Railgram

The Railgram is the Coalition's official newsletter, published every two months and packed with in-depth coverage of the issues. For past issues and printer-friendly versions, click here.

At a joint legislative hearing of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee and the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Sept. 25, a number of prominent advocates for the Gateway Project proclaimed “There is no Plan B” and stated that they believe it is necessary to build the entire project as it is now proposed. At the same hearing, this writer announced that WE have the “plan B” that should be built, instead. Our plan improves trans-Hudson mobility and capacity at New York’s Penn Station, and it would cost substantially less than the $27 billion to $30 billion now estimated as the total cost of Gateway in its entirety.

Our plan can be summarized in eleven words: Build what we need and don’t build what we don’t need! We need two new tunnels, improvements at Penn Station (including extending Tracks 1 through 4 and the two platforms that support them to the West End Concourse, west of Eighth Avenue) and a new bridge with enough capacity to carry the trains that will go to or from Penn Station. That means three tracks with room for a fourth, or a new two-track bridge and rehabilitation of the existing Portal Bridge for peak-commuting hours or during service outages. Other proposed aspects of Gateway, including the Penn South station, Secaucus South infrastructure, and the Bergen Loop are not needed, and potentially undesirable. They should not be built. The necessary elements of this “right-sized” project can be built for $10 billion or less: one-third of the currently-estimated cost for all of Gateway.

Let’s look at the political reality. The Trump Administration has killed funding for such projects as a light-rail line in Minnesota and electrification of the CalTrain line in the San Francisco Bay Area. The current Congress is dominated by representatives of the rural states, which have little transit. Gateway in its entirety would consume essentially half the money available for transit projects all over the country. It makes absolutely no sense to assume that a Republican administration and Congress would spend such a large portion of the available money on a project that would benefit the Democratic strongholds of New York City and northern New Jersey.

Seven years ago, Gov. Chris Christie terminated the former ARC Project for two reasons. It was too expensive, and it was flawed. The flaws, about which we in the advocacy movement had warned, were that it would not go to Grand Central Terminal on the East Side of Midtown Manhattan, that it would not go to the existing Penn Station, and that Amtrak could not use it. Although Penn South is not as bad as the ARC project had become (with its dead-end deep-cavern terminal 20 stories below 34th Street), it is not much better. It does not cure any of those three problems, which were fatal to the last rendering of the ARC Project. The other difficulty was cost, which had risen from $8.7 billion to a range between $12 billion and $15 billion by October, 2010. Today, the estimated cost of Gateway runs from $27 billion to $30 billion, anywhere from 80% to 135% of the final estimate of the cost of ARC. In the past seven years, the Producer Price Index has risen only slightly, so Gateway is far more expensive than ARC had become by the time Gov. Christie terminated it. If we could not afford ARC then, we certainly cannot afford all of Gateway now.

There is more to our “Plan B” for crossing under the Hudson River. Bring back the discount for “off-peak” rail fares and make it less expensive to go to Manhattan through Hoboken and PATH, than to go directly to Penn Station. Those two changes, which require NO capital cost, would divert some riders away from Penn Station at the most-crowded times.

It is also possible to improve the operation at Penn Station, for little additional capital cost. If it can be improved enough to re-use tracks faster, there would be room for more trains when Penn Station is busy.

So that is our “Plan B” for enhanced mobility between New Jersey and New York City. At most, it would cost one third of the estimated price for all of Gateway, and it would provide the capacity at Penn Station that we need. It might even be possible to build our “Plan B” project before the existing tunnels must be taken out of service for repairs. According to Amtrak, which owns the Northeast Corridor, that must happen by 2034. So we don’t even have enough time for all of Gateway, much less enough money. We have time and money only for our Plan B, our Better Gateway.

New Jersey Transit (NJT) wants to build two new projects on the Morris & Essex (M&E) Line, but we are concerned about them. Although we seldom object to any proposal designed to improve our railroad, we are not sure if these are needed soon, especially given the level of service that NJT operates on the line, and will probably continue to operate in the future. More importantly, there is a higher priority for any money that might be spent on our railroad: keeping it in a state of good repair.

At the beginning of October, riders on the Gladstone Branch lost their trains for two days. The cause was falling debris from the retaining wall west of Summit Station. The railroad runs in a cut there, and the incident occurred near the place where the “Branch” splits off from the M&E main line to Dover and beyond. This makes us wonder whether it is in a state of good repair. If it is not, bringing it to such a state is top priority.

NJT is now moving forward with plans to convert Newark Draw, the drawbridge immediately east of Broad Street Station, to a three-track bridge. Part of the railroad extending to Harrison would also have a third track added. The other project involves filling in Long Slip at Hoboken Terminal, which would make room for six new tracks on the side of the station nearest the river. We are not sure if either of these projects is needed now. Newark Draw was rehabilitated only seven years ago, and should provide good service for many more years. The current level of service does not justify the cost of building a third track in that area. The level of service at Hoboken, even with the extra trains that went there for eight weeks last summer, does not appear to justify the cost of more tracks, especially badly-located ones far from the exits from the station to New-York-bound PATH trains and to the street.

