Amtrak's ambitious Gateway project has been much in the news of late. The full project, which would take many years to complete, aims to build new tunnels under the Hudson for rail service, and then rehabilitate the storm-damaged existing tubes; add new bridges across the Hackensack River in New Jersey to replace the aging Portal drawbridge; and expand New York's Penn Station with a seven-track annex which would replace the city block to the south. Where the estimated $30 billion to do all this would come from has been the sticking point.

There had been a plan to secure the money, or so local politicians thought.  During the Obama administration, local pols met with the federal government and thought they had secured an agreement for the Feds to pony up half the total, the rest to be local responsibility, although the fine print was that the local funds would mostly come from federal loans.  "Fine print" is just a metaphor, it turns out, because the deal was never documented, and the Trump administration eventually denied that any such deal ever existed. Skeptics demanded "show me the document!" but none was forthcoming. Nonetheless, advocates met with President Trump and thought they had his backing to proceed, and bipartisan support included $900 million in the omnibus spending bill that was needed to keep the government operating after March 23. But as the clock wound down, the president reversed course, declaring his opposition to federal funding for Gateway and threatening to veto the entire package if the Gateway funds were included.  Advocates were baffled; speculation was that a feud with Sen. Schumer (D-NY), the Democratic senator leader, was behind the sudden change of heart.

In the end, the president signed the bill, which is reportedly about 1000 pages and almost nobody has read in detail.  It has some provisions that Gateway could potentially draw on, and advocates quickly declared success, claiming that $540 million in the bill is destined for Gateway, enough to keep it moving forward, they said. In addition, they said, Gateway could apply for some of $2.9 billion in additional money being made available.

Not so fast, said skeptics. They pointed out that all of the money being made available in the bill needs to be competed for, and that Gateway has been rated very low in priority by Department of Transportation scorekeepers, mainly because the "real" local money committed by New York and New Jersey was insufficient.  Relying on federal loans doesn't get you much credit for putting skin in the game. The area's representatives weren't listening, claiming that the funds for Gateway were in the bag.

Critics of the massive program have begun to question whether it will ever be built; see story below. Amtrak has maintained that the existing tunnels need to be taken out of service, one at a time and for an extensive period, to repair damage from flooding during Hurricane Sandy.  Without new tunnels to keep trains flowing during the repairs, Amtrak says, it would be impossible to run the density of trains that peak-hour service demands; one tunnel would limit trains to just six trains an hour in each direction, crippling the commuter rush hours. But is Amtrak crying wolf, just to get funding for a gold-plated solution? Skeptics note that only about half a mile of each tunnel was flooded, and that the damage is to the "bench walls" on the side of the tunnels, not to the basic structure; can't Amtrak fix these during weekends, just as tunnel work is done currently, when train density is lower?  We may only find out the truth if the funding for Gateway does eventually dry up and all the participants face reality.

 

 

 More than at any time since it was first proposed in 2011, it is doubtful that the Gateway Project as planned will ever be built. The project includes new tunnels on a route near, but separate from, the existing Northeast Corridor (NEC) line, a new “Penn South” station for NJ Transit trains, and additional infrastructure at Secaucus Junction. Although it has always been unclear who would pay the currently-estimated $30 billion cost of the entire project, recent developments have essentially ensured that the any federal contribution will be minor, while New Jersey is notoriously cash-strapped. Despite this, the Lackawanna Coalition continues to believe that the useful components of the project can still be built, at a cost saving that would come from concentrating on needs, and postponing or simply not building what is not necessary.

 

For more than seven years, many elected officials and representatives of the engineering and construction industries have advocated for the project, which would build a separate railroad into Midtown Manhattan near the existing line, a new “Penn South” station at 30th Street for NJ Transit trains, and a new station near the existing Secaucus Junction Station in the Meadowlands. It is similar to the final version of the Access to the Region's Core (ARC) Project, which underwent significant changes from the time it was first proposed in the mid-1990s until former Governor Chris Christie terminated it in October, 2010. By that time, it called for a line to Midtown separate from the existing NEC and a dead-end deep-cavern station twenty stories below Macy's basement under 34th Street. Christie killed the project for two reasons: the deep-cavern terminal was not a useful place to drop commuters and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) had estimated the cost of the project to lie between $12 and $15 billion, far more than the $8.7 billion that New Jersey and the Feds could raise at the time.

