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Why Princeton area residents should care about the Gateway Tunnel project

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Gateway Tunnel Project

A partial shutdown of the Trans-Hudson Tunnel should concern everyone in the region, even if they don’t ride New Jersey Transit or Amtrak trains in and out of New York City, said Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association.

Wright discussed the importance of the Amtrak Gateway Tunnel project as part of a panel hosted by the Princeton Public Library and moderated by Ingrid Reed on Monday night. A new tunnel would add two more trans-Hudson tubes for trains. Once the Gateway tunnel project is completed, the existing tunnel would be repaired and eventually put back in service, allowing train capacity in and out of New York to double and keep pace with growing regional public transit demand. The project is expected to cost $13 billion.

According to a study conducted by the Regional Plan Association, a partial shutdown of the Hudson River tunnel to repair damage without having a new tunnel already built would cost the economy an estimated $16 billion over four years, and would reduce home values by an estimated $22 billion, Wright said. A shutdown would also mean a dramatic increase in commuter travel times, increased congestion on public transit and roadways, decreased economic productivity, and job losses, he said.

Train travel below the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York is already unreliable due to the tunnel’s advanced age and the extensive damage the tunnels sustained during Superstorm Sandy. “The frog is already boiling,” Wright said.

The tunnel is deteriorating and will soon reach the end of its useful life. In order to repair the existing tunnel, the two tubes would need to be closed one by one, reducing the number of trains going in and out of Penn Station by as much as 75 percent. Wright said an estimated 38,000 commuters would need to find another way in and out of New York if one of the two tubes is shut down for repairs before a new tunnel is built.

Losing train service would decrease some property values in Princeton and Princeton Junction near the train stations. Close proximity to public transit increases property values, Wright said, noting that one study found that property values for homes within half a mile of a train station increase by about $3,000 for every minute of commute time saved.

A tunnel project known as ARC was canceled by Chris Christie in 2010. Christie, then the governor of New Jersey, cited concerns about potential cost overruns. at the time. Christie used the money set aside for the project for roads, and delayed a gas tax increase another five years.

“The cancellation of that project was a crime against the economy of the state,” Wright said. “It was very short-sighted.”

In 2015, Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo offered to pick up half the tab for the Gateway Project if the federal government funded the rest, but the federal funding for the second half now remains in limbo.

“The agreement has mostly fallen apart with the Trump Administration,” Wright said. “People are working to replace the funding through appropriations. The money has been locked up by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Everyone understands the needs and benefits of reliable resilient, safe transportation into and out of New York…We’re in a completely precarious situation right now. If one part of the system goes down, everything is affected. We need a rail system that supports a modern economy, and we need a federal administration that is supportive.”

Portions of the Gateway program are already funded or underway. Early construction began in the fall of 2017 to replace the North Portal Bridge, and in mid-2018 New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and the NJ Transit Board authorized the local portion of the funding for the full project, increasing the likelihood for the project to receive federal funds. The Port Authority agreed to assume the role of sponsor in applying for Federal Transit Administration-controlled monies that would finance a new tunnel. Two box tunnels are already complete beneath Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s West Side that will connect Penn Station with the new cross-Hudson tunnel when it gets built.

Princeton native Steve Sigmund, director of communications for the Gateway Development Corporation Program, said concrete casting have been done for two sections of the tunnel. The portal bridge replacement is an important part of the project, he said, because the current portal bridge over the river sometimes get’s stuck and won’t close. The swing bridge opens to allow boats to pass, but then won’t close properly. A worker sometimes needs to go out with a sledge hammer and hit the rails back into place. Sometime trains are delayed 20 to 30 minutes because the bridge won’t close. Other times trains are delayed for hours, Sigmund said.

About 40 organizations, companies and institutions — including the Regional Plan Association, New Jersey Future, the Central Jersey Transportation Forum, and Princeton University — are part of a growing coalition called Build Gateway Now that is pushing for the funding for the Gateway project, Sigmund said. Residents can sign up for updates on the group’s website.

Resident John McGoldrick, who served on the original New Jersey Transit board of directors, gave an overview of the history of New Jersey Transit and the battles within state government about forming the agency at the time. Three board members were government officials and four were people outside of government when he served on the board. The non-government members had lots of power and controlled the vote in the early days, he said. “I caution you as you work for the tunnel — those early days don’t last,” he said. “Soon enough those who control the power will exercise the power and will be difficult to maintain results like that.”

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

7 Comments

  1. Anyone who doesn’t understand the importance of fixing the tunnel and train issue is myopic in their thinking. NYC is the financial capital of the world, and telecommuting isn’t going to lower the number of people who need to be in the city every day. As the population has grown, the number of tunnels hasn’t. Many people need to work in NYC to be able to afford to live in Princeton. We all make sacrifices, but our transportation infrastructure is similar to those in third world nations and we should fix it! Getting to work shouldn’t be suspenseful !

  2. @Logic Man What @Jo Butler said. If 11,000 people (just one sixth of the peak period rail riders using the tunnels today) use cars to replace their train trip due to a tunnel outage, travel models show that over 100,000 people on the road today in northern NJ will have their commutes increase by more than 60 ADDITIONAL minutes, and another 80,000 drivers will have the travel times increased by between 30 and 60 minutes. See pages 8 and 9 of the report Jo pointed you towards. This affects commuters, small business owners, freight delivery, everything and everybody. Haven’t even mentioned the impact on air fares for travel in the northeast….

  3. The Regional Plan Association has a publication titled “A Preventable Crisis: The Economic and Human Costs of a Hudson River Rail Tunnel Shutdown” that outlines ways in which a shutdown or failure of a tunnel will negatively impact the entire region — even for those who don’t commute. Among other things, some percentage of the people who can no longer commute by train will choose to drive, which will be harmful to the environment and will create additional delays for commuters by auto throughout the greater tri-state area.

  4. How is the spend of $13Billion fair to non commuters and property owners not near train stations. Looks like this project will NOT benefit the masses.

  5. The Gateway Project is critical to the sustainability of the entire Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston for east coast travel by train. For local commuters there are no less than six NJ Transit trains that leave Princeton Junction express to Newark Penn Station and those commuters don’t know from one day to the next if trains will operate on time…ever!

    Like Nat says…if you live in or around Princeton, you will be impacted, affected, and bothered if the Gateway Project does not move forward expeditiously, no matter what your relationship is to travel.

    The other issue that deserves attention is the sporadic operation of the Dinky and the need to close down Alexander Road later this year.

    Just not a good time if you are a commuter in Princeton…or anywhere for that matter.

    Get behind this project!!

  6. We may be a community that values small town pace of life, but we all — from the quietest homebody to the busy University and all our nation-scale corporate neighbors — depend on reliable access to NYC.

    You individually may not be able to change Trump’s mind about this project – and he is the obstacle that no branch of engineering has yet figured out how to remove – but you CAN give strength to our elected officials at all levels of government to keep Gateway funding front and center as an issue; and you CAN help rebut local distractors like the NY Post when it raises project cost concerns that are raised more to undermine Gateway than to deliver a project efficiently.

    The organizations you belong to; the companies you work for; would all be welcome as part of the Build Gateway coalition – doesn’t cost anything, provides access to regular briefings on project progress, and provides support to anyone who might want to write a letter, testify, or do anything in support of the Gateway project. Check out www dot buildgateway dot org We’d love to have your support.

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