At a legislative hearing on Aug. 16, 2018, Gateway Program Development Corp Interim Executive Director John D. Porcari said, “There is no Plan B.” He was wrong. At the same hearing, this writer (as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, a New Jersey-based advocacy organization) outlined the “Plan B” that some rider-advocates had formulated and submitted, in the event that the entire $30 billion-plus Gateway program as currently proposed fails to attract sufficient funding. Porcari stuck to his story that the existing North River Tunnels are deteriorating so quickly that they constitute a disaster waiting to happen but, under his proposal, they would not be repaired until 2030 or some time shortly thereafter.
While the advocates’ Plan B has been announced, it is not getting the exposure it deserves, because the “establishment” that wants huge construction contracts has the clout to push its plan instead. Nonetheless, the advocates who support it remain concerned that only their Plan B or something similar has any chance of being funded and built.
Recent action by the FTA has demonstrated that their concerns are well-founded. The latest project ratings from last November, which were reported on March 15, give the Portal North Bridge Project and the Hudson Tunnel Project each “medium-low” rating, which essentially ensures that neither project will be funded with a federal grant. Competition is fierce, and a “medium” rating is required.
That situation has not changed. As recently as June 27, Acting FTA Administrator K. Jane Williams published an OpEd piece in the Newark-based Star-Ledger and on its website, www.nj.com, entitled “Note from the feds to N.J./N.Y.: You won’t get a new tunnel or bridge until you finish your homework.” She began by saying: “Despite being called the ‘most pressing infrastructure need in the nation,’ New York and New Jersey have actually failed to complete basic necessary steps required in law for two of the Gateway projects —Hudson Tunnel and Portal North Bridge —to receive federal funds.” She continued by lecturing Gateway officials, saying: “To be clear, you shouldn’t get upset with another state for doing their homework. If New York and New Jersey want the Gateway projects, they have to follow the rules just like everyone else …” and “Any ‘unnecessary delays’ are attributable to state and local inaction and failure to meet federal requirements.”
Williams noted that the financial plan for the $13.7 billion Hudson Tunnel Project (the portion attributable to NJ Transit and not Amtrak) was inadequate and criticized the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for not updating the plan, “despite FTA’s repeated requests and detailed written guidance on how to do so.” She also criticized the Port Authority for not having applied for four federal loans proposed in its financial plan. Concerning the proposed Portal North Bridge Project, currently estimated to cost $1.79 billion, she directed similar criticism at NJ Transit, saying that the project “is stalled because the funding in the region’s own financial plan is not secured, after several years of talking about it.”
Williams blasted New York officials, too, for failing to set aside any of the projected revenue from the estimated $1 billion annual income from the upcoming vehicle congestion plan in Manhattan toward either of the Gateway projects. She concluded by saying: “Countless projects throughout the country have been successful by following the rules and have received federal funding that has improved transit in their communities. Yet, the Gateway project sponsors continue to ignore these requirements. Instead, they are crying wolf while doing little to fix their own lack of planning and effort.”
The Bergen Record and its website, www.northjersey.com, ran a similar OpEd piece by Williams, entitled “New Hudson Tunnel and Portal North Bridge Not Ready for Broadway” on June 15. In that version, she also said: “New Jersey Transit must take additional steps to fully commit the funding in the state’s capital improvement program and to demonstrate that it has the financial capacity to fund unexpected cost increases (which all New Jerseyans are familiar with) or funding shortfalls.”
On July 2, Gateway Chair and New Jersey attorney Jerry Zaro responded in the Record and on its website, saying that Williams “blatantly misrepresents the facts around the commitment by the States of New York and New Jersey to the Hudson Tunnel and Portal Bridge North Projects.” Zaro instead blamed the U.S. Department of Transportation and the federal government for delays in moving the Gateway projects forward. He added: “Judged on their merits with a level playing field and an objective umpire, the Gateway projects compete favorably for discretionary grant funding against any other project in the country and should be under construction by now.”
Zaro continued: “Instead, the USDOT charges that the local partners haven’t applied to loan programs needed for the Hudson Tunnel Project even though it knows full well that without a Record of Decision the partners cannot adequately develop a schedule, which is needed for the loan application. The local partners finished work on the environmental review in a remarkable 22 months—USDOT has so far required nearly as long (about 18 months and counting) for an inexplicable ‘review’ that its own permitting dashboard says should have been completed last spring.”