 

Now, history is repeating itself. The Gateway Project uses the same alignment as the former ARC Project of 2008–10 to get under the Hudson River, and most NJ Transit riders would be relegated to a new station, rather than the Penn Station that they use today; a station further from subway connections and from most Midtown offices. The cost for Gateway, which always exceeded the final cost for the ARC proposal, has increased to an estimated $30 billion.

 

On December 29, 2017, K. Jane Williams, Depute Administrator at the FTA, told Gateway Project officials in New Jersey and New York State that the Obama Administration had never promised to pay half the cost of Gateway, so there was no agreement that would commit the current administration to such funding. She also said that 90% of the riders who would use the project to get to and from Penn Station would be local rail riders, rather than Amtrak customers, so the project was more concerned with local, and not regional or national, mobility. The following week, an editorial appeared in the New York Daily News, calling for a scaled-down project that would not cost as much as the entire Gateway proposal. Then, on February 12th, President Trump unveiled his infrastructure plan for the nation. He proposed a total of $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending of all kinds, but with the federal government chipping in only $200 billion of that, which is only 2/7, or 13.3% of the total. Although it has been customary for the feds to pay 50% of project costs with a “local match” for the other half, it now looks like the new percentage from Washington will be 20% at best, and probably more like 10%.

 

That news alone is probably enough to make sure that the complete Gateway, as its proponents envision it, will not be built. To make matters worse for the project, the FTA recently downgraded the project from “medium-high” to “medium-low” priority; essentially a downgrade from a B to a D. Competition for federal grants from many applicants across the nation is fierce, and the few projects that receive a “medium-low” rating generally do not receive federal grants. So, as far as Washington is concerned, the Tunnel Project and the Portal North Bridge Project, two major and essential components of Gateway, have received low grades and will probably flunk the funding test.

 

We see a number of reasons for this funding failure. One is that the overall project is too expensive compared to the overall national budget. Even if the federal government pitched in with $15 billion (half of the estimated cost of the entire project), that would use up half the money available for the entire country. There is also very little “local” funding commitment for the project elements in question, which is always a problem when asking for federal funds. There has been very little capital money from NJ Transit committed to the project, even though it is New Jersey peak-hour commuters who would get the most benefit from it. In addition, the project has a serious flaw. The Gateway plan does not allow any increase in peak-hour capacity at Penn Station until the entire project is built. That means increased capacity comes last, not first. To get that increase in capacity under the Gateway plan would require Penn South, the extra infrastructure at Secaucus, and all other elements that are not otherwise necessary or desirable. In short, the Gateway Project as presently conceived is an overpriced enterprise that would not improve mobility in the advertised manner.

 

There are ways to improve the rating for the project, but that would entail improving it and committing more local funding for it. It should deliver additional capacity to Penn Station as soon as the first new track is placed into service. It also needs more local funding, so the FTA will know that New Jersey is serious about the project, not simply looking for a handout. Federal Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has said that using “local” money to repay federal loans does not count toward the “local” match. A strong local match would encourage the federal agency to commit funding.

 

The Gateway Project may be facing additional political difficulties. The Washington Post and New York Times reported on Saturday, March 3d that President Trump has asked House Speaker Paul Ryan not to support funding for the project. It was also reported that the request may be a consequence of the wrangling between Trump and Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer of New York, a Gateway backer.

