things we don’t know, but it’s worth exploring.” Joseph M. Clift, a rider-advocate and former Planning Director for the Long Island Rail Road, agreed that even a 10-year lifetime for the repair would be an improvement. He said: “It can be done eight years sooner than they plan to repair the tunnels … so I would say fixing something eight to 10 years sooner is a great idea.” Clift also believes that the repair on the Canarsie Tunnels will last significantly longer—another 100 years, which would make the procedure a bargain both in terms of capital outlay and of value received for the investment. As mentioned previously, the MTA’s Janno Lieber said that, too.

Despite the above-quoted statement, Zaro was skeptical about the procedure to be used on the Canarsie Tunnels and called it a “Band-Aid,” but he intimated that there was little to lose in the attempt. He told NJTV: “If the answer is that racking won’t really allow these tunnels to be used efficiently and effectively, then we’re going to have to revert to the plan that was originally proposed.” In a response editorial on April 13 entitled “We Dig It,” the Daily News said: “This is no Band-Aid, unless your Band-Aids last 100 years.”

Not only would the Canarsie Tunnels repair method save money, but it would also remove the urgency to build two new tunnels before repairing the existing ones. Until now, Amtrak and Gateway’s promoters have presented the existing tunnels as a ticking time bomb, but repairing them now would disarm that “bomb” and alleviate everybody’s fears. That would save a great deal of money and, more important, it would give planners, managers and advocates time to formulate a plan that would determine how much capacity is truly necessary, and then build the infrastructure that the region actually needs to get riders to their destinations.

The other Board member, Stephen Cohen of New York, acknowledged that there is no imminent danger of a disaster. He expressed his concern that the existing tunnels must be usable on a day-to-day basis, but said: “No one is saying that the tunnel is going to collapse. That’s not the issue.” So for now, at least, it appears that the urgency to build new tunnels before repairing the existing ones seems to have diminished considerably. The April 2 statements by the Gateway trustees may signal a turning point in the saga of the Hudson Tunnel Project, and of the Gateway Program in general.

It apparently would behoove concerned planners, managers and advocates to consider the overall funding picture for the Hudson Tunnel Project, too. As we reported in the previous article in this series, it does not appear that “local” funding sources are paying enough toward the project. Amtrak spokesperson Craig Schulz, speaking for both Amtrak and the Gateway Program Development Corp., told Railway Age that the cost of the Hudson Tunnel Project had not increased, and that it was $12.7 billion; $11.1 billion for new tunnels and $1.6 billion to rehabilitate the existing tunnels. It seems that he omitted an additional item of $2.5 billion for financing; an amount that always increases as a project is delayed. In the September 2018 financial plan for the project, the total cost was estimated at $15.2 billion, which would include the finance costs. Of that, 44%, or $6.77 billion, would come from an FTA Capital Investment Grant (CIG). Another 44%, or $6.75 billion, would come from RRIF (Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing) loans from the U.S. Department of Transportation. That amount not only exceeds the allowable (less than 50%) share from federal sources, but it also vastly exceeds the federal share for any other project in recent times. Clift, noting that the Hudson Tunnel Project alone requested more than $13 billion in federal funds, told Railway Age: “In terms of dollar value, that request is off the charts!”

While it is now legally permissible to use RRIF loans as “local” money toward a project, the Hudson Tunnel Project is still highly leveraged. The current financing plan calls for 49.4% of the total to come from FTA New Starts funding under $5,309, 44.8% from RRIF loans to be paid back by the local agencies (New York State, NJ Transit and the Port Authority of NY and NJ), and only 5.8% from direct grants from New York, NJ Transit and the Port Authority. The project’s Local Financial Commitment earned the project a “low” rating in the FTA’s latest list (down from “medium-low” last year), which was finalized last November and reported on March 15, 2019. By analogy, this is a grade of F. The project received an “Overall Project Rating” of “medium-low” (a grade of D). Only a rating of “medium” (a grade of C) or better is sufficient in both categories, because the pot of money available for such grants is limited, and competition among the nation’s transit providers for those funds is fierce.