Zaro specifically defended the Portal North Bridge Project, saying: “The argument against Portal North Bridge is even more egregiously flawed since the State of New Jersey has committed 50% of the local share, including $600 million. Surprisingly, USDOT now demands New Jersey issue the bonds immediately—costing the state millions of dollars while it waits on approval of federal grants —something that has not been required of other projects. FTA also knows that NJ Transit and Amtrak have agreed to cover cost overruns on a 50-50 basis. The states and local partners have pledged more than $6 billion—real money—toward the Gateway Program projects because they recognize the urgency and consequences of inaction.”
At this time, it is difficult to fathom how NJ Transit and Amtrak could legitimately pledge the money needed to cover cost overruns, which could amount to billions of dollars for the Portal North Bridge Project alone, and many more billions for the proposed Hudson Tunnel Project; not to mention Penn South and other Gateway components, for which no funding applications have yet been filed. Both agencies are financially strapped, and unless there is an unexpected and radical change in New Jersey or national politics soon, that situation will not change in the foreseeable future.
Both agencies have cut service lately. NJ Transit has recently received a modest increase in funding from the New Jersey legislature, while Amtrak has received a modest increase in its appropriation from Congress, although President Trump is resisting the increase for Amtrak. It is reasonable to expect that both agencies will continue to limp along, underfunded and dependent on elected officials who do not ride their trains. It appears unreasonable to expect that either of them could afford billions of dollars for cost overruns on any of the Gateway projects.
Williams did not address the issue of whether or not the Portal North Bridge Project would actually be eligible for a Core Capacity Improvement Grant, because merely replacing one 2-track bridge with another is highly unlikely to deliver the required capacity increase of 10%. Nevertheless, the FTA is holding firm on its position that the two Gateway projects now under consideration are not complying with local project financing rules, so they will not get the grants that their supporters want. Zaro and other Gateway proponents can complain all they wish about the FTA and its decision-making, but unless both houses of Congress and President Trump agree to a change in the FTA’s authority, the agency is empowered to say “no” and intends to do just that, unless the local agencies comply with the rules the FTA has set.
Politicians in New York and New Jersey are attempting to give the Gateway Program Development Corporation more power. The proposed Gateway Development Commission Act is now working its way through the legislatures of both states. Much of the bill’s language sets the structure for the new agency, which would have the power to establish and collect tolls and fees for using Gateway infrastructure (§3(f)(ii)), although the power to collect such tolls or fees payable to NJ Transit would be narrowly construed §3(f)(iii)). Section 4(a) calls for seven commissioners: three each from New York and New Jersey, and one from Amtrak.
To this writer, it appears that the addition of two more commissioners from each state is included to add more patronage appointments for each of the governors. There is no provision that would allow any representation for riders or other advocates on a non-political basis. Section 14 would allow the governor of either state to veto any action by the proposed commission within ten business days—a feature about the Port Authority’s structure that many advocates and other members of the public consider undesirable.
Perhaps the most important feature of the bill (at Section 19) is that New York and New Jersey commit themselves to equal contributions toward funding the projects in Phase I of Gateway, which include the Hudson Tunnel Project and Portal North Bridge. Contributions from the Port Authority would be credited equally; half to each state. It is unclear how that provision would affect future funding, but it would prevent each state from claiming that the other is receiving most of the benefit from the projects.
Section 7(j) would allow the commission to borrow money toward financing the Gateway projects, but would not allow it to pledge the full faith and credit of the federal government, New York, New Jersey, any local governmental entity in ether state, Amtrak or the Port Authority. That means its ability to raise money for the Gateway projects would be limited. Section 12(a) requires a ten-year capital plan to be released by Jan. 30, 2020, so we will know more about Gateway’s financing plans at that time.
