Part 7: A Misleading Analysis of Delays, A New Commission, and A New Obstacle to Funding

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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When we published the sixth article in this series last month, we promised continuing coverage of the Gateway saga. What we did not know at that time was that so much news would come to us so quickly. At a Board meeting of the Gateway Program Development Corp. on July 22, a Gateway spokesperson presented an analysis of delays that he attributed to the existing Portal Bridge and the existing Hudson Tunnels (also known as the North River Tunnels) on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) and criticized the plan currently under way to rehabilitate the Canarsie Tunnels in New York City. Both analyses omitted facts that indicate that Gateway’s Hudson Tunnel and Portal North Bridge projects are not as cost-effective or necessary as he made them appear. Later that day, the Gateway Corporation became a “Commission” with questionable fundraising authority. Despite that change, a former offer by New Jersey Transit (NJT) to impose a surcharge on future rail trips to and from New York has been scuttled, raising the question of how New Jersey can replace the money that would have come from the surcharge.

Gateway spokesperson Stephen Sigmund (a Senior Advisor at The Global Strategy Group) presented an analysis of delays that he attributed to Portal Bridge and the existing tunnels over the past five years (the video recording of the meeting can be found at http://www.gatewayprogram.org/board-meetings.html, with his presentation beginning at time mark 5:17 and running for five minutes and six seconds). Sigmund’s report covered delays from 2014 through 2018, a study period of questionable relevance, since circumstances have changed significantly, especially concerning Portal Bridge and a drastic decrease in its openings since 2016.

Stephen Sigmund

Sigmund began by mixing the proverbial “apples and oranges” by saying that there were 85 “Major Incident Days” during the five-year study period, which he attributed either to the tunnels or to Portal Bridge. Those were days when there was five hours’ delay or more (he did not describe the method used for determining total delays), and said that there were an average of 1½ such days each month. He also claimed that these incidents accounted for more than 35% of all train delays and almost 2,000 hours of lost time and productivity for passengers. He said that 10.8% of trains were late on an “average day” and 22.6% of trains were late on a Major Incident Day, with an average train delay of 30 minutes. Presumably, he counted the entire service day, but he did not explicitly say that. He added that the analysis was performed by the staff of the NEC Commission at the request of Amtrak and NJT (the Gateway Development Corp. initiated the request), and that it reviewed 3 million train movements and 750,000 daily delay records, focusing on the 1.5 million train movements in Gateway territory. Significantly, the slide that accompanied his presentation noted: “Additional analysis needed to quantify ripple effect on NEC”—an admission that could call the validity of the analysis into question.

Sigmund said that “multiple problems” caused delays in the tunnels on 65 “major incident days” during the study period. These included catenary or transmission power failures (35%), track conditions (31%), signal problems (13%) and other causes (21%). He said that 2,500 Amtrak and NJ Transit trains were delayed for a total of 11,000 hours during the five-year period, and added that traction power incidents were more frequent, but catenary wire incidents resulted in more minutes per delay. He concluded that portion of his presentation with a list of the “other causes”: cable failures, ice buildup, corroded rails, signal problems (including salt chemicals in track ballast that compromises the signal system) and broken rails. He specifically blamed ballasted track for much of the delay, and added: “There are a multitude of problems in this 108-year-old tunnel that need to be looked at.”

It does not appear that anybody seriously disputes that particular contention. There is serious dispute about the remedy for the current problems with the tunnels, though. In the third article of this series, entitled Is This Tunnel Really Necessary and posted here on May 17, we examined the method now being used in New York City to repair the Canarsie Tunnels between Brooklyn and Fourteenth Street in Manhattan on the “L” train of the city subway system. The Canarsie Tunnels and the North River (Hudson) Tunnels at issue were both damaged by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. A report by engineering firm HNTB released in January 2014 said that 43% of the Canarsie Tunnel suffered flood damage from Sandy, while only 10% of the North River Tunnels did (report cited in May 17 article; See also: NYCT Canarsie Tunnel shutdown may produce ripple effects, posted here on January 24.)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo consulted the deans and senior civil engineering faculty at Columbia and Cornell Universities, and they suggested a repair procedure that included mounting cables on racks on the tunnel wall and covering the bench walls, which hold the old cables, with a state-of-the-art fiber-reinforced-polymer material. That protocol, which is being implemented today, avoids demolishing the bench walls and, more significantly, avoids a 15-month total suspension of service on the line. Service at night and on weekends has been curtailed for the duration of the project, but that level of disruption is far less severe than the complete loss that was originally proposed would have been.