Gateway officials had been warned that the over-reliance on federal funding sources could prove troublesome. On December 29, 2017, FTA Deputy Administrator K. Jane Williams wrote to transit heads and Gateway trustees, warning: “The revised plan is thus 100% reliant on Federal financial assistance. The previous plan on file with FTA presumed 83% of project costs would be funded through Federal loans and grants, so this new plan is a move toward even greater Federal dependency.” Williams also denied there there was a 50/50 agreement between USDOT and New York and New Jersey, warned that the amount requested for Gateway projects could use up much of the grant money available for the entire country: “As contemplated, this request could exhaust the CIG program entirely” and pointed out other problems, too. Over time, the rating for the Hudson Tunnel Project remained that of a failing grade. So, even if the project’s financial plan could pass legal muster some day, it remains doubtful that the project could beat the competition.

According to Clift, Gateway proponents knew or should have known that the Hudson Tunnel Project would get an unfavorable rating. He told this writer, “This exchange of letters in December 2017, the first month after the FTA’s Capital Investment Grants (CIG) program assigned the HTP a failing FY19 Overall Project Rating of ‘Medium-Low’ in November 2017 was the earliest possible warning the FTA could have given the project’s proposers (PA, GDC, NJT & Amtrak) that there were serious concerns with the project’s financial plan. The proposers’ failure to address these concerns led directly to the project being assigned an even lower failing FY20 Overall Project Rating of ‘Low’ in November 2018.” Clift also said: “They were warned with an ample, very clear road map of concerns almost nine months before they submitted their revised financial plan on September 7, 2018; blaming the rating on politics does not change the facts that caused it to fail.” He also noted that the document indicated that only $35 million from the Port Authority, out of $7.74 billion of “total local support” for the project, or 0.45%, constituted cash and not future repayment of RRIF loans (Table 3-3 at Page 3-5).

Larry Penner, who had a 31-year career at the FTA’s New York office (Region 2) expressed a similar opinion in an OpEd piece entitled Gateway Numbers Don’t Add Up in the April 23 edition of the Daily News. Penner referred to a number of expensive projects in the region that were financed in part by local matching funds. He also argued that New York and New Jersey have money that they could contribute toward Gateway projects and asked: “Could Gateway … become our New York version of the infamous Boston ‘Big Dig’ by costing $40, $50 or even $60 billion when completed by 2038?” He concluded by saying: “The Gateway Development Corp. reminds me of the character Wimpy who famously said, ‘I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.’ Tuesday may never come for commuters and taxpayers who use NJT and Amtrak and need a new Hudson River Tunnel to be complete within their lifetime.” The paper’s website, www.nydailynews.com, mentioned the political situation surrounding the project by showing a picture of President Trump and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, with the caption: “Chao and Trump didn’t sink Gateway, it sank itself.”

Even if there were money available, the current project’s proponents do not want to wait their turn to receive grant funds. The September 7, 2018 project financial plan states: “Due to the unique size, scope and criticality of this Project, the Project cost and financial model is based on the assumption that CIG funding is provided to the Project in a manner that allows the Project to proceed on a schedule that meets the Project’s needs.” In other words, the project’s proponents want it to “jump the line” and receive grant funds as they need them, and not wait until they receive their fair share of New Starts dollars as they become available. Deputy Transportation Secretary Jeff Rosen expressed that in criticizing the Gateway project generally for wanting funds this year, even though it is apparently ineligible for them (see the previous article in this series). That also happened in 2010 concerning the former Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) Project, when New Jersey Transit received advances on some of the grants it hoped to get, and had to return some of that money after the project was canceled.

The numbers submitted in the September 2018 plan indicate that the project is “jumping the line,” as Rosen feared. The project’s CIG requests for the next three fiscal years add up to $3.052 billion, or an average of almost $1.02 billion per year. Jeff Davis reported in the November 26, 2018 edition of Eno Transportation Week that the average national yearly appropriation for New Starts is $1.63 billion, so the Hudson Tunnel Project would consume 62.4% of all New Starts money available for the entire country. The FY21 projection of $1.086 billion would equal 66.6%, or two-thirds, of the entire national appropriation. The project document continued: “The Project Partners understand the annual CIG disbursement amounts are subject to further discussion with FTA and Congress.” That statement leads to the inference that the Project Partners were aware that their requests appear excessive on their face.

