Letter to the Editor: “Gateway – The Series”

Written by New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers
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Illustration courtesy the Office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

In Part 2 of “Gateway - The Series,” authored by Contributing Editor David Peter Alan, the implication is made that all rail advocates support a two-track replacement of Portal Bridge as well as foregoing the Gateway Project by adopting the “L-Train Tunnel” solution advocated by Columbia University engineers to repair the existing 100-plus-year-old Hudson River tunnels.

Implying that all rail advocates favor Mr. Alan’s proposal is misleading, as the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP), for one, favors the Gateway Project as currently proposed, including a 4-track Portal Bridge. Anything less denies our region’s future economic potential. The Gateway Project would be for naught if the present two-track Portal Bridge were to be replaced by a new two-track Portal Bridge. Such a move would only move the choke-point from the tunnels to the Portal Bridge.

NJ-ARP advocates that funds for all capital projects be directed toward the goal of increasing the capacity of trans-Hudson infrastructure to meet current and future needs of the region. At present, the fragile rail tunnels fall far short of the mark. With traffic congestion in our region rapidly approaching a tipping point, New Jersey residents are looking for alternative methods to reach their jobs and pursuits on the east side of the Hudson River in a civilized and reliable manner. The problem calls out for expanding capacity, not maintaining the status quo. With this in mind NJ-ARP has been a steadfast supporter of the construction of the new trans-Hudson Gateway Tunnels ever since the inception of Amtrak’s proposal. Once those tunnels are built, we support the temporary closure of the existing over 100-year-old former Pennsylvania Railroad tunnels, which sit in silt at the bottom of the Hudson River, in order that they be modernized and rehabilitated for further use far into the future. We are not engineers, and urge that this be accomplished in the most cost-effective and long-lasting manner.

The Gateway Project, including Portal Bridge, must be accompanied by operational improvements at New York Penn Station. ReThinkStudio.org has developed a brilliant plan for achieving operational efficiencies by operating a substantial majority of regional and suburban trains through the station, in effect converting it from a terminal into more of a way-station for such trains, much as it is on Amtrak’s Washington-to-New England services today. This would include dialing back the current number of tracks and making platforms wider, allowing passengers to disembark through doors on one side of their trains while others embark on the other. This through-running approach, applied to operations between New Jersey Transit on one side and MTA Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North on the other, would provide increased capacity through significantly reduced dwell times while allowing for more efficient equipment utilization.

The Manhattan-centric nature of our rail system also needs evaluation, as the New York Metropolitan region has changed since the days of the private railways. NJ-ARP believes a regional solution is necessary, given the region’s changing demographics, increased population and expanded economic activity. The current rail system operates beyond its capacity, which results in overcrowding and unreliability. As a result, residents take to their cars. In New Jersey specifically, one only has to observe vehicular traffic on east-west roads such as Routes 3, 4, 22, 24, 46, 78, 80 and others to observe bumper-to-bumper traffic in each direction during the peak and shoulder hours every day. The reason is that Manhattan, while still an important economic “center of the universe” and the primary historical reason for the existence of commuter rail service, is no longer the region’s sole economic engine. New Jersey has Morristown, Parsippany, Piscataway, New Brunswick, Princeton and other municipalities that have become large employment centers of their own. In addition, with the lack of north-south rail options, traffic on such roads as routes 17, 287, the New Jersey Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway and others are equally jammed with traffic in both directions. The entire Gateway Project, with its expanded capacity, is essential to allowing increased local and reverse passenger rail service.

The morning crush at the Lincoln Tunnel. Wall Street Journal photo.