 

Despite these difficulties with both performance and funding, many local elected officials and Gateway proponents maintain that there is no Plan B. That is not correct. We at the Lackawanna Coalition have proposed and expressed our support for a Plan B that we call “A Better Gateway.”  Our current plan is an update of a proposal developed in 2012 by Coalition member Joseph M. Clift and our former Legislative Director, the late James T. Raleigh.  We call for at least one new tunnel and track directly into Penn Station, New York, with a second track if there is enough money available to build it.  It should be built along the same alignment as the existing line, rather than on a separate alignment.  We call for the aging Portal Bridge to be replaced with one new bridge, either with four tracks or with three tracks plus room for fourth to be added later, as funds become available.  We do not see any reason to build two new two-track bridges, when one larger bridge will cost less and perform better. We also call for the southernmost two platforms in Penn Station New York, which serve Tracks 1 through 4, to be extended to the West End Concourse at Penn Station and the Moynihan Train Hall, currently under construction.  There should also be enough "vertical access" at the station to allow riders to get from the platform to the station concourse quickly.  That improvement is a component of the Gateway Project.  We also object to the proposed Penn South station and the proposed Secaucus South infrastructure and station, which are not needed, as well as building two new bridges instead of one.

 

We will have more information about this initiative, including a plan for saving money by scaling down the Gateway Project to a manageable and affordable size. There is not enough money available from either federal or local sources to pay for the current proposal, and we need to spend our tax money wisely. This is especially true in light or the recent increase in federal income tax that most New Jerseyans will pay, starting next year.

 

We are also beginning to think about Plan C; a plan for moving riders into Manhattan if nothing is built and the existing tunnels must be taken out of service for repairs caused by flood damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. We think that it is critical to avoid Plan C, which would be quite difficult for riders if it becomes necessary because of a tunnel shutdown. Thus, we call for scaling Gateway down to our “Better Gateway” size, eliminating unnecessary projects from NJ Transit's capital program, and concentrating on the tunnel capacity, bridge, and Penn Station improvements that the local area and the region need. In short, there is a Plan B, and we have it. Otherwise, our only choice will be to go to the emergency Plan C.

 

 

 

 

 

After a brief but all-too-familiar fracas between New York City Mayor de Blasio and the NY State-owned Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the MTA on February 22 approved the upgrading of eight subway stations.  The Wall Street Journal (Feb. 23, reported by Paul Berger) confirmed that among the eight stations are the two which serve commuters connecting at New York's Penn Station, among which are many NJ Transit riders. The Journal noted that the upgrading of the two stations caused an extra bit of controversy, since MTA Chairman Joe Lhota is also a director of the company that runs Madison Square Garden, which sits above Penn Station and whose patrons could also benefit from better subway stations. The MTA's counsel and its ethics officer said they had reviewed the situation and believed there was no conflict of interest. Improved subway stations would also benefit riders of the Long Island Rail Road, which also uses Penn Station and is also part of the MTA, so Lhota clearly has multiple interests at play in voting for the improvements. The entire plan to spend money on subway station improvements had recently sparked controversy when the Mayor questioned the wisdom of rehabilitating stations when the overall performance of the subway system is in question, and is often blamed on lack of spending on basic maintenance. The New York Times reported (Sarah Maslin Nir, Feb. 22) that criticism of the overall station program included the fact that no money was provided for elevators for handicapped access. NYC Transit president Andy Byford, recently arrived from Toronto, noted that some of the stations to be rehabbed but which are not accessible are close to other stations that do have access, while in some cases adding accessibility would unduly delay the rehabilitation work. 

NJ Transit will add 40 passenger cars to its rail fleet, according to an announcement on February 15 by Gov. Phil Murphy, in an effort to alleviate crowding on some trains. The announcement was reported by Larry Higgs for nj.com and appears in the Star-Ledger, Feb. 16. 20 of the cars will be leased from a Maryland commuter operator, presumably MARC, and the other 20 will be NJT cars that had been awaiting installation of Positive Train Control (PTC) hardware. It was unclear whether the PTC equipment has been installed; NJT faces a nationwide year-end deadline to implement the PTC safety system. In related news, Amtrak announced that commuter railroads that do not comply with PTC might be banned from its track at year end; many NJT trains operate over Amtrak, which owns the Northeast Corridor, including New York Penn Station.

