INFRASTRUCTURE HELL-STATESThe mass transit system has not been kind to New Jersey commuters.
The last two months have seen two derailments at Penn Station and a train carrying 1,200 passengers stranded for three hours in a Hudson River Tunnel. Due to chronic delays, NJ Transit now offers “late passes” for commuters who as a result arrive late for work. Unfortunately this is nothing new, and treating hard-working professionals like high schoolers is insulting. From January 2011 through July 2016, NJ Transit experienced 157 accidents — more than any other commuter railroad in the nation.
On top of this, President Trump’s proposed budget threatens to derail the Gateway Tunnel project designed to upgrade the Hudson River tunnels and double much needed rail capacity. The recent budget agreement to provide funding for the federal government through September does include extra funds for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which is an encouraging sign. But the Hudson rail drama illustrates how poor planning, chronic underfunding and fractured governance have compromised the nation’s transportation infrastructure.
The rail tunnels that carry Amtrak and NJ Transit lines between New Jersey and New York have been operating since 1910. In fact, much of the region’s transportation system — the NYC subway and PATH, the rail tunnels and major bridges — were constructed before 1940. Since the mid-1980s, the percentage of New Jersey out-of-state commuters using transit has increased from 39 percent to 52 percent, making NJ Transit the country’s third busiest transit system. According to the Regional Plan Association, Hudson rail travel increased 140 percent in over 25 years, and is projected to double even more by 2040.
There was a plan proposed in the 1990s to add new rail lines called the ARC Tunnel. The original concept was ambitious and called for building a rail link between Newark Penn Station and Grand Central. But it became so watered down, by 2008, the proposed tunnel was unconnected to any existing rails. Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel dubbed it the “Tunnel to Macy’s Basement.” The plan was eventually canceled by Gov. Chris Christie in 2010 over funding disputes.
The Hudson tunnels were subsequently flooded with salt water during Superstorm Sandy, resulting in permanent damage. We are now left with a system that has a service capacity of less than 20 years remaining. Apparently, when it comes to transportation, we are coasting off the backs of previous generations with no apparent concern for the next.
Last year, the federal government, New York and New Jersey finally reached a funding arrangement for the Gateway project. Both Govs. Andrew Cuomo and Christie agreed to the creation of the Gateway Project Development Corp. to coordinate the effort. The construction of a new tunnel from Newark to Manhattan’s Penn Station would allow the existing tunnels to be closed and repaired. If one or both existing tunnels are closed without an alternative, as our current limitations would require, the result would be unprecedented gridlock and immeasurable lost productively. Approximately 13 percent of Manhattan’s professional workforce commutes from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, a 23 percent increase from 1990. In addition to attracting high-skilled workers, jobs and residents to the New York Metropolitan area, these tunnels are a critical component of the Northeast Corridor, which stretches from Boston to Washington, D.C., transporting over 750,000 riders per day and contributing $50 billion annually to the economy. Any disruption to this critical flow is a disaster waiting to happen.
As infrastructure deteriorates, the cost of maintenance and repair only gets more expensive. Yet the Department of Transportation estimates that the nation’s mass transit systems have a backlog of over $90 billion in maintenance costs. But the problem isn’t just one of maintenance. We need smarter planning to meet the demands of changing demographics. This includes expanding mass transit to better connect different regions, absorb population growth, and ease overall congestion and pollution.
Well-designed transportation systems are essential to economic vitality and urban renewal. Our nation’s population is expected to grow by 70 million over the next several decades. Much of that growth will be centered around cities and urban areas that rely on mass transit. As the population ages, the elderly will need transport options to stay connected. Millennials already use mass transit at higher levels than previous generations, a trend that is expected to continue.
But as the ARC and Gateway plans demonstrate, launching new projects is often frustrated by a lack of coordination and bickering over who pays for what due to divided governance and special interests. There are a myriad of separate and often competing agencies, each responsible for different modes of transport. For example, NJ Transit manages intrastate public transportation; the Port Authority of NY and NJ operates bridges, tunnels, airports, seaports and the PATH transit system; and New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is responsible for public transport in New York and southwestern Connecticut. In addition, Penn Station is owned and operated by Amtrak, even though NJ Transit and Long Island Rail Road account for a larger share of its use.
Last year, the city of Santa Fe commissioned a feasibility study to look into consolidating its transit system with the North Central Regional Transit District. In the 1990s, the Los Angeles County Metro Transport Authority was created from the successful merging of the Southern California Rapid Transit District and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, which had overlapping responsibilities and frequently failed to properly coordinate.
The Tri-State region also needs to upgrade transportation governance and coordination to create a truly integrated regional system. This could include finally connecting Newark Penn Station to the Grand Central terminal. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg innovatively proposed connecting the NYC subway to the Secaucus Junction. There are also accountability issues with Amtrak operating Penn Station when less than 13 percent of the daily trains carry Amtrak passengers. One viable solution would be to merge the operation into a single entity called “One Penn Station” to govern the facility and better address local needs.
As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised a trillion-dollar infrastructure investment. A good start would be to ensure long-term funding for the Gateway project. As former Transportation secretary Anthony Foxx noted, “We have too often misstated the problem as simply one of funding when it may be one of both resources and design.” The long-term success of our nation’s transportation depends upon smart planning, coordinated governance and sufficient funding for projects such as Gateway.