Across the Hudson – almost free alternative to Gateway ?>

Across the Hudson – almost free alternative to Gateway

Why tunnels are crucial to New York and New Jersey.  A follow-up to Gateway Not Far Thinking Enough.  There is an almost free alternative.

Newark used to be a major city in its own right.  New Jersey used to be an industrial hub.  No more.  Both are part of the greater New York metroplex.  The Bridge and Tunnel Crowd, a New Yorker’s dismissive description of anyone who doesn’t live in Manhattan is dependent on the city and the city on them.  Until we get that through our heads, we won’t make progress together.

Hoboken is now a tony New York City neighborhood.  Jersey City competes with Brooklyn and midtown for Wall Street office space displaced after 9/11.  If New Jersey wants to play in the New York market, it needs to imagine faster, cheaper and reliable transportation between the two.  Data makes the short trip reliably. That’s why traders would rather be in Jersey City rather than Chicago.  People transport needs to be just as simple.

The twentieth century opened with the digging of six rail tunnels across the Hudson.  There are four tunnels between New Jersey and lower Manhattan.  These cast iron tunnels are 15.25 ft tall.  They are equipped with 600V third rail power to serve the PATH commuter rail system which extends north to 32nd Street and Sixth Avenue.  Pedestrian access from that station, called 33rd Street, to Penn Station was closed in the 1980s.

Amtrak Northeast Corridor (NEC) and New Jersey Transit (NJTransit) uses two tunnels under the Hudson between Bergen NJ and Penn Station.  These tubes, opened in 1910, are at capacity.  Engineers tell us they are near the end of their useful lives.  The northern tube closed in 2012 when it flooded as a result of Hurricane Sandy.

Amtrak and NJTransit have proposed the construction of a new pair of tunnels between Bergen and Penn Station.  In the short term, this would allow the hundred year old tunnels to be rebuilt.  In the long term, it would double capacity across the Hudson into Penn Station.  Since these tunnels were proposed in 2003, the price tag has increased from $8 billion to $20 billion.  As one might expect of any federal project it has grown beyond the originally planned tunneling.  The Gateway project includes other needed infrastructure, including replacement of the problematic Portal Bridge in Kearny NJ.

Twenty billion is a hefty expenditure for two four and a half mile tunnels.  For only three times as much money, California is building an 800 mile high speed rail system.  Appropriately, it has stimulated thinking about other transportation options.  Wacky ideas include two new bridges.  Smarter thinkers have talked about extension of the NY subway system into New Jersey and extension of NJTransit into Queens.

The discussion has failed to account for the existing tunnels from Jersey City to Greenwich Village and up to Penn Station.  The overarching goal of regional transportation planners need to be ubiquitous, fast, reliable, and cost-effective.  These efforts are hindered by artificial organizational boundaries.  Amtrak wants two new tubes into Penn Station, which it owns.  The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) which operates PATH, Port Authority Bus Terminal (PABT) and the Hudson vehicular crossings has no particular interest in developing Penn Station train traffic.  NJTransit has its feet on the deck and the dock.  It operates commuter rail service into Penn Station and bus service to PABT.  It follows the lead of Washington-controlled Amtrak which controls its tracks.  It takes marching orders from Trenton.  NJTransit suffers from triparitite schizophrenia,  offering three competing forms of transport, heavy rail, light rail, and buses.

Are the PATH tunnels a viable alternative to the proposed Gateway tunnels?  There hasn’t been a peep about the age of these tunnels.  Either they are in great shape or someone is waiting to give us the bad news.  Electric Amtrak anf NJTransit trains will fit in thos tunnels, just barely.  Can the 33rd Street station be connected to Penn Station?  It would be cheaper than demolishing a whole block soutn of Penn Station as Amtrak has proposed.

Considering new rail tunnels should not be done in isolation.  Queens and LaGuradia Airport needs more rail service.  There is a separate proposal on the table to replace Port Authority Bus Terminal.  An extention of the MTA 7 train through PABT to New Jersey would significantly reduce the car and bus traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel.  These proposals need to be considered together, not in parochial isolation.

Any coherent rail strategy needs to balance the short and long-term goals.  In the short term, it needs to maintain commuter service to people who bought houses need train lines expecting to use those lines every day.  Short term, our commuter rail services need to retain rights-of-way for the day that rail replaces petroleum-fueled cars and buses.  Long term, commuter rail operators need to anticipate unmanned high-speed rail service.  Not this year or in ten, but one day, there will be no room or fuel for cars and buses.  Rail will be the only rational choice.  A 2007 New York Times op-ed said a third of traffic in the city is people searching for parking spaces.

New Jersey as a state won’t grow without a symbiotic relation with New York City.  The city has more in common with New Jersey than it does with upstate New York.  Jersey City (population 257,342) is more important to NYC than Buffalo (population 258,959).  Citizens must demand a regional approach that is not bound by state borders, the federal-local divide, and the various competing fiefdoms of MTA, NJTransit, Amtrak, and PATH.

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