NJ Transit has a new executive director, Kevin S. Corbett, as of Wednesday, Feb. 14 when Corbett was officially confirmed by NJT's board of directors. The transit agency has been roundly condemned by riders and observers alike, some saying that the system it operates is the worst in the country.  So what should Corbett do? According to reporting by Larry Higgs for nj.com (and published in the Star-Ledger, Feb. 15), NJT customers have an earful for the new boss. Reliability and overcrowding tend to be at the top of the list. Morris & Essex Line commuter John Ohlson, summed it up: "Forget cleanliness and prices. Just get me to work on time. Do whatever it takes for trains to follow their schedules." Rail rider Gary Kuppinger said "I take the Montclair-Boonton Line and there are always delays due to 'operational issues' on trains."

Bus riders voiced concerns about an aging fleet of buses that breaks down all too frequently, and often does not provide enough service to accommodate riders on some routes. Bus route 156 rider Ellen Herb said "NJ Transit needs to listen to customers when they're told there are not enough buses on a route, or when a route needs to be changed to accommodate changing passenger needs." Route 177x rider Eric Goebelbecker said "If there's one thing, it's 'fix the bus fleet.' Too many of them are breaking down and too many trips are canceled for operational issues, which I assume means no buses are available." Bus rider John Medway, who rides a bus into the Port Authority Bus Terminal, criticized both bus reliability and the maintenance of the special bus lane that his bus uses. "You can't have buses breaking down twice a week in the Xclusive Bus Lane (leading to the) Lincoln Tunnel . . . you can't have breakdowns causing 60-minute delays. Work with the Port Authority to stop this manual delineator replacement madness. They did it twice (on Monday)."

Customer relations also came under fire. Northeast Corridor Line rail commuter Paul Bell said that the top priority should be "courtesy, especially in making station announcements and not relying on the automated announcements, which may or may not be turned on, and conveying information to passengers during train delays." Jean Cook, a Main-Bergen Line rider, echoed Bell's concerns. "I'd start with customer service. (NJT should have) employees walking the "pit" (the waiting area at New York Penn Station) when there are delays, not standing in the corners with their cellphones. Answer questions with helpful answers, not 'I don't know.'"  But maybe it's all beyond NJT's management to control, George Young of Rahway feared: "To me it is the aging of an inadequate infrastructure and general lack of commitment in Washington to rail service."

New Jersey's new governor, Phil Murphy, on January 22 ordered a "full scale" audit of NJ Transit, an agency he has previously called a "national disgrace," saying "this agency must be boiled down to its essentials and put back together again." "Our goal must be a new New Jersey Transit," Murphy said at a press conference held at the Summit train station. The event was widely reported, including in the Star-Ledger by Brent Johnson and Larry Higgs (printed Jan. 23). To carry out his plans, Murphy will need a new executive director at NJT to replace incumbent Steve Santoro, who has tendered his resignation; on January 23, Murphy announced he planned to nominate Kevin Corbett, North American VP for AECOM, an infrastructure firm that had previously worked on NJT projects including the ARC trans-Hudson tunnel, canceled by former Gov. Chris Christie. Corbett was formally  nominated on January 30, according to reporting by Nick Corasaniti in the New York Times.  Corbett got kudos from Regional Planning Association executive director Tom Wright, who said that Corbett "has been a senior executive at the world's largest infrastructure firm for many years, and before that worked in the public sector -- including helping New York recover from 9/11 when he worked at the Empire State Development Corporation." "Kevin knows how to manage large institutions -- and how to run things on time.  It's a great selection." Corbett faces considerable problems, including a declining ridership: NJT rail trips decreased 2.3% in 2017, while bus trips fell by 3.4%. Corbett is no stranger to NJT, having commuted on NJT for more than 20 years. Of his commute last summer from his home in Mendham to Manhattan, Corbett said, "Every day we felt it was like fricking Dunkirk. Maybe your train got there, maybe it didn't."