NJ Transit has offered to impose a surcharge on NJT rail riders to or from New York. This would amount to a toll, which is a user fee. It would start at 90 cents per trip, increase to $1.70 in 2028 and to $2.20 in 2038. Assuming that the Gateway Commission could levy that toll and force NJ Transit to collect it, it is currently unclear whether such a toll would succeed in placing the New Jersey side of the financial responsibility for the project entirely on the backs of NJT’s New York riders. In all likelihood, the FTA would require that any revenue collected from the toll would be dedicated specifically for New Jersey’s share of project funding, and that action could be taken through political or administrative means. Still, as the old saying goes, “the devil is in the details,” and we do not have enough details about the proposed surcharge to determine whether or not it would succeed in raising enough money to meet its stated goal, or whether it would constitute beneficial transportation policy on other grounds.
Steven H. Santoro, who was Executive Director of NJ Transit at the time, offered the agency’s commitment to the levy in a letter to former Gateway Executive Director John Porcari on Dec. 13, 2017. Santoro used the phrase “estimated per-trip cost to NJ Transit rail customers using the Trans-Hudson tunnels,” a description that is more ambiguous than definitive. It seems reasonable to expect that only customers going to or from Penn Station New York would be charged, but the stated amounts are “estimated,” which means that they are subject to change.
What does “per-trip cost” mean? For riders on single-trip tickets, the answer seems clear. However, most peak-hour riders are commuters who pay a flat fee for unlimited riders during a week or, more commonly, a month. Historically, NJT has been charging about 28 base fares for a monthly ticket, which means 14 commuting days, with the 15th and beyond incurring no additional cost. If a commuter makes 20 round trips per month, would the surcharge be based on 14 round trips (current ticket price) or 20 round trips (estimated use)? At 90 cents per trip (presumably each way, but Santoro did not say), the difference in revenue would be $11.20 per month for each commuter, adding up to $1 million per month or more. Advocate Joseph M. Clift, who was Planning Director for the Long Island Rail Road, ran the numbers and told this writer that it is possible that the proposed surcharge could be enough to cover the loan. Still, we do not know how much the charge would be or how it would be implemented, so we do not currently know for sure that it will.
There are other questions about the proposed surcharge as matters of policy. On the surface, it makes sense to pay for projects of this sort through user fees, as opposed to the way that non-motorists are taxed to pay for highway projects. A closer look at this funding method reveals questions about transportation equity and transportation policy. Outside peak-commuting hours, there is plenty of capacity into and out of Penn Station. Riders outside peak-commuting hours do not need whatever benefit the project might deliver. Is it fair or equitable to force them to pay an additional charge for infrastructure that produces no direct benefit for them, especially since they pay higher fares to ride on single-trip tickets than commuters, many of whom ride during the congested peak-hours and all of whom receive a substantial discount? We cannot resolve this issue here, but we can raise it.
There is also the issue of whether or not the surcharge reflects good transportation policy. In recent years, NJ Transit has been using funds for operations that were originally designed for capital projects. Clift and other advocates have complained loudly and constantly about that practice, but the agency has consistently said that it needs the money to keep service running, and that it does not have enough money to run additional service that advocates consider necessary and have requested. By requiring riders to and from New York to pay for the Hudson Tunnel Project, NJ Transit will turn the current situation upside-down in the future. Instead of capital funds being redirected toward operations, farebox revenue (customarily used for operations) would be used to finance a capital project.
Clift sees a severe drawback to that practice. NJ Transit has no dedicated source of funds, and it must count on the legislature and the governor’s approval for a yearly appropriation to cover much of its budget, especially operations. Clift has expressed his concern that New York commuters, who would be subject to the surcharge, would use their political clout to prevent other fare increases that would otherwise pay for operations throughout the state. That could deprive the agency of money it needs to run buses, light rail and trains that do not go to New York. If Clift’s fears are realized, the levy could help NJT pay for the Hudson Tunnel Project, but the side-effects of the policy could be costly. Even if there are no direct political repercussions concerning fares, a portion of the agency’s farebox revenue would be dedicated to its largest construction project. That means overall farebox revenue would be leveraged away from operations, so there would be less money available to run services, in any event.
To make matters worse, the multi-billion-dollar Hudson Tunnel Project would not add any capacity whatsoever into and out of New York’s Penn Station. In its submission to the FTA dated Nov. 7, 2018 for the Hudson Tunnel Project, NJT said this in describing the purpose of the project: “The Project is considered independently from the capacity-enhancing projects analyzed in NEC FUTURE and proposed in the Gateway Program planning documents. The Project addresses resilience of the NEC Hudson River crossing and would not increase rail capacity” (§2.2.4 at 16).
