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.

 

Former New Jersey Governor Brendan T. Byrne died on Thursday, January 4th at the age of 93. He was a Democrat and his party controlled the legislature, but he presided over contentious politics while he was in office from 1974 until 1982. He was known for building the Meadowlands stadium, protecting the Pinelands, facilitating voter registration and surviving the imposition of the state income tax, but we remember him for the Transportation Act of 1979, which established New Jersey Transit.

 

At that time, New Jersey's trains were operated by Conrail, through the Commuter Operating Agency at the New Jersey Department of Transportation. The service was in crisis, with operational and funding difficulties. Bus service in the state was under threat, too. Former Senator Francis X. Herbert, who sponsored the legislation, praised Byrne for fighting hard against strong opposition to get the transit bill passed. It was a hard fight, and the legislation that established NJT passed by only one vote.

 

 

 

 

 

An important anniversary recently passed with very little notice, but we remember. New Jersey Transit Rail Operations celebrated its 35th birthday at the start of the year. While NJT started in 1979 by taking over much of the state's bus service and the Newark City Subway, it entered the rail side of transit when the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) was forced to stop operating local trains throughout the Northeast Region at the end of 1982.

 

Beginning in 1983, NJT Rail consolidated a number of disparate rail lines under its umbrella, became an industry leader in rail transit, and built a number of improvements. They included completing the re-electrification of the Morris & Essex Lines in 1984 and opening Midtown Direct service to Penn Station in 1996.

 

 Happy Birthday, NJT Rail!

 

For the next few months, our presentations will concentrate on the Coalition itself, and our plans for the future. On Monday, January 22d, Legislative Director Sally Gellert will outline our goals for the upcoming legislative session. On February 26th, Chair David Peter Alan will present a three-year plan for the Coalition's goals and their implementation. Our presenter on March 26th will be Membership Director Vito Havrilla, who will give us his ideas on how to increase our membership. We would like YOU to be one of our new members! We meet on the third Monday of the month at 7:00 at Millburn Town Hall. You are welcome at our meetings, and we hope you will join us.

 

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.