The audit that Murphy plans at NJT includes reviewing the agency's finances, leadership, hiring practices, and culture; its relationship with Amtrak; and its lagging implementation of Positive Train Control. Murphy said he hoped to complete the audit quickly, perhaps within three months, saying "the public cannot be left waiting for answers." Murphy's nominee for state commissioner of transportation, Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, would oversee the audit, once she is confirmed by the State Senate. Murphy, who even before his inauguration had created controversy when his transition team demanded that top NJT officials offer their resignations, said "People are mad as heck.  And they deserve a better experience."

The following column, which I wrote, was published in the Star-Ledger on January 18.

Murphy stumbles with NJT purge

 

By David Peter Alan  Guest Columnist

 

I have been a frequent rider on NJ Transit throughout its entire 39-year history and a citizen-advocate for 33 of those years, and I have seen the agency go downhill firsthand.  Gov. Phil Murphy has repeatedly criticized NJT and the service it has provided to its riders lately.  He has rightly blamed the policies of the Christie Administration, including a lack of funding.

 

Citizen advocates have made the same complaints for years, and we were hopeful that a new governor would make meaningful, positive reforms.  However, we cannot agree with Murphy’s initial action before he took office: firing innocent employees who did not cause the agency's internal woes or the difficulties that riders face daily.

 

Part of the Murphy plan is to fire employees who were Christie patronage appointments.  Star-Ledger reporter Larry Higgs and reporters for other media outlets named some of them last month.  We  know who they are, too.  If the new administration wants to use appropriate legal means to remove them, we will be glad to see them go.

 

Last month’s firings, however, bear no resemblance to any such legal method..  A number of NJT employees were given “resign-or-else” letters on orders from the Murphy transition team – not the same list of hangers-on of which we read, but also employees who have given long and distinguished service to the agency, including some who never had policymaking authority.  This was not the standard housecleaning of a new administration, but executive overreach into the inner workings of an agency designed by statute to be independent from state government.

 

The Transportation Act of 1979 chartered New Jersey Transit, specifically establishing it as a corporation independent of the New Jersey Department of Transportation, which previously had direct authority over the state’s transit.  NJT is not a state agency under the direct control of the governor.  Instead, it is an independent body, with its own board of directors, and its own rules and procedures.  The governor has influence at NJT and appoints the members of the board, but the statute does not allow the governor to micromanage the agency through such decisions as hiring and firing employees.

 

Despite this legally-mandated separation, a number of NJT employees were given ultimatum letters, on orders from the Murphy transition team, through the office of NJT's departing executive director.  They should not have been coerced into giving up their jobs.

 

The managers at issue joined NJT before Christie took office, so they are clearly not his protégés.  We believe they are doing the best they can, especially since the Christie administration never gave them the funding or the backing necessary for the level of service that we riders need and deserve.  Other employees targeted are secretaries with no line authority, whose duties are strictly administrative.  They are not political hacks and do not deserve to be forced out of their jobs.

 

This purge designed to improve the agency may, in fact, have the opposite effect.  Eliminating experienced and dedicated managers would wipe out institutional knowledge that enabled NJ Transit to survive years of abuse and neglect.  This could lead to even worse performance.  Murphy's action may also give the public the illusion that the central problem is simply bad management due solely to political patronage.  In reality, citizen transit advocates strongly believe that the underlying problem is the chronic lack of funding.  Even the best managers can only do so much with limited, dwindling resources.  If Murphy is serious about fixing NJ Transit, he will make a major commitment to adequate, stable funding.  Otherwise, the daily delays and breakdowns, and the risk of accidents, will increase.

 

We hope that Gov. Murphy will rescind the mistake made by his staff, allow the innocent people who are slated to lose their jobs to continue in the service of the riding public, and enable the sort of transportation professionals who gave NJT the good reputation that it once had to operate the transit we need and deserve.

