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.”