NJ-ARP does not stop there. We fully endorse the extension of the New York City 7-Flushing subway line from Hudson Yards in Manhattan to Secaucus Junction. This plan, studied by WSP USA (then Parsons Brinckerhoff) in 2012 at the behest of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, would allow 10-car trains of the 7 line to carry passengers every 2 minutes from New Jersey to Manhattan. Instead of riders making the current awkward, inconvenient and time-consuming NYC subway connections in Manhattan, they would make a seamless connection at Secaucus, cutting their commute time by 30 minutes or more. This would also provide New Jersey riders their coveted access to the east side of midtown Manhattan, while also benefitting Manhattan and the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn by allowing their residents access to jobs in New Jersey. With this in mind, NJ-ARP has also recommended to the Port Authority of Mew York & New Jersey that it forego a $10 billion expense to replace its Port Authority Bus Terminal (PABT) in Manhattan with a larger structure, increasing its footprint in an area with high real estate values. Instead, we recommend refurbishing the current terminal and building an additional facility at Secaucus Junction so many New York-bound buses are intercepted before reaching the Lincoln Tunnel—a facility that currently operates at 115% capacity and cannot support a higher-capacity PABT.

In the early 1900s, many thought the Pennsylvania Railroad’s idea of tunneling to New York was pure folly—overly grand, not feasible and much too costly. Certain advocates feel the same way about the Gateway Project. NJ-ARP does not. NJ-ARP believes that the transit problems faced by a stellar region must be confronted with bold, forward-thinking plans. If all we do is repair the status quo, future generations will be wondering why we punted on Gateway when we could have acted as boldly as the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1910.

Leonard Resto, President and Treasurer, New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers

David Peter Alan responds:

As the author of the Gateway Series, I agree with much of what Leonard Resto, President and Treasurer of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) said in his response to Gateway Article 2. However, he begins by saying that I imply that all advocates support alternatives for trans-Hudson mobility that are significantly less expensive than the Gateway project as currently proposed.

That is untrue. The second paragraph of Article 2 in the series begins: “Some local advocates still view Gateway as controversial”; a statement that describes why I am writing these articles. Some advocates, including NJ-ARP, support Gateway as proposed. Others do not. If everybody believed that the current proposal were feasible and optimal, there would be no controversy, and no reason to write about Gateway. It also might have been built by now, if there were no controversy surrounding it and enough money available to build it.

NJ-ARP has not challenged any of the facts that I mentioned in my article. In fact, I share many of the concerns they raise. Penn Station New York should be improved, and ReThinkNYC’s proposal for a station oriented toward through-running deserves further consideration. The Manhattan-centric nature of NJ Transit remains a problem, as recognized by NJ-ARP, the Lackawanna Coalition and other advocates. New Jerseyans need more transit to take them to places within their own state. It appears that Secaucus Junction has merit as a bus facility, but the Lincoln Tunnel and approaching highways must be operated to accommodate more buses, and that is up to the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. Running the No. 7 NYCT subway line to Secaucus is controversial, both politically and operationally. It is unclear that the Grand Central station on the 7 line could accommodate thousands of new riders from New Jersey at peak commuting hours with currently available ingress and egress.

The overarching difficulty is that these other improvements cost enormous amounts of money, and the problem with Gateway as currently proposed is that there is not enough money available to pay for all of it. Even if there were, Gateway would cost so much that there would not be enough money left for improvements within New Jersey. At this point, NJ Transit claims not to have the money (or the crews, at the moment) to make needed improvements to existing rail service. 

The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) executed a bold plan more than a century ago, when it “conquered Gotham” by building the existing tunnels and the original Penn Station. The PRR was an economic powerhouse at the time, and had the money to implement that plan. Unfortunately, times changed and the railroad could no longer sustain its passenger services. The magnificent original Penn Station lasted for only 53 years. 

Today, the region needs infrastructure that gets people into and out of New York City efficiently, and at an affordable cost. There is not enough money available to build the entire Gateway project as proposed, but there are more-affordable alternatives. 

The first step is to repair the existing North River Tunnels and main their full-time, two-track mail line status. That step alone would save billions of dollars that could be spent on a more cost-effective set of projects.

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