 

David Peter Alan is chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent organization that has advocated for better transit since 1979.  He lives and practices law in South Orange.

 

 

 

 

 

NJ Transit board meetings are usually sleepy affairs where the politically-appointed board members almost invariably vote in unison, ignoring public input. But the one on January 15 set some kind of record for controversy. The meeting had been postponed from January 10 due to a lack of quorum, then rescheduled for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a state and federal holiday -- an unusual time for a meeting.  But these are unusual times: January 15 was the last full day of the Christie administration, which had made it clear that it wanted a Hoboken land deal to go through.  Incoming Governor-elect Phil Murphy, who takes office on January 16, had voiced opposition to the deal.  In the end, for reasons that may remain mysterious, the NJT board took the controversial deal off the agenda, dealing a victory to opponents that included both the former and new mayors of Hoboken, where the land in question is located.

Central to the controversy is the private ferry service operated by New York Waterway; the company operates ferries from a number of points on both sides of the Hudson, but an important link, certainly in NJT's estimation, is its service from NJT's  Hoboken rail terminal to points in Manhattan. The ferry company needs a place to maintain its fleet; it had one, in Weehawken, but 20 years ago sold that facility to a developer but while continuing to lease it back for its maintenance base. Apparently the company did not foresee its expanded future role in marine transportation, and now the real estate developer wants the land for development. This leaves the company potentially without a maintenance base, which it hints could be the end of its services.

One of the few remaining riverfront land tracts in the area is the Union Dry Dock property in Hoboken.  The city of Hoboken has plans to complete its waterfront park system by acquiring the property through eminent domain. The ferry company would love to use it for their maintenance base. Enter NJ Transit, a state agency which arguably has the right to trump Hoboken's ability to condemn the land for its planned park. NJT wants to buy the property and lease it back to the ferry company, preserving the ferry operation, which NJT sees as vital to its commuter services. The ferries could become even more important if a tunnel failure handicaps NJT's trains to Manhattan; during construction last summer, many NJT trains were sent to Hoboken, and many riders then used NY Waterway ferries to reach Manhattan. NJT picked up the fares for the rerouted riders.

With the issue unresolved, and the Governor's mansion changing hands, the issue is  bound to crop up again. Reporting on the issue can be found by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media and Patrick McGeehan for the New York Times.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), chair of the influential House Appropriations Committee, returned fire to the Trump administration on January 4 with a letter to Federal Transit Administration Deputy Administrator K. Jane Williams, saying that the Gateway/Hudson River Tunnels project was the "most important infrastructure project in the country" and saying that "It is the responsibility of the House Committee on Appropriations to assure that such national priorities are met."

The Congressman's letter was in response to a December 29 letter from Williams to the governors of New York and New Jersey, which asserted that the states' belief that they had an agreement to split the costs 50/50 with the Federal Government was fiction. "There is no such agreement," wrote  Williams. "We consider it unhelpful to reference a non-existent 'agreement' rather than directly address the responsibility for funding a local project where nine out of 10 passengers are local transit riders." Frelinghuysen's rebuttal, citing the national impact of the project, said that "It is also imperative we pursue Gateway to ensure millions of Americans continue to access this vital economic Northeast Corridor that enables safe transportation of more than 800,000 daily riders, from Washington to Boston, in an area that supports approximately 20 percent of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP). Further, this rail project serves as a critical choke point for Amtrak's entire operation on the East Coast from Florida to Maine."

Williams' letter did not rule out Federal participation in the project, provided the assistance did not include loans to the states; the states had relied on Federal loans to meet part of their obligations on the project.

The back-and-forth in Washington on the tunnels project has sparked spirited debate among advocates and other observers, including whether a cheaper version of the project would suffice to keep the trains running (see articles below), or whether new tunnels are mandatory to avoid crippling commuter and long-distance rail service while damage to the existing tunnels from Hurricane Sandy flooding are repaired. Amtrak, which owns the tunnels, has stated that the tunnels will need to be removed from service, one at a time, for extended periods for the repair. With only one tunnel available, Amtrak says that peak-hour commuter capacity would be crippled, if new tunnels are not built first.