The Project Description Template in the Project Background Information section of the same document contains a similar statement: “No changes to PSNY platforms or platform tracks are proposed as part of the Project, keeping the operational capacity of the Hudson River rail crossing as is” (Id., §2.1 at 2). In other words, anyone who believes, or even hopes, that the billions of dollars which Gateway proponents want to spend on the Hudson Tunnel Project would result in more trains getting into Penn Station New York and taking their loads of commuters there with them would be utterly disappointed.
The proposed Gateway Development Commission structure would facilitate the projects administratively by bringing many of the administrative functions under one umbrella. It does not appear to do much toward actually financing the projects, since it would not own enough assets to provide sufficient collateral for the magnitude of borrowing that would be required to pay for the projects, nor would it have the direct authority to raise the amount of direct contributions that would be required. That would still be up to the states or the federal government.
In Part 5 of this series, about the proposed Penn South station, Scott Spencer, who evaluated the alternatives for the original ARC Project, questioned who could pay for the inevitable cost overruns that accompany projects of this magnitude. Even if the FTA approved grants for the Gateway projects, the amounts are capped, and the participating agencies must pay for all overruns. NJ Transit, the New York MTA and Amtrak do not have the money to make up the difference. Neither would the proposed Gateway Development Commission.
Gateway and its proponents, including essentially all politicians and most of the “mainstream” media, all say that the entire Gateway program must be built, or else the region will suffer a dire calamity. So far, the only ideas presented by the “establishment” are “all of Gateway” or nothing, even though it seems essentially impossible that there could be enough money to build all of Gateway. As far as many people are aware, there are no alternative voices calling for an affordable project that can do the job.
That situation is changing, though. While the press in New Jersey has been largely silent on the Gateway Program, New York’s Daily News has voiced its objections in a blizzard of editorials over the past year—as many as three in an eight-day period. After strongly questioning the utility and cost-effectiveness of building new tunnels before beginning repairs on the existing North River Tunnels, the paper attacked the entire Gateway Program head-on in a March 11 editorial entitled The Right Way: Gateway Boondoggle Must Scale Back and Fix the Hudson Tunnels Now. The editorial attacked the premise that it was necessary to build new tunnels first: “That plan is a total misfit for officials’ rationale, which is that the existing tunnels, flooded by Sandy, need immediate attention—and the tunnels need more track capacity to handle Jersey-Manhattan commutes.”
The Daily News agreed with some advocates that there is not enough money available to build the set of projects as proposed: “Applications for federal funding expose the game they’re playing. The folks behind Gateway are asking the Federal Transit Administration for $6.7 billion for the project’s tunnel, arguing that it’s for resiliency and not new capacity, yet an L-train type repair would render that argument moot. Oops.” The editorial also attacked the latest version of the Portal Bridge Project: “A second application for a $772 million FTA grant for a two-track replacement bridge over the Hackensack River does not qualify at all because the project by itself fails to achieve the statutory minimum 10% increase in capacity during the peak of rush hour. Double oops.” The editorial concluded by recommending: “The smarter and cheaper thing to do: Repair the existing tunnels now, without shutting them down, then dig new tunnels and upgrade existing bridges.”
One New Jersey writer in the “mainstream” press has been voicing his own objections to Gateway. He is Paul Mulshine, a longtime columnist for the Star-Ledger. Mulshine objected to the original ARC (Access to the Region’s Core) Project a decade ago, when it changed from a useful and cost-effective project that would take riders to Manhattan’s East Side at Grand Central Terminal, into an isolated railroad through “The Tunnel to Macy’s Basement” (actually about 18 stories below it). In a column entitled Overpriced and Underperforming: Gateway Rail Tunnels’ Arc is Starting to Look Like ARC, published on Sept. 28, 2017, Mulshine said: “This was a virtual clone of one of the original ARC plans that would have cost about $8 billion. But now the price tag had risen to $13.5 billion … It’s still rising. At a Monday legislative hearing on the Gateway project, the price tag was almost $30 billion. The Jersey guys, both Republicans and Democrats, are getting fed up.”