In our previous report from May, we mentioned the possibility that the repair work in the North River Tunnels could also be done at night and on weekends, without disrupting the current level of service, a solution that would give the riders rehabilitated tunnels in two years, rather than requiring the planned ten-year wait. For a while there was a glimmer of hope that Gateway proponents might consider that option, and it seemed that they would, but it now appears that they have doubled down on building their $15 billion proposal that would complete new tunnels before making any effort toward rehabilitating the existing ones. Given the findings in the HNTB report and the harm that they allege could result if the existing tunnels are not repaired, it appears foolish of Gateway officials not to consider seriously the plan from the Columbia and Cornell faculty engineers who suggested the method now being used to repair the Canarsie Tunnels.

According to the HNTB report, 70% of the cost of rehabilitating the tunnels would be spent to demolish and rebuild the bench walls, a step that the Columba-Cornell plan avoids. Another 28% represents the cost of direct-fixation track, which Gateway officials claim is needed, but may not be. That leaves only 2%—$3.6 million for power washing both tubes and $1.9 million for repairing cracks and de-laminations—only $5.5 million (in 2014 dollars) to bring the tunnels to a state of good repair. If that had been done as a part of tunnel maintenance, there would be no water seeping onto the ballast, which Sigmund now claims disrupts the signal system and causes some of the delays he now criticizes.

The cable-racking step is also needed for a full rehabilitation. Gateway Chair Jerry Zaro claimed that cable racking, as used in the Canarsie Tunnels, was “not a panacea” and would only solve 35% of the problems with the North River Tunnels, apparently referencing the NEC Commission’s assertion that 35% of the tunnel-related delays from 2014 through 2018 were due to transmission or catenary power failures. As mentioned previously, that report blamed the rest of the delays on track conditions, signal problems, or “other causes.” Zaro implied that there would be no other benefit from implementing the Columbia-Cornell plan, but even if the small amount of money needed to execute that part of that plan that would bring the tunnels to a state of good repair produces the benefits he implies, it would constitute a good investment.

The fact that the cracks and de-laminations have not yet been repaired leads to the question of whether Amtrak or the Gateway proponents are delaying useful repairs to keep the tunnels in sub-optimal condition, so they can alarm the public with reports about that sub-optimal condition and bolster their case for spending billions of dollars unnecessarily.

The information from the NEC Commission’s analysis broke the delay statistics down by cause, showing which of the delays were caused by problems that could be cured by good maintenance practices or other measures within Amtrak’s control, and which could be cured by implementing other relatively inexpensive solutions that can be completed relatively quickly. The Gateway presentation did not furnish this breakdown, so, to this writer at least, it does not appear that Gateway officials have made a sufficient case for the need to build the $15 billion Hudson Tunnel Project they propose.

In short, while Gateway officials alarm the public with rhetoric about massive delays caused by the condition of the existing tunnels, they do not plan to take any steps to rehabilitate them during the next several years. Instead, they expect the riding public to suffer with the risks and delays they describe for almost another decade, riding through tunnels whose condition they publicly claim to be unacceptable.

In his report, Sigmund said that routine opening of Portal Bridge caused delays on 230 days during the five-year study period, affecting 1,000 trains and causing 230 hours of train delay. He said that Major Incident Days caused by Portal Bridge were almost always the result of its failure to lock after having opened. He mentioned that it was necessary to send someone out to hammer the movable part of the bridge into position on those occasions, and that five incidents were caused by track fires. He said that there were 18 such days in the five-year study period that began in 2014, resulting in a total of 780 hours of delays to Amtrak and NJT trains. He added that every time Portal Bridge opens and closes, “it causes 20 minutes of delays, because it has to swing open and swing closed,” but he did not mention the possibility of opening and closing the bridge in the middle of the night, when no trains are scheduled to go over it.

In our previous coverage of the Portal Bridge issue (“Hey! Wanna Buy a Bridge?” posted on June 18), we focused on the vastly reduced frequency of bridge openings recently, which renders Sigmund’s statement irrelevant to future policy. Worse yet, it could be argued that he gave misleading information to the public in an effort to increase public support for the Portal North Bridge project by using data that is outdated and no longer relevant.

Sigmund did not mention that there are no longer any major barge-hauling customers upriver from the bridge, but Gateway officials knew that from the NEC Commission report. Advocate and former LIRR manager Joseph M. Clift obtained the records of bridge openings since that time, and our previous report quoted him as saying: “The bridge rarely opens for maritime traffic – 14 times in 2017; 15 in 2018 through Oct. 31. This averages out to one round trip for a boat every six weeks.” To this writer, at least, that small amount of maritime traffic does not appear to justify the cost of a high-level fixed bridge, especially since it would not add significantly more capacity (replacing one two-track bridge with another two-track bridge), and it would require building nearly one mile of new infrastructure in the environmentally sensitive Meadowlands, most of which would be required for new approaches rising from ground level to the height of the new bridge.