Congressman Frelinghuysen has represented New Jersey's 11th District since 1995. The district includes a considerable portion of the Morris & Essex Lines  and Montclair-Boonton line commuter territory of NJ Transit, and has generally  been considered a safe district for Republicans. However, the controversial Trump administration and renewed enthusiasm by Democrats may place it in play in this year's midterm elections.

In an editorial published on Thursday, January 4th, the New York Daily News called for new tunnels to Penn Station, but without some of the features of the full Gateway proposal.  The paper's position is similar to the one that the Lackawanna Coalition has been advocating.  

The editorial began: "Albeit on wrong-headed political grounds, the Trump Administration has thrown deserved cold water on Amtrak's exorbitant Hudson River rail tunnel project called Gateway."  The editorial was published six days after K. Jane Williams, Deputy Administrator at the Federal Transit Administration, told New York and New Jersey officials that the Feds would not fund $11.3 billion toward the tunnel project and said that the Obama Administration had reached "no agreement" to do so.

The editorial called for a new tunnel, saying: "The region badly needs a new train tunnel in order to repair those damaged by Superstorm Sandy and increase commuter capacity between New Jersey and New York" and went on to criticize the Trump Administration, but added: "what's needed is a change in scope and scale."  The paper criticized the proposal for a separate "Penn South" station and the need to demolish a city block to clear the land to build it.

Instead, the editorial called for optimizing Penn Station, which includes lengthening platforms and bringing them into the Moynihan Station, which is currently under construction in the Post Office Building across 8th Avenue from the existing Penn Station.  It also called for "a tube" costing $11 billion, rather than the entire Gateway project, with an estimated cost of $30 billion.  It is not clear whether that "tube" would contain one or two new tracks.  In addition, the editorial called for a four-track "mid-height" bridge.  The current Portal Bridge sits 23 feet above mean-high water, while plans call for two two-track bridges sitting 55 above the water.

The editorial concluded: "Get the essential parts done without waste.  God knows even sane infrastructure plans cost way too much in this city."

The proposal from the Daily News is similar to the Lackawanna Coalition's suggestion, which comprises two new tunnels into the existing Penn Station, improvements that would allow NJ Transit trains and riders to use the West End Concourse and the Moynihan Station when it is completed, and either one new bridge that would carry all trains into Penn Station, or a single new two-track bridge and rehabilitating the existing Portal Bridge for peak-hours and during outages on other tracks.  The Coalition has called for "Penn South" not to be built, citing excessive cost and the inconvenience to riders, who would be dropped an additional block from their offices and from the subways that take them to their offices.  We stated our position in the November-December, 2017 issue of our newsletter, the Railgram.  We summarized it as "Build What We Need and Don't Build What We Don't Need."

The Coalition welcomes this development.  Our constituents do not need "Penn South" or the proposed "Secaucus South" station.  The do need "another tube" into Penn Station, and they need more capacity at Penn Station, including the beneficial use of the Moynihan Station now under construction.  

 


 

Former New Jersey Governor Brendan T. Byrne died on Thursday, January 4th.  He was 93.  

Byrne began his career in local politics in Essex County and served as a county prosecutor and a judge before being elected Governor in 1973.  He served two terms in that office.  He was a Democrat and his party controlled the Legislature, but he presided over contentious politics in the state during his eight-year tenure in office.  Byrne was known for establishing the sports stadium in the Meadowlands, facilitating voter registration and surviving the establishment of the state income tax, but he is best-known to transit-riding community for the Transportation Act of 1979, which established New Jersey Transit (NJT).