While it is clear that the proposed Hudson Tunnel Project would eventually increase the number of tunnel tubes from two to four, it is clear that those tunnels would not produce the results that some riders and advocates want and expect, unless and until all other elements of the Gateway Program are completed and placed into service. One of those elements is the proposed Penn South station, which Amtrak spokesperson Schulz says is now in the “conceptual” stage, so he did not provide a cost-estimate for it. The Hudson Tunnel Project could allow more trains to go under the river at peak-commuting hours, but it does not give them a place to go.

The Raritan Valley Rail Coalition, a politically oriented organization that advocates for improved service on NJ Transit’s Raritan Valley Line (historically the Central Railroad of New Jersey) has campaigned for a one-seat ride into New York since it was founded in 1998. It had achieved a part of that goal in 2014, when NJ Transit offered such through-service on selected mid-day and evening trains on weekdays. That service upgrade was suspended last September, and all trains from the Raritan Valley Line now terminate at Newark. There were never any “one-seat ride” trains during peak-commuting hours or on weekends. At a meeting of the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition on March 26, Gateway Trustee Jerry Zaro promoted the Gateway program, but Clift pointed out that the Hudson Tunnel Project would not provide any additional “one-seat ride” trains to New York—the top item on the wish list of the line’s riders and advocates. That would have to wait for Penn South and the rest of the overall Gateway program; still years and billions of additional dollars into the future. In terms of cost-effectiveness, the continuing woes of Raritan Line riders provides an example of how the project would not help today’s riders in the Garden State.

Gateway proponents, along with Amtrak and some advocacy organizations, have recently turned up the heat on the issue of a potentially catastrophic failure. On March 4, Curtis Tate reported in the Record, based in Bergen County, N.J., about the dire consequences that would befall the region if a tunnel were to fail. The Regional Plan Association (RPA), a New York planning organization with ties to business interests, has also warned of a similar catastrophe if that event should occur. There is no doubt that the RPA is attempting to scare the decision-makers of the region into building two new tunnels as soon as possible, to avert the possibility of the calamity that it predicts.

There is another possible outcome that could result from the fear-mongering by RPA, Amtrak and the Gateway proponents. If the situation is actually as dire as they claim, then it stands to reason that they owe an obligation to the population of the region and its safety and wealth to make every reasonable effort to ensure that there are two tunnels in service at all times. In light of the situation with the Canarsie Tunnels on the subway system’s L-train, that would mean repeating Gov. Cuomo’s act and calling in the engineers from Cornell and Columbia (or others similarly situated) for a second opinion. If they recommend a plan similar to that for the Canarsie Tunnels, repairs in the North River Tunnels can begin eight years sooner than previously planned and the potential catastrophe prevented. Even if not, that step is part of a best effort to prevent the harm that a tunnel failure could cause. Beyond that, it appears to this writer that it would be a reckless act for Gateway proponents to refrain from getting the sort of “second opinion” that Cuomo got for the Canarsie Tunnels and taking that opinion seriously. If the existing trans-Hudson tunnels were to fail after Gateway’s proponents were to make less than a best effort to get them repaired, they could be blamed for the damage. If the Gateway proponents fail to make a best effort to get the existing tunnels repaired, it could look even worse; like they are holding the entire region hostage for their overpriced project, which requires new tunnels before the existing ones are repaired, despite their repeated allegation that the existing situation is extremely dangerous.

With the recent statements by MTA officials and Gateway Trustees, the above-mentioned scenario now appears less likely than it had in the past. In light of the anticipated success of the upcoming repairs to the Canarsie Tunnels on the L-train line, the former statements of alarm now seem to make far less sense than they did before.