There is an affordable alternative plan, and it was proposed eight years ago. In 2011, Clift and Lackawanna Coalition Legislative Director James T. Raleigh (1934-2013), with assistance from this writer and other advocates, developed a plan that could be built in four phases, each phase delivering direct customer benefits, such as increased peak-hour train capacity. These benefits are known as independent utility—benefits that do not come with any components of the current Gateway program, where you do not get a single additional peak-hour train until all $30 billion or more has been spent.
The first phase of that plan would be a third trans-Hudson tunnel tube connecting the south side of New York Penn Station with the existing two tracks on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) just west of the existing tunnel’s Bergen portal at the western edge of the Palisades, emerging on the north side of the NEC via a duck-under, thereby reducing conflicts between trains entering and exiting Penn Station through the existing tunnel (at A Interlocking). There would be concurrent improvements to Penn Station, including increased vertical access to platforms in the south half of the station and the extension of Platforms 1 and 2, serving Tracks 1 through 4. These platforms would be able to accommodate 12-car trains, west to the new West End Concourse (and the future Moynihan Train Hall) and east under Seventh Avenue, with a new pedestrian connection to the northbound NYC Transit No. 1 subway platform and the street.
With that improvement, any track would then be able to accommodate any NJ Transit train, no matter how long its consist, which would simplify operations and make the station more cost-effective. This phase would deliver modest capacity gain —no more than three to four additional peak-hour trains over the existing 25 (in the busiest 60 minutes of the morning)—but it would achieve a large-enough increase (12-16%) to pass the minimum 10% increase required to qualify for a Core Capacity grant from the FTA. One potential use of this capacity enhancement would be to allow peak-hour trains on the Raritan Valley Line to have “one-seat-ride” access to Penn Station at peak-commuting time. Today, all New York-bound riders on that line must change trains at Penn Station Newark.
The second phase, the initial Plan B, would build a third track on the NEC eastward from Swift Interlocking, a complex junction west of Portal Bridge, where the Morris & Essex (M&E) line’s Midtown Direct trains join the NEC, to the new Phase 1 trans-Hudson tunnel. This would create a three-track railroad from Swift all the way into an improved Penn Station, with the center track reversing to serve the peak direction of flow, directing two tracks east into NY Penn in the morning and two tracks west out of NY Penn into the evening. Another modest gain of three to five more peak-hour trains would add up to eight more than the current 25. The additional track would tie into the existing three tracks east and west of Secaucus Junction Station and the four platform tracks in that station.
There would be no Penn South in Raleigh and Clift’s proposed Plan B. Instead, the new track would connect directly into the existing ladder tracks at Penn Station, and trains entering the station on it would be assigned to station tracks in the customary manner.
There would be one new bridge to augment the existing Portal Bridge but, because there is so little river traffic today and so little expected in the future, the new bridge would not need to be built at a high level above the water. It could be a two-track movable bridge, unless the Coast Guard allows a low-level fixed bridge. There would be no need for long approaches, which would avoid the high cost of their construction. The original bridge would be rehabilitated or replaced as previously discussed, and used only during peak-commuting hours or when another track is taken out of service.
A third phase, the final Plan B, would add a fourth trans-Hudson tunnel tube. There would still be a three-track railroad from the tunnels to Swift, given the complexity and expense of building a fourth track there. This phase would add another four peak-hour trains, raising the total to 37, a 48% increase over the current 25. This increase is sufficient to accommodate ridership growth and the addition of dual-power locomotive service into NY Penn on the Raritan Valley Line and extension of service into non-electrified territory on the North Jersey Coast, Morris & Essex and Montclair-Boonton Lines, but not onto the Main, Bergen or Pascack Valley Lines. Riders on those lines could transfer at Secaucus.
A fourth phase, now seemingly in the far-distant future, would add a fourth track from Swift to the fourth trans-Hudson tunnel tube, expand Secaucus by adding tracks on both sides and building the long-sought track connection between Penn Station New York and an improved Grand Central Terminal, taking Gateway back to the original ARC plan to provide a one-seat ride to Midtown Manhattan’s East Side.