Before NJT was founded, New Jersey's transit was in a state of crisis.  Train service was unreliable and funding for rail service, then operated by the Consolidated Rail Corp. (ConRail), was problematic.  Public Service Electric & Gas Co. wanted to get rid of its bus subsidiary, which it had renamed Transport of New Jersey.  Former Sen. Francis X. Herbert, who sponsored the Transportation Act, said that Byrne strongly supported establishing a new transit agency, and that he worked hard to overcome political opposition to the proposal.  The bill to establish NJT passed by a one-vote margin.

NJT started by taking over the TNJ bus service, and added NJT Rail Operations 35 years ago, when ConRail was forced to discontinue its commuter train operations throughout the Northeast region.  NJT then went on to become a leading agency in the transit industry during its early years.

 

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) dealt a severe blow to the prospect of securing large-scale federal funding for the Hudson Tunnels Project, a component of the Gateway mega-project.

In a letter released near the close of business Friday, FTA Deputy Administrator K. June Williams outlined "the serious concerns raised by the updated financial proposal" for the project, according to the agency's press release.  Williams sent the letter to officials from New Jersey Transit, the New York State Division of the Budget, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the Gateway Program Development Corporation.  

"The revised plan seeks at least $11.1 billion from the Federal government and makes the Project 100% reliant on Federal assistance" according to the FTA Release, which also said that there is no "50/50" agreement between New York, New Jersey and the U.S. Department of Transportation to finance the project.  Williams' letter went on to say: "We consider it unhelpful to reference a non-existent "agreement" rather than directly address the responsibility for funding a local project where 9 out of 10 passengers are local transit riders."  NJ Transit riders use a portion of the Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Penn Station and Trenton, or they ride trains to and from Penn Station that use part of that route.  The Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) also uses Penn Station as a major terminal.  Amtrak passengers, who ride north of New York or beyond Trenton account for about 10% of total Penn Station riders.  The other 90% ride on NJT or LIRR trains.

The financing plan called for a 50/50 split of federal funding between loans and Capital Investment Grants (CIG).  In the letter, Williams added: "the assumption that $5 billion or more in CIG grant funds will be available to New York and New Jersey for this one project lacks recognition of the impact that such funding would have on the availability of funds for the remainder of the country" and said that such a large grant "could exhaust the program entirely."

The estimated cost of the Hudson Tunnel Project was lowered from $14.9 billion in October to $12.7 billion, purportedly without an explanation for the reduction.  Williams criticized the reduction, saying: "We understand this new plan does not address the rehabilitation of the existing tunnels, and now only addresses the building of two new tunnels. Given the age of the existing tunnels was the impetus for the project, we question the decision to ignore any funding commitment to that critical component, and to omit billions in other costs previously acknowledged to be part of the overall project cost."

New tunnels between New Jersey and Penn Station, New York are necessary, since the existing tunnels were damaged in flooding from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and must be taken out of service for major repairs.  Amtrak has said that the work should be performed no later than 2034.  Current projections for the Gateway Project say that it should be completed in 2030; only four years before that deadline.  

The Hudson Tunnel Project is a component of Gateway, which also includes other features such as the proposed Penn South, which would be a stub-end terminal at 30th Street for NJ Transit trains, new infrastructure near Secaucus Station, and a loop around Secaucus Station for trains coming from Bergen County.  Current cost estimates for the entire Gateway Project run around $30 billion.  To date, there has not been any financing plan proposed for Gateway in its entirety.

The Lackawanna Coalition has consistently expressed deep concern that there will not be sufficient funds available from federal or local sources to build the entire Gateway Project.  Instead, we have called for a less-ambitious and less-costly plan that would include two new tunnels into Penn Station, a new bridge with enough tracks to handle all trains into and out of Penn Station (or a new two-track bridge and rehabilitating the existing Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River) and improvements at Penn Station that would allow more trains to enter and leave that facility, especially at busy commuting hours. 

Supporters of the Gateway Project, including the Regional Plan Association and the Gateway Program Development Corporation, have expressed the hope that the entire Gateway Project will be built someday.  Given the new stance by the FTA, the likelihood of that outcome appears to be diminishing, and it is looking more likely that the more modest project that we propose could be built, instead.