Some critics of this approach claim that fixing the existing tunnels now would preclude any additional tunnels in the future. To this writer, that outcome is unlikely. We can all be grateful that the tunnels have lasted this well, for this long. Still, it is improbable that a rigorous and realistic assessment of ridership forecasting and capacity needs would determine that two tunnels will be sufficient for the foreseeable future. Such an assessment may conclude that it would not be necessary to have four tunnel tubes during the foreseeable future, so it may not be urgent to build two new ones; not now, at least. It appears reasonable that three tunnel tubes; the two existing ones and one new one, will fill the need for the next several decades. That situation would be analogous to a number of busy rail lines in urban and suburban areas that have three tracks. The center track is used to carry trains in the prevailing direction of peak-hour commuting or is pressed into service when there is an outage (either planned or unplanned) on another track.

Even if the ridership and capacity analysis determines that four tunnel tubes will eventually be needed, it might be less expensive in the long run to build one more tube as soon as possible, and the fourth when it is finally necessary. That depends on factors such as the marginal cost of building the fourth tunnel tube separately after the third is in place, but any other alternative will present a large saving over building two new tubes now and then repairing the existing ones many years from now (if ever).

The advocates have not forgotten their longtime goal from the 1990s of service for New Jersey riders directly to the East Side of Midtown Manhattan. That may require four tracks in four tunnel tubes, but it will take time to develop the infrastructure sufficiently to accommodate that level of improvement. Until then, even a third track and tunnel will deliver independent utility for a number of years to come.

Besides the tunnels, Portal Bridge is often cited as a risk point for system failure. We will take a close look at the bridge and proposals to replace it in the next article in this series.

ADDENDUM, May 21, 2019

According to the Federal Transit Administration, “the Hudson Tunnel project partners have not completed the steps required in law and regulation to receive a construction grant award under the FTA Capital Investment Grants (CIG) program. After several years of being in the CIG program, the Hudson Tunnel project remains ineligible to advance from the first phase to the second phase because it has received a ‘medium-low’ rating from the professional career staff at FTA, in significant part because of inadequate financial plans. Any ‘holding up’ of the Hudson Tunnel project is at the state and local levels.

“Some of the more notable state and local actions remaining include:

“There must be a project partner committed to designing and constructing the project that is responsible for implementing all environmental mitigation measures stated as commitments in the Final Environmental Impact Statement.

“FTA has been told the intent is for the Gateway Development Corporation (GDC) to become the entity responsible for construction. If this is the case, the New York and New Jersey state legislatures would need to pass legislation to make the GDC a public entity for it to be eligible by Federal law to be a CIG grant recipient.

“All non-CIG funding needs to be secured, including applying for multiple Federal loans through the U.S. DOT Build America Bureau. Importantly, the project partners would first need to identify the source of approximately $800 million in unspecified local funding that is presumed to repay one of the Federal loans.

“New York State must take actions to gain commitments of its proposed Federal loan repayment source.

“New Jersey Transit needs to take actions to implement the ‘Gateway Surcharge” fare increase on transit passengers traveling through the Hudson Tunnels that is assumed as repayment source to another of the Federal loans.

“The project partners must develop a firm and final cost, scope and schedule, and must complete all critical third-party agreements.

“In addition, the State of New York recently approved a new $1 billion per year tax on commuters via a new congestion pricing program in New York City; this program is estimated to generate more than $15 billion available for capital transit projects. However, not a single cent of this $15 billion will be available for the Hudson Tunnel project.

Portal North Bridge

“The Portal North Bridge project sponsor has not completed the steps required in law and regulation to receive a construction grant award under the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Capital Investment Grants (CIG) program. The project remains ineligible to advance from the first phase to the second phase of the CIG program because it has received a ‘medium-low’ rating from the professional career staff at FTA.

“Some of the more notable actions remaining include:

“New Jersey Transit needs to complete a multi-step process to update state financial programming documents (Transportation Capital Program and the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program) to commit the funds necessary to repay the proposed issuance of $600 million in state bonds.

“New Jersey Transit must develop a firm and final cost, scope and schedule, and must complete all critical third-party agreements.”

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, as well as on connecting transportation. The Coalition, founded in 1979, is one of the nation’s oldest rail advocacy organizations. 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).

Categories: Commuter/Regional, High Performance, Intercity, Passenger Tags: , , , ,