In addition, the Coast Guard is currently allowing rail traffic priority during peak-commuting hours on weekdays, which means that Portal Bridge does not open for river traffic during those times; a fact that Sigmund also did not mention. Under these conditions, Portal Bridge is not opened at a time when such an opening can cause major delays to commuters. That in itself should eliminate Portal Bridge as a major cause of delays in the future and significantly reduce the need to replace it with a high-level bridge, a project whose cost-effectiveness is highly questionable.

Sigmund concluded his presentation by saying that the bottom line is: “These delays wreak havoc on people’s lives. They wreak havoc on the region’s economy and on the nation’s economy, and they erode trust, and that’s why you all and our partners are working so hard to build Gateway and to create a 21st-century transportation system to replace these 108-year-old assets that lead to enormous and significant problems.”

It is not altogether clear that those “108-year-old assets” would actually “lead to enormous and significant problems” if they were rehabilitated and maintained in a state of good repair (like sealing the cracks in the tunnel). We have reported on these issues in previous articles in this series, but the questions of affordability and cost-effectiveness of the Hudson Tunnel Project and the Portal Bridge North Project are no closer to resolution than when we reported about them earlier this year. If anything, funding for the Gateway Program as proposed has receded further into the distance.

One announcement that Gateway officials could not make at their meeting on July 22 was that the corporation had turned into a “commission” with legislative and gubernatorial approval. That happened later in the day. Governors Phil Murphy of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York signed the bill that had passed the legislatures of both states and established the Gateway Program Development Commission. We had taken a close look at the bill in our previous report in this series, Part 6: “We Have a Plan B. Do We Need a Plan C?” posted here on July 8. The issue is whether the new structure will facilitate funding for Gateway projects to a meaningful extent, or if the change is more cosmetic than actually capable of making a difference to the eventual outcome.

It could turn out that the greatest change will be the establishment of a new bureaucracy on the block, with theoretical authority to take over the responsibility for Gateway project funding, but without the authority to bind the full faith and credit of New York, New Jersey, any of their subdivisions or anybody else. It appeared to this writer then, and still appears today, that nothing has really changed. The “New Gateway” will be able to receive grants and borrow money, but will not be able to raise collateral for any loans on its own authority. It also appears to take New Jersey, New York and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey off the hook for funding, which imparts an additional degree of separation between the Gateway projects and funding for them.

Since the FTA has given failing grades to both the Hudson Tunnel Project and the Portal North Bridge Project (“medium-low” or a grade of D, when “medium” or a grade of C is required for a project to be considered for a grant), having a new bureaucratic organization whose borrowing authority is theoretical rather than practical will probably not do much to aid the cause. As we have reported previously in this series, the FTA has objected to the lack of committed local funds for the two projects. It appears that the new Gateway organization stands in the shoes of a homeowner who has theoretical “authority” to take out a home improvement loan, but does not have enough equity in the house to pledge it as collateral for that loan.

One apparently cosmetic change will please the two governors: the Gateway Board will expand from three members to seven. Amtrak will still have one representative, but each state will now have three appointees, instead of just one. That means Governors Murphy and Cuomo each get two additional patronage appointments. There is no process for non-political appointments to the Gateway Board, so the riders who would use any prospective Gateway infrastructure and the taxpayers who would pick up the tab will remain where they have always been: out in the cold.

One change that may not affect the outcome of the Gateway saga is still an important political statement. The new statute calls for New York and New Jersey to share project costs equally, including any contribution from the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which would be allocated 50-50 between the states, also. According to Clift, those were “huge concessions” on Cuomo’s part, “but New York now stands on an equal footing with New Jersey in terms of authority and responsibility.” In the past, New York claimed that the Gateway projects were New Jersey’s, since they mainly benefited New Jersey commuters. This may only be a theoretical realization that both states benefit from improvements in transportation infrastructure connecting them. Whether the projects actually constitute improvements or would be cost-effective are issues separate from the states’ joint benefits statements. Ironically, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie complained about this issue with the ill-fated ARC Project in 2010, claiming that New York was not pulling its financial weight. Whether or not Cuomo will use his new-found authority to force Gateway officials to consider the faster and less-expensive Columbia/Cornell plan as a means for repairing the North River Tunnels remains to be seen.

At this point, the threshold inquiry about Gateway is whether or not the program is coming closer to meeting the FTA’s requirements for the grants that would help pay for the proposed new infrastructure. While it appears unlikely (to this writer, at least) that the new Gateway corporate structure will help to advance that goal, project funding was dealt a new setback from an unlikely source.