“We were heavily into this in mid-2011,” Clift said. “We had a problem from Swift east, not from Swift west. That is where we needed the volume to accommodate more tracks across the Hudson River. NJ Transit had previously made improvements at a lower cost to get more people into Penn Station New York, but now this must be fixed. We need a third track from where Midtown Direct trains enter the NEC at Swift Interlocking, and we need a third track from there to an improved Penn Station, using the existing Penn Station, and not a new one.
“A fourth tunnel under the river and a fourth track might be useful someday, but they are expensive. We should expand the existing NEC to a three-track railroad now and a four-track railroad later, not build a separate railroad as Gateway proposes. We called it ‘a Better Gateway’ because we believe that it is better than the current Gateway proposal. The final step would be to connect with Grand Central as proposed in 1995’s Alternative G. One of the great benefits is that you can get incremental capacity increases with each step. With Gateway, you need to spend the $30 billion before you get anything.”
In the 1980s at the LIRR, Clift led the planning of Ronkonkoma Line improvements, which did not involve double-tracking the entire line. That is being done now, but the improvements that Clift planned lasted for 30 years.
This “Plan B” has been proposed, but most of the media and other opinion leaders have ignored it so far, with everyone focused on an unaffordable $30 billion-plus plan. “Plan B” is controversial, and not all advocates support it, but the Lackawanna Coalition does, the editorials in the Daily News support the key elements of the plan, and Mulshine endorsed the plan in his Sept. 28, 2017 column.
Mulshine had first endorsed Clift’s plan in a column from April 13, 2017 entitled Pork-Seeking Politicians are Digging a Deep Hole for the Gateway Tunnel Plan, in which he also expressed approval of the original ARC “Alternative G” plan to extend NJ Transit’s line to Grand Central Terminal on Manhattan’s East Side. He concentrated on the funding and political aspects of Gateway when he said: “When the Gateway plan was unveiled in 2011, the price tag was put at $11.5 billion. But as the goodies got added on, the price doubled All of this would be academic if we had the $24 billion to do Gateway. But we don’t. The feds are supposed to put up half, but President Trump is cutting transit programs, not adding them. As for New Jersey’s half, we’re broke. The feds might offer us a loan. But adding $12 billion in state debt to the existing $100 billion pension-fund shortfall is a recipe for yet another credit downgrade.”
Until there is demand and funding for anything as elaborate as the fourth phase of the Raleigh-Clift plan, the final Plan B (Phase 3) or the initial Plan B (Phase 2) should suit the needs of the region’s riders and transit providers if resources are limited, and should deliver enough capacity to meet ridership demand, along with redundancy, and at an affordable cost. Clift and other advocates believe that it is possible to build the final Plan B (Phase 3) for a total cost of $10 billion; about one-third of the currently estimated cost of Gateway. That would save enough money that it should be possible to raise about half of the total cost (actually, slightly more than half is required) from “local” sources, so federal grants and loans could cover the rest. It even has a political advantage: The Feds currently consider Gateway too expensive, but might be more willing to fund a set of projects that costs considerably less.
If that does not happen, some of the advocates are preparing. They have been thinking about a “Plan C,” an emergency plan that could be activated if NJ Transit were unable to use either tunnel for access to Penn Station. This could occur if some sort of catastrophic event closed both tunnels to service, or if one tunnel failed and Amtrak refused to allow NJ Transit any access to the remaining tube.
Greg Bender, a professional engineer from Bound Brook on the Raritan Valley Line, has proposed such a plan. It relies heavily on buses to take riders from Secaucus Junction or Hoboken Terminal to New York City. Ferries would be used as much as possible, and PATH would strengthen its service to accommodate riders at Newark or Hoboken who would could not otherwise get to or from Penn Station New York. Bender’s plan assumed the worst-case scenario—no access to Penn Station, which he proposed using as a pick-up and drop-off location for “emergency” bus service. If there is still one tunnel open and NJ Transit can run some of its trains in it, not all of the drastic measures that Bender proposed would be necessary. Some measures would be needed, especially at peak-commuting hours, but off-peak service could resemble service patterns in effect under today’s normal operation; at least as it runs on weekends.
Bender also suggested forming an emergency task force to oversee operations under these abnormal conditions, and he is preparing to spread the word about his plan. He presented it for the first time on Jan. 25, 2019, at a meeting of the Lackawanna Coalition. Since that time, he and other advocates have been engaged in discussions about his plan, which he is refining as he goes along.
Despite the fact that Bender’s plan remains a work in progress, it is important that somebody is thinking about what the region and its rail riders would do if we lose normal access to Penn Station, because essentially everybody who supports Gateway sees it as an “all-or-nothing” proposition, and it is possible that the result could be no-deal and no-build.
This issue has assumed new importance recently. On March 11, Congressmen Peter King (R-2) of Long Island and Josh Gottheimer (D-5) of New Jersey introduced a bill calling on the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to report on a mobility plan for the region if one of the Hudson Tunnel tubes failed. In essence, they wanted to hear about a scenario similar to Bender’s Plan C. At the time they introduced their bill, they did not know about Bender’s proposal or the Plan B that some New Jersey advocates were recommending. There are ongoing efforts to inform them about it, in the hope that they will recommend it as a less-invasive alternative to taking the consequences of a tunnel failure.
Not all advocates believe that an alternative to the entire Gateway program would be sufficient to provide enough mobility for the region. The Lackawanna Coalition (of which this writer is Chair) and others continue to call for an alternative plan. The New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP), the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition and others, along with essentially the entire political establishment, both Democrats and Republicans, support the Gateway Program as currently proposed. Still, nobody seems to know how its entire cost of $30 billion or more could be financed or realize that all the resources of the region are focused on completing Phase 1 of Gateway, which would spend more than $16 billion without adding room for a single additional peak-hour train across the Hudson River.
Meanwhile, the political battles over Gateway are heating up, and may soon come to a boil. In an editorial published on March 18, 2019, the Star-Ledger blasted President Trump for cutting Amtrak and transit in his latest budget proposal (which Congress will almost certainly modify; maybe to a significant extent), while he still pushes for his proposed border wall. The paper was especially concerned about the lack of funding for Gateway, but the same editorial acknowledged that the cost of the entire Gateway program has risen to $33 billion.
There are two overarching problems with Gateway, just as there were with its predecessor, Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) a decade ago. One of those problems is funding. Former Gov. Chris Christie killed the ARC plan in 2010, and his primary reason was that it had gotten too expensive. Even correcting for inflation, the entire set of proposed Gateway projects would cost far more than that. New Jersey could barely have afforded $8.7 billion for ARC in 2009, but not the corrected cost of $11-14 billion in 2010, when it was terminated. By contrast, the Turner Building Cost Index has only increased by 40% from the last quarter of 2010 to the first quarter of 2018. Today, ten years later, a current low-end estimate of the entire cost of Gateway is $30 billion; a 345% increase, if the latter number is correct. Using the Star-Ledger’s latest number, the estimate is $33 billion, a 379% increase over the cost of ARC. However, the Producer Price Index for non-residential construction has not increased significantly since that time.
So it seems doubtful that Gateway as a whole can be built, because there is not enough money available to build it. Federal tax for most New Yorkers and New Jerseyans has been increasing lately, too. New Jersey officials claim that there is $5 billion available for the “local” share of Gateway funding. That would fund one-half of a $10 billion program. At this juncture, Gateway’s supporters assume that the money needed to build all its projects will magically appear. If there were unlimited money available for the program, which there is not, that would cure one major objection to it, at least for some people.
As with the ARC Project, certain features of it are not desirable, even if there were enough money available to build them. With ARC in its final version, it was the stub-end, deep-cavern station that many NJT riders would be forced to use, along with a new railroad that would not go to the East Side or to Penn Station, and would not connect with Amtrak. With Gateway, some of the problematic components are the proposed Penn South station, replacing a single bridge with two, and forcing the public to wait for many years before they can get the current tunnels repaired, despite cries from Gateway’s proponents that the existing tunnels constitute a disaster waiting to happen, coupled with their unwillingness to explore fully the simpler and far-less-expensive method now being used to repair the Canarsie Tunnels on the L-train line of the New York subway system. As costs continue to climb, it becomes increasingly difficult to devise a set of projects that could achieve the desired result for the region’s transit riders at a price that the local funding agencies and the federal grantors can afford.
Some advocates, at least, are working on getting the word out about how they have an alternative to the costly and questionable Gateway Program. The Plan B they propose is also a work-in-progress, to the extent that an overall program of projects is always negotiable. Still, they believe that their plan could solve the mobility needs of the region, in a manner that is affordable and can be built quickly.
