About one year ago, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie abruptly cancelled the nation’s largest infrastructure project: the construction of two Trans-Hudson tunnels to double the capacity for rail access to Midtown Manhattan. The plan would have provided for direct services to Penn Station from the Main, Bergen, and Pascack Valley lines of NJ Transit, significantly shortening commutes for Manhattan workers living in Bergen and Passaic counties in New Jersey as well as Rockland and Orange counties in New York. As of 2009, approximately 86,000 Manhattan workers live in these counties. However, Gov. Christie, citing cost overruns, decided the price of the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project was too steep for the state to afford.
While the increasing financial burden to New Jersey taxpayers was a very important downside to the project, there is little doubt that the ARC tunnel would have addressed an increasingly important issue: the need to accommodate the growth in commuting from New Jersey to Manhattan. Since 2002, the number of New Jersey residents working in Manhattan has grown by approximately 21%(increase of more than 40,000). Currently, there is only one Trans-Hudson rail tunnel that exists (the North River Tunnels) and has been running at full capacity since 2003, with 24 Manhattan-bound trains crossing the tunnel during the peak morning rush hour. Since Amtrak and NJ Transit trains both use the tunnels as a Trans-Hudson crossing, any problem in or near the tunnels can create significant delays not just for local travelers, but also regional
travelers. The derailment of a NJ Transit train in the North River tunnels during a busy commute last August created travel chaos, leading to significant delays on Amtrak, NJ Transit, and even LIRR trains that share tracks west of Penn Station. Given the demand for access and the current bottleneck that exists, the expansion of Trans-Hudson rail capacity is long overdue.
Last month, the Amtrak-sponsored Gateway Tunnel project, pitched as an alternative to the defunct ARC Tunnel, received $15 million in federal funding from Congress for engineering and design studies. With the support of both Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), the Gateway project now appears to be much farther ahead, at least in terms of financing, than its closest competition for Trans-Hudson access, the extension of the New York City subway’s 7-train to Secaucus Junction. The $13 billion project promises to increase capacity by 30 trains per hour with triple the number of Amtrak trains (including high-speed) and allow for 13 more NJ Transit trains per hour, with additional room for MetroNorth trains to Penn Station.
While the ARC project was primarily designed to serve the New Jersey commuter, the Gateway project serves the dual purpose of increasing Trans-Hudson capacity for commuters and for travelers across the Northeast Corridor, enhancing the viability of a more advanced high-speed rail system connecting the densely populated region. Removing bottlenecks along the Northeast Corridor for high-speed rail has attracted bipartisan support in Congress: Rep. John Mica (R-FL), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently came out in favor of additional investment in the Northeast Corridor rail infrastructure.
But the Gateway project only allocates half of the capacity that the ARC tunnel would have originally provided for NJ Transit trains, and one issue remains unresolved: the opportunity for some New Jersey commuters to have a direct, “one-seat” ride into Manhattan. Currently, only 2 NJ transit lines, Northeast Corridor and North Jersey Coast, provide regular direct services to Penn Station in Manhattan. The construction of the Kearny Connection in 1996 allowed for NJ Transit trains on the Morris & Essex lines to terminate at New York Penn Station, but due to capacity constraints, only half of the trains running on these routes actually do so, with the rest terminating in Hoboken instead. Furthermore, the Gateway proposal contains no plans to build “loop tracks” (part of the ARC tunnel project) that would have created the “one-seat” ride for commuters from Bergen, Passaic, Rockland, and Orange counties to Manhattan, who will still have to transfer at Secaucus regardless of whether the tunnels are built.
The lack of direct rail access to Penn Station has made New York City-bound commuters living in these counties far more dependent on suburban buses as a convenient means of getting to work. According, to data from the New York City Department of City Planning, nearly one-third of all New Jerseyans working in Manhattan commute by bus. Demand for more convenient access to Manhattan has created a vast marked for bus services, as commuters may travel by buses by either NJ Transit or dozens of private operators serving various counties and regions west of the Hudson River. The Bergen Record also reports that more than half of the 225,000 travelers using the Port Authority Bus Terminal on a daily basis are from Bergen and Passaic counties, two areas that lack direct commuter rail access to Manhattan.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of bus parking at the terminal, Trans-Hudson bus access is also at capacity. Commuter buses are forced to find parking on the other side of the Hudson River and drive back to the bus terminal to pick up passengers, contributing to traffic on both inbound and outbound lanes at the Lincoln Tunnel and frequent delays for bus commuters. Plans for an $800 million bus garage at the Port Authority Terminal fell through after proposed Hudson crossing toll hikes were scaled back this summer.
While the tunnel project promises to improve access for New Jersey commuters to Midtown Manhattan and appears to be moving forward, efforts to upgrade Trans-Hudson connectivity requires a two-pronged approach so that commuters have a convenient means of getting to work. Any proposals to improve Trans-Hudson accessibility without providing convenient and direct rail services to Manhattan for at least one-third of Trans-Hudson commuters must also address an equally urgent bus capacity issue. Addressing both issues will be necessary to make the Gateway project a viable alternative to the ARC tunnel, and to make Trans-Hudson journeys more comfortable for all commuters.