In light of the recent service outage on the Gladstone Branch, we need to be sure that our entire railroad is in a state of good repair, and that there are plans to keep it that way. NJT did not provide a “bus bridge” around the problem at Summit for Gladstone Branch riders, nor shuttle trains from New Providence or Murray Hill west to Gladstone.

If the infrastructure should fail anywhere on the M&E, Gladstone or Montclair Branches, the result could be a mobility disaster for anyone who uses our trains, particularly persons who depend on them for basic mobility. A long-term service outage, which would be required for extensive repairs, would be catastrophic for riders, as well as devastating to the local economy.

Therefore, we call on NJT to make sure that the entire M&E line and its branches are in a state of good repair, and that NJT has a plan to keep it that way. We need that much more than we need projects that may not be justified by the level of service we have now or will have throughout the foreseeable future. The promise of inspections is reassuring, but safety comes first, and it comes before expansion.

Publisher’s Note: Many riders on the Morris & Essex and Gladstone Lines are celebrating Midtown Direct service to Penn Station, since they had lost most of it on weekdays for eight weeks last summer. The highly successful service on our lines into New York Penn Station begin in June, 1996. The Lackawanna Coalition advocated for it over the years, and former Chair Albert L. Papp, Jr., was one of the chief campaigners. Here he concludes his series on Midtown Direct service.

For those readers new to the area, the act of boarding a train at your suburban NJ Transit Morris & Essex Lines station and enjoying a traffic free, seamless direct ride to New York’s Penn Station may be taken somewhat cavalierly. But your daily commute wasn’t always this easy prior to the Midtown Direct service. In the 1960s, traveling to Manhattan involved taking a former Delaware Lackawanna & Western rattan-seated, 1930s-vintage, non-air-conditioned train to Hoboken, and transferring there to the railroad’s ferry boats plying the Hudson River to Manhattan or taking Hudson Tubes (PATH’s predecessor) to the Hudson Terminal in Lower Manhattan or to 33rd Street beneath Sixth Avenue.

Beginning in the four years prior to the Lackawanna merger with the Erie Railroad in October 1960, all Erie trains were shifted from the Erie’s Jersey City terminal to Hoboken. By 1966, they were all concentrated in the Lackawanna’s more substantial terminal. That same year, Trenton established the NJ Department of Transportation (the first state DOT in the country) and the Commuter Operating Authority (COA) to provide both operating and capital financial assistance to the then-private rail carriers. Ferry service ceased one year later, and commuters were forced to ride the PATH trains. The Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corporation (PATH) was formed in 1962, when its predecessor, the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad (H&M) succumbed to bankruptcy. After that, the “Port” pumped some $70 million into its rehabilitation, in exchange for permitting the agency to build the World Trade Center on land then occupied by the H&M’s (later PATH’s) Hudson Terminal.

After successive railroad bankruptcies, Conrail was formed on April 1, 1976 as a government-funded private company to take over operations of the Northeast’s carriers. It operated New Jersey commuter trains, but not for long. Conrail claimed it cost $70 million a year to run the commuter trains and it wanted relief, which occurred after the state dissolved the COA and formed NJ Transit on July 17, 1979. On Jan. 1, 1983, the first NJT train pulled out of the station.

Over the ensuing years, growing economic expansion saw the PATH trains become more and more crowded with standees. This became a recurring weekday problem, especially on the line to the new World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. This overcrowding situation began to be alleviated in 1989 when NY Waterway instituted a private, non-governmental ferry service from a temporary terminal south of Track 17 in Hoboken to Battery Park City, in response to rising patronage due to economic expansion in Lower Manhattan. Still, train ridership continued to expand and numerous metropolitan agencies began to contemplate direct service from NJT’s Morris & Essex Lines into New York’s Penn Station. Approvals were sought and received, and construction began in 1993 on some 7,000 feet of track for both an inbound and outbound connection. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Lackawanna Coalition has stated its objections to a proposal by Essex and Passaic County planning officials to study the feasibility of building a busway between Newark and Paterson, along the right-of-way of the historic Newark Branch of the Erie Railroad; a line that hosted passenger trains until 1966. The line would go through Nutley and Clifton, and near the site where Hoffman-LaRoche once made pharmaceuticals, which Seton Hall University is now eyeing for a medical school.

The Coalition criticized the proposed busway-only study, saying that it should also include the alternatives of light-rail, which could be extended from Broad Street Station, and “conventional” trains, which could operate from Hoboken and through Broad Street Station. The Coalition’s comments noted the benefits of rail transit, compared to buses, including connectivity to the rest of the NJ transit rail system, lower costs of upgrading rail instead of building a road for buses, and potential revenue that could be earned by running rail freight service on the line, in addition to the passenger trains.