Circumstances are changing fast. It has only been six months since Gov. Andrew Cuomo consulted the deans and senior faculty of the Civil Engineering departments at Columbia and Cornell, who suggested a simple and cost-effective method for repairing the Canarsie Tunnels on the L-train line, which were damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Their plan is being implemented and, so far, it appears to be going well. If the existing Hudson Tunnels into Penn Station (known officially as the North River Tunnels) can be repaired in a similar manner without disrupting service on Amtrak and NJ Transit, the region could enjoy two fully rehabilitated tunnels within the next few years. There would be no need to spend $16 billion or more to build two completely-new tunnels first.
With the two existing tunnels repaired, all scheduled trains could flow into and out of Penn Station, New York more easily and consistently than under today’s operation. There would be no severe emergency or imminent danger of losing a tunnel and crippling the railroad for years to come. There would be time to consider alternate proposals for improving capacity to the extent that it will be needed in the future. There are proposals on record that would not incur the costs of the Gateway projects, or that would include the undesirable features of those projects. We have described the proposal that Clift and Raleigh recommended several years ago, and that Clift still maintains would provide enhanced capacity and even access to the East Side someday, at an affordable cost. There is Scott Spencer’s plan for a giant transit bridge between Secaucus and Queens. There are also proposals to extend the existing NYCT Transit No. 7 line and the L train on the subway system into New Jersey.
In the meantime, it appears that the cost-effectiveness of Gateway’s two projects now under consideration at the FTA is highly questionable. Each would cost billions of dollars, yet the Portal North Bridge Project would produce little or no actual capacity enhancement, while the Hudson Tunnel Project, by its own specification, would produce none. Can the region in general afford infrastructure projects that would fail to deliver the train- or passenger-carrying capacity that essentially everyone concerned agrees is needed? It appears obvious, at least to this writer, that the answer is no. NJ Transit, Amtrak and the New York MTA all have other infrastructure priorities, and there are other projects that the region needs, as well. Trans-Hudson bus capacity through the Lincoln Tunnel and into the Port Authority Bus Terminal is also under stress, and must be addressed.
So must other situations that are not related to transportation. One of the most vital is the impending damage to the region’s economy and infrastructure that will continue to result from climate change. Hurricane Sandy, which flooded so many of the existing tunnels under the Hudson River, is only one result of climate change, a phenomenon whose destructive power is becoming stronger from one year to the next.
The Gateway establishment and their political allies are enjoying most of the media’s attention at the moment, so the other proposals are not receiving as wide a hearing as they should get. We are attempting to rectify this imbalance with this series, to the extent that we can. While this article is the last one in the present series, it is far from the end of our coverage of Gateway, its projects and alternatives to it that would enhance mobility under the Hudson River. We will follow this series with more coverage of these issues, from time to time, as long as there is news about them to cover.
Longtime New Jersey advocate Albert L. Papp has famously called the river between New Jersey and New York the “Hudson Ocean.” Sadly, there is some truth to that characterization. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of New Jerseyans take the train into Manhattan every day to commute to their offices. Others go into the City less often. A smaller number of New Yorkers take the same trains on NJ Transit in the other direction, going to New Jersey. There are also some riders on Amtrak’s trains in NEC and a few going as far south as Miami or New Orleans. All of these riders deserve a modern railroad to take them where they are going, and that includes between New York City and nearby New Jersey, even if that segment is only a small part of their overall journey.
If that goal is to be accomplished, it will require cooperation between all levels of government, as well as the managers, planners, advocates and rider-representatives of all rail service providers in the region—a level of cooperation that has not yet been seen. Over-emphasizing a set of projects that the region cannot afford may deliver a great deal of satisfaction to the proponents of those projects, but it does not get them built. It does not appear that anybody disputes the importance of good rail service and good rail infrastructure in the region. The differences are about how to build it and what the region can afford.
There are alternative plans that have been proposed, and it appears that least some of them would be able to provide sufficient benefits to the riding public at a far-lower cost than the entire set of Gateway projects would incur. This writer believes that those alternatives must be given a thorough and complete hearing. Otherwise, the riding public will be stuck for decades with Error 502: Bad Gateway!
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).