The plan offered by NJT to pay for its share of the Hudson Tunnel Project was to impose a surcharge on fares to or from New York Penn Station. We reported on it in Part 6, and it was supposed to start at 90 cents per trip, rising later to $1.70 and still later to $2.30. Former NJT Executive Director Steven H. Santoro had committed the agency to it in December 2017, during the last days the Christie Administration. In a surprise move, New Jersey State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) announced that the Penn Station surcharge was no longer under consideration. She told the Gateway Board meeting on July 22 that the new legislation “sharply limits the ability of the Commission to impose user fees, meaning tolls on New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains, to pay for construction of the new tunnels or other aspects of the project.” Instead, Weinberg said that New Jersey would rely on the borrowing authority of the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) to finance Gateway construction, which she also said would be expanded to include the proposed Penn South station. At this time, however, the entire TTF is committed to funding other projects, and nobody has said anything about funding for Penn South. (For more information on this issue, see Part 5 of this series: Can We Keep Penn Station from Going South? posted here on July 2).

Later in her statement, Weinberg reiterated that surcharges on riders would not be a component of the Gateway funding mix, since passenger fares go toward the operating budget: “I want to make it absolutely clear today that it is the bi-partisan intent of the New Jersey legislative leadership that, under no circumstances, would we accept a scenario under which NJ Transit’s operating budget, which continues to be under-funded, would be saddled with any portion of the construction of Gateway. Commitment to that principle will be a prerequisite for confirmation for any new nominee to the Gateway Development Commission.”

While Weinberg declared her strong support for Gateway as proposed, while the new bill was awaiting final approval, her act of taking Santoro’s surcharge off the table appears to have decreased the likelihood that New Jersey will be able to raise its share of the match for the Gateway projects—a prospect that has appeared remote for the past several years, as we have reported earlier in this series.

In the meantime, the current problems at NJ Transit may be pushing Gateway further away from center stage. Trains are being annulled so frequently as to give the impression that service is currently as unreliable as it was 40 years ago, when the agency was founded. There is no dedicated source of funding to keep transit going in the Garden State, either. There is a severe shortage of locomotive engineers, and a less-severe shortage of conductors. In addition to that, many of the other annulments are blamed on “equipment availability,” which actually means lack of available equipment, whether the equipment in question is being outfitted for PTC compliance or diverted to the Meadowlands Stadium to take spectators to a rock concert, instead of taking commuters home. Then there is the upcoming proposed opening of the “American Dream” Mega-Mall (which some have dubbed the “American Nightmare”) in the Meadowlands, scheduled for October 25. At this writing, nobody knows what sort of transit might run to the new facility, but it is difficult to fathom how NJT could run trains there in the near future, under the stresses that plague its employment ranks, equipment roster and operating budget.

Even Sen. Weinberg, one of the strongest and longest-serving members of the State’s legislative Democrats, has questioned incumbent leadership at NJT. The featured topic on the July 29 edition of New Jersey Now on WWOR-TV, “My 9 NJ” (which can be found at https://www.my9nj.com/nj-now) was NJ Transit and its problems. Host Dianne Doctor discussed the agency and its woes with Sen. Weinberg and Larry Higgs, transportation reporter for the Newark-based Star-Ledger and its website, www.nj.com. Weinberg appeared to throw party solidarity aside in favor of concern about the Garden State’s transit when she said: “I am frustrated, I’m angry, I’m depressed over the situation at New Jersey Transit.” She went on to complain that former Gov. Chris Christie had under-funded the agency and used it “as a patronage home” and was using money from the capital budget to fund operations. Then she continued: “But now, 18 months under a new administration, it is time … No later than Labor Day, New Jersey Transit has to give the Legislature and, most important, the public a short-range plan for how they are going to solve the [problems] … and a long-range plan for how long it’s going to take to get a solution to some of those [problems].”

Other commentators, including this writer, have criticized the Murphy Administration along with the Christie Administration before it for politicizing and under-funding NJ Transit, to the detriment of the agency’s riders. The Democrats are solidly in control of Trenton, with Gov. Murphy and large majorities in both houses of the legislature. So, whatever happens at NJT, they are running out of time to blame the Christie Administration, as it fades into the dustbin of Garden State political history.

Funding for Gateway as proposed seems less likely than ever. The proposed surcharge on New York Penn Station tickets is dead, and NJT must still use part of its capital budget to keep its operations going. Weinberg helped secure an additional $50 million for the agency (the original increase from the Murphy administration was only $25 million) this year, but that amount will not go far. It is difficult to fathom how NJT could contribute materially to building a set of projects that would cost $30 billion or more, when the agency can barely afford to run the service advertised in its timetables without annulling so many trains as to make the entire service unreliable. The agency’s 40th anniversary celebration was filled with hopes and good wishes (covered here on July 18), but bringing them to fruition may prove much more difficult.

As things stand now, it seems likely that the FTA will again give the Gateway projects failing grades during the next application cycle. It appears that there will still not be enough money to build those projects, and that Gateway’s long-standing funding woes will continue. Because of that, some advocates’ hopes that a more-affordable set of projects could someday be approved and implemented may brighten once again as the Gateway saga continues.

So will our coverage.

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).

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