There is more to the Gateway Development Corporation’s recent release of its independent analysis of what is required for the North Hudson River Tunnel rehabilitation.
The Gateway project would construct two new tunnels under the Hudson River between New Jersey and Penn Station, which would double the number of trains traveling on the tracks. NJ Transit and Amtrak use the tunnels.
In the words U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer used at his recent news conference, the only way that funds can be released with “the flick of a pen” is if the Gateway Development Corporation submitted proposed grant applications to the Federal Transit Administration for New Starts or Core Capacity Full Funding Grant Agreement grants.
The Federal Railroad Administration considers the Gateway Tunnel a series of projects that requires more than a flick of a pen. Completion of the National Environmental Review Impact Statement as part of National Environmental Protection Act involves many players along with financial, legal and technical considerations.
Approval for a Full Funding Grant Agreement under the FTA New Starts or Core Capacity programs for the full $29 billion Gateway project or $13 billion (two new tunnels and rehabilitation of two existing tunnels) version still requires several more years. Only funding the $1.5 billion Portal Bridge portion is realistic for 2021..
Anticipated ridership figures for the new Gateway Tunnel also need to be updated. Previous ridership modeling dealing with anticipated increase in commuters over coming decades must be re-evaluated due to the unknown post COVID-19 world. No one can be sure how many years it will take before ridership comes close to pre-COVID-19 numbers, let alone grow beyond those numbers. The increasing crime rate and decline in the quality of life in New York City continues to make working, shopping, dinning, visiting or living in Manhattan less desirable.
Many Manhattan-based corporations are considering relocating employees to satellite offices in the surrounding suburbs. More commuters are going to continue working from home for years to come. Fewer tourists will be traveling into the Big Apple. The same is true for those from out of town who need to conduct business in NYC. It has been documented by a recent report released by the Manhattan Institute, that 300,000 of the 8 million-plus Big Apple residents have already moved out of town. Who knows how many more with the economic means will join this exodus. No one can predict how many will permanently relocate out of town and how many will return. A NYC Convention and Tourism Bureau report predicts that the number of pre-COVID-19 tourists bouncing back to 65 million annually will not be reached until 2024 at the earliest.
Many have suggested that a significant amount of money and time can be saved in the rehabilitation of the two existing tunnels damaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 by using other strategies. One is utilizations of what is known as the “racking system.” This installs new electrical and signal cables on racks attached to the tunnel walls. The MTA Office of Capital Construction in cooperation with NYC Transit successfully used this concept in the rehabilitation of the Canarsie L subway line East River tunnels.
The project was completed at a cost of several hundred million dollars below the initial engineers’ estimate and several months ahead of schedule. It also avoided anticipated a 19-month, 24/7 permanent shutdown of subway service by using the “racking system.” Construction work was performed overnight, weekdays and on weekends. Only one of two tunnels was required to be removed from service most of the time. Who has seen a detailed explanation from the Gateway Development Corporation, Amtrak, New Jersey Transit or elected officials who support the Gateway Tunnel project as to why serious consideration has not been given to this concept?.
Using the “racking system” is possible if consideration is given to the following temporary service changes for Amtrak and NJ Transit at Penn Station. Empire State Amtrak service (north to Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, other upstate cities and Canada) can return to Grand Central Terminal full time. Overnight and weekends there are far fewer riders and trains that would be impacted by service reductions to both Amtrak and NJ Transit Penn Station operations. Both run fewer trains during these time periods. Northeast corridor Amtrak and NJ Transit service could provide north/south service via Penn Station on alternate 30-minute or hourly intervals using one tunnel. NJ Transit can reroute some trains utilizing the Hoboken Terminal by providing riders with a free transfer to PATH. Using PATH provides access to the World Trade Center and Herald Square one block east of Penn Station. Other NJ Transit and Amtrak trains could terminate at Newark, Penn Station with a free transfer to PATH. Some Amtrak service between New York and Boston could operate out of Grand Central Terminal.
(Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road MTA Bus, NYC DOT, New Jersey Transit along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ).