Steel Dreams Deferred

Gateway has replaced ARC as Jersey’s best hope to ease train travel to Manhattan. But will Amtrak’s plan ever get rolling?

Former ARC Tunnel project director Martin Robins at the covered-over site in North Bergen where two years ago ground was ceremoniously broken for the $8.7 billion project. At this location, an underpass for two tracks had been partially constructed below Tonnelle Avenue. It was the first construction phase of the project, which would have tunneled under the Palisades and the Hudson River into Manhattan. “It all looked so promising,” Robins said as he scanned the scene. “Now the weeds are taking over.”
Photo by Robert Yaskovic.

Perhaps more than anyone else in New Jersey, Martin Robins comprehended the significance of the 30-foot-high dirt-and-gravel embankment sloping down from Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen. The roar of the road and the wail of nearby trains brought him back to the times he had been there before, when this was not an ugly pile of rocks but, he and many others believed, a portal to the future.

Two years earlier he was at the groundbreaking ceremonies at that very spot for the first new rail tunnel to be built under the Hudson River in a century. In his remarks, then governor Jon Corzine cited Robins. He returned a year later to try to salvage the huge project called ARC, which Governor Chris Christie was threatening to cancel because of cost overruns that would saddle the state with billions in additional debt.

Now, on a gorgeous morning in late August, Robins—director emeritus of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers—was back for the first time since Christie stopped the multibillion dollar project cold. As the tunnel project’s first director from 1994 to 1998, he understood with painful clarity that it had taken nearly two decades, countless hours of study, endless lobbying for funds and a final push from the great recession—just to get the first 20 feet of the tunnel entrance burrowed under the cattle chute of a highway that is Tonnelle Avenue. 

And it had taken a handful of men in bulldozers and cranes less than three weeks to fill the hole back in.

“It all looked so promising at one point,” Robins said once the surprise of seeing the buried tunnel had started to wear off. “Now the weeds are taking over.”

The weeds belie the turmoil that initially surrounded Christie’s abrupt decision to cancel ARC (which stands for Access to the Region’s Core) in October 2010 and relinquish $3 billion that the Obama administration had promised New Jersey. But concern had been quickly replaced by excitement for a flashy new idea that seemed to pop up overnight. It was said that this new project, called Gateway, could do just about everything that ARC would have done, only better, because it would not stick New Jersey taxpayers with a huge debt.

Gateway was sponsored by Amtrak, the national railway corporation, and it got the immediate backing of senators Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez, and tentatively even Chris Christie, who said he was “thrilled” with the proposal.

Like ARC, Gateway called for a new tunnel to Manhattan. Although it would not accommodate as many additional New Jersey trains as ARC, Gateway would allow Garden State commuters to speed directly into New York’s Penn Station. Among other promised benefits, Gateway would bring one step closer to reality the next generation of high-speed rail along the Northeast Corridor—akin to the ultra-fast bullet trains that the Japanese, French and Chinese already have, and that President Obama has said the United States needs.

But one year and the threat of a double-dip recession later, Gateway is still just an idea, with no detailed plans and no funding. That’s got many people wondering what’s really at stake for New Jersey in this saga of steel dreams. Did overburdened taxpayers dodge a fiscal bullet, as Christie maintains, and come up with a debt-free alternative that can serve the state just as well? Or was the cancellation the result of a monumental lack of vision that will leave New Jerseyans woefully underserved and ill prepared for the future?

From where he stood in front of the blocked-up entrance, Robins offered a possible answer. “There’ll be an urban legend here in the future,” he speculated. “They’ll talk about this in 2050 when they start telling people that there really is a tunnel under the Palisades, even if it only went a few feet under Tonnelle Avenue.”

“The work will give employment…increase real estate values in New York City and the suburbs, and…add to the ease and comfort of those who have occasion to come and go.” Those words may sound like an advocate’s description of ARC or Gateway, but they were written more than 100 years ago by the New York Times in an article about the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad’s plans for a tunnel under the Hudson River leading to a brand new terminal on the West Side of Manhattan.

Back then, the Pennsy ended in Jersey City. Passengers could switch to ferries or the old Hudson Tubes (the forerunner of PATH) to get to New York. A.J. Cassatt, president of the railroad, promised that the new tunnel, which would consist of two tubes—each with a single track in or out—would shorten the trip from Newark to Manhattan by a good half hour. Cassatt’s vision also called for a second set of tracks to handle the anticipated surge in demand.

The extra tracks were never built, and Cassatt’s plans for them gathered dust for the next eight decades as the railroads steadily declined. Only after NJ Transit was established in 1984 did things start to change. Over the ensuing decades, NJ Transit wove several bankrupt railroads into a unified system that provides many passengers with a one-seat ride into New York.

With ridership increasing, the number of peak-hour NJ Transit trains going to New York more than doubled from 1994 to 2004. Now passenger demand is expected to double again in the next two decades. With Penn Station itself overcrowded, NJ Transit and Amtrak concluded years ago that a new tunnel was needed.

The existing tunnel is at capacity—one train roars through every 2½ minutes during peak hours. It is a choke point that can cause the complex choreography of the nation’s busiest stretch of track to come crashing down if there’s a single mistake—like the derailment of two cars on a Trenton-bound NJ Transit train heading into the tunnel on August 9 that snarled commuter traffic for days.

Lautenberg seized on those delays to remind New Jerseyans of what they had lost. “Unfortunately, these delays are only going to become more commonplace,” Lautenberg said. “Instead of accepting $3 billion in federal funding to advance the ARC project, the governor turned down the money and settled for the status quo.”

Not everyone sees it that way. “Trains don’t just go around derailing,” says Steve Lonegan, the former Bogota mayor who is state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group. He contends people should be asking why, if derailments happen regularly, there is any proposal to build more track. “If we’re not maintaining the equipment we have,” he says, “why add more?”

Such sentiments, which surfaced often in the debate over ARC, underscore a critical issue. It is easy to define the role of government as providing essential services, but what is essential in such austere times as these? The controversy over ARC and the mixed reaction to Christie’s decision to axe the project show that New Jersey is divided over investing in mass transit. Some residents believe that the state should just repair existing assets, thus avoiding additional debt and keeping taxes from rising higher. Others believe that times like these demand a long-term vision in which sacrifices now can lead to gains down the road.

It is a philosophical as well as a political debate, and Christie clearly sides with those who think that a big new rail project is an extravagance.

“He’s doing what a majority of the people want,” says Michael Busler, an associate professor of business studies at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and a fellow of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy. Busler describes himself as a fiscal conservative and a social moderate who has never met Christie. He believes that the role of government indeed does change when the views of the majority shift.

On a national level, last November’s election of a Republican majority in the House sent a clear message about spending, and several states—Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin among them—have followed New Jersey’s lead and declined federal grants for big new rail projects.

“If what New Jerseyans are saying now is that, despite the high price of gas, they like to drive to work and they’re willing to pay the price, then by cancelling the rail project Christie has done the right thing for the majority of New Jerseyans,” says Busler. “What they want is a wider Parkway, a bigger Turnpike, and bridges that are not going to collapse when they’re driving on them.”  

The reality is that the overwhelming majority of New Jerseyans drive to work. Of the 3.9 million residents who are employed, about 250,000  commute to Manhattan—about 39 percent by train, 31 percent by bus and the rest in their cars.    

Those who never take the trains may think they have little reason to care whether or not there is a new tunnel to New York. But transit advocates, urban planners and policy analysts like Jay Corbalis, formerly of New Jersey Future, a nonpartisan smart-growth advocacy group, believe that mass transit investments that convince drivers to leave their cars at home can reduce highway traffic and speed things up for everyone. 

When he was governor, Corzine used that same argument to get the New Jersey Turnpike Authority to approve toll increases to pay for $1.25 billion of ARC’s original $8.7 billion cost. Tolls on the Turnpike and Parkway went up in 2008 and will increase another 50 percent in January, even though ARC has been cancelled.

Christie has invoked a clause in the Turnpike Authority resolution approving the tolls that allows the $1.25 billion to be spent on other highway projects if ARC is not built. The money has been redirected to the Transportation Trust Fund, where it will be used for local road and bridge projects around the state. Some critics say that this was the governor’s real reason for cancelling ARC, although Christie has consistently denied it.

Additionally, the governor has gotten approval from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to use $1.8 billion of the $3 billion that the agency was going to spend on ARC to repair roads and bridges, including the Pulaski Skyway and the Wittpenn Bridge in Jersey City.

Democrats in the legislature have attacked the governor’s plan as a sneaky way of avoiding an increase in the gasoline tax that supports the Trust Fund. The tax, one of the lowest in the country, has not been increased since 1988. Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, a Democrat and chairman of the Transportation Committee, has challenged the legality of redirecting the Turnpike tolls and has accused the governor of playing politics with the state’s future. Wisniewski calls the decision to cancel ARC “one of the worst a governor has ever made.” 

Where Martin Robins sees the filled-in tunnel in North Bergen as the engineering equivalent of “a mess of pottage”—an Old Testament allusion to the story of Jacob and his brother Esau, who gave away his birthright for a bowl of lentils—Drew Galloway, his former colleague, sees an opportunity.

Galloway is an assistant vice president of policy and development for Amtrak who spent a dozen years working with NJ Transit. He says that, despite initial statements that Amtrak was not interested in buying any of NJ Transit’s ARC-related work, Amtrak is thinking of reusing the ARC entrance as the starting point for Gateway.

“There’s no guarantee that it can happen,” Galloway says. The state has so far refused to pay back the $270 million it spent on ARC, and pending litigation over this debt could stand in the way of a transfer to Amtrak. “But for now,” Galloway says, “the baseline assumption is that we will adopt the ARC portal in New Jersey and then take a different approach as we head toward Manhattan.”

Galloway says Amtrak hopes to avoid some of the pitfalls of ARC. Instead of ARC’s separate deep station under 34th Street (not Macy’s basement, as critics claimed), Gateway would connect with the existing Penn Station as well as a new station that Amtrak plans to build on the block just south of there. Amtrak bitterly opposed ARC because its lack of a direct connection to Penn Station meant the proposed tunnel would be of no use to Amtrak’s high-speed trains on their way to and from Boston. “I ended up with scar tissue over that topic,” Galloway says.

Neither Amtrak nor NJ Transit was willing to compromise much, but during the Bush administration, Amtrak was struggling just to stay alive. And with prospects for federal funding for ARC then in doubt, Amtrak raised questions about the project’s design. Ultimately, Amtrak signed off on ARC, albeit without much enthusiasm.

The combination of the 2008 recession, high unemployment and the Obama administration’s dream of building a high-speed rail system brought the funding stars into alignment for New Jersey. The federal government earmarked $3 billion for ARC and touted it as the largest public works project in the country, expected to create about 6,000 construction jobs a year at a time when the Obama administration was pulling out all the stops to stimulate the economy. Now the $3 billion has been reallocated to other states; there is a mounting federal debt crisis; and the Tea Party has inflamed a budget-cutting frenzy in Washington. “We’re way back again in funding, which is a shame,” Galloway says. “We’re going to have to begin again, but given the current actions of this Congress, it sure is a challenge.”

Gateway would improve rail service for New Jersey commuters, even if it does not provide as many additional trains as ARC would have, nor the same one-seat ride to Manhattan for Bergen County commuters, nor a new Manhattan terminal with connections to additional subway lines.

Still, there’s nothing even remotely close to a guarantee that Gateway will ever happen. Galloway says that Gateway has a price tag of more than $13 billion and would take at least a decade to build.

It’s just a single part of Amtrak’s ambitious overall plans for a next-generation high-speed rail line in the Northeast (see sidebar). The federal government has approved $450 million for track and other improvements between New Brunswick and Trenton—considered essential for high-speed rail—and has also paid for the final engineering for the replacement of the creaky Portal Bridge, a swing bridge over the Hackensack River between Kearny and Secaucus. But so far, the funding to actually build a new bridge, now estimated at $720 million, hasn’t been secured. Further, all that’s been lined up for the Gateway tunnel and Penn Station expansion project in the upcoming federal budget is $50 million for planning. And even that has yet to be approved.  

Some people think that the private sector, which built the first tracks under the Hudson, can build another set of tracks as well. Congressman John Mica, a Florida Republican and head of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has introduced a bill to privatize the Northeast Corridor and leave Amtrak to simply run its trains. This would give investors a chance to build a tunnel if they believe there is a market for it.

New York City Mayor Michael  Bloomberg also believes that the private sector has a role to play in mass transit. In a novel approach being tried in New York for the first time, the extension of the Number 7 subway to the West Side of Manhattan is being paid for with $2 billion in Tax Increment Financing bonds. They are backed by anticipated revenue from the increase in property values that the subway is expected to bring to the West Side Yards redevelopment area as new office buildings and residential towers are built. With the new revenue covering the costs, current taxpayers would be off the hook. 

When ARC was cancelled last year, Bloomberg proposed extending the Number 7 subway five miles through a new tunnel to Lautenberg Station in Secaucus. But that would mean a not-very-convenient three-seat ride to work for many New Jersey commuters. Bloomberg has said little about the project since that announcement, especially as the economy has threatened to go into another tailspin. And with the economy in the dumps, the West Side rail yards are still empty.

Books have been written about grand urban projects that were never built. If, as Martin Robins suggests, an urban legend grows up around the dirt mound in North Bergen that once symbolized the state’s future, the ARC tunnel, and perhaps Gateway too, will be added to a long list of unrealized New Jersey dreams.

Among them is the rail line that was supposed to be built alongside Tierney’s Tavern on Valley Road in Montclair. The building has a weird cut-off angle where it abuts the right-of-way that would have gone through First Mountain into Verona and Caldwell. The line was never built. 

And for years, a huge concrete block with the inscription, “Foundation Laid—North River Bridge Company, 1895” filled most of a tiny backyard on 12th Street in uptown Hoboken. The bridge would have carried trains, including the Pennsylvania Railroad’s, into Manhattan. But an economic slowdown delayed construction, and by the time the economy recovered, A.J. Cassatt had changed his mind and decided to build a tunnel instead.

Two years ago, the owners of that Hoboken property were faced with a dilemma. Their kids needed more backyard room to play in. The owners considered their options, and in what could be seen as a sign of these times, took the short-term view, focusing on their current needs instead of thinking about either the past or the future.

They dumped the cornerstone.

Anthony DePalma is the writer in residence at Seton Hall University and author of City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance and 9/11 (FT Press, 2010).


SIDEBAR: Is Amtrak’s High-Speed Vision Blurred?

In its long-term vision for the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s priority is getting a growing number of passengers at high speeds from Boston to Washington and points in between—not moving New Jersey commuters to New York. In fact, the $13 billion Gateway project is just one part of Amtrak’s ambitious—critics say unrealistic—$117 billion plan for a high-speed rail line in the Northeast, a system of sleek, ultra-modern trains capable of travelling 220 miles an hour on their own tracks, which in one scenario would run roughly along the same path as the existing Northeast Corridor tracks in New Jersey.

The envisioned Northeast Corridor High Speed rail line project is targeted for completion in 2040 and would be capable of moving passengers from Boston to Washington in about three to four hours, according to an Amtrak report released in September 2010. Currently, high-speed Acela trains, capable of reaching 150 miles an hour (though they average less than half that), can make the trip in about 6½ hours—in part because most of the track cannot handle maximum speeds.

Track alignment is a key element of any high-speed upgrade. For next-generation trains, tracks must have gentler curves than existing tracks and long straightaways at departure points to allow the trains to build to top speed. Drew Galloway, Amtrak’s assistant vice president of policy and development, says that in New Jersey, the stretch of track between Trenton and North Brunswick may be able to handle the new speeds, but environmental and engineering studies are underway to determine the best alignment for the remainder of the track through the state.

According to Galloway, Amtrak’s high-speed rail would be an express service serving select hub cities. In New Jersey, the new line would only stop in Newark and at Liberty International Airport. The trip from Philadelphia to Newark would take about 45 minutes. Other New Jersey cities that now have Acela service would continue as stops on the Acela and other regional trains that would continue to use the Northeast Corridor.

So, why high-speed rail? In its report, Amtrak predicts continued population growth in the megaregion from Boston to Washington and projects high-speed rail ridership at “roughly five times the current Acela level.” That, says Amtrak, would reduce air and automobile traffic, save energy, cut pollution and create 120,000 permanent jobs—in addition to supporting 44,000 jobs annually during the construction period.

Although President Obama has made the creation of a high-speed rail network in the United States a national priority, many critics see it as a waste. The Republican governors of Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida have refused to accept billions of federal dollars that had been appropriated for high-speed rail projects. In rejecting $2.4 billion for a Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed line, Governor Rick Scott of Florida said that the new line could end up costing too much and being used too little, making the risks “far outweigh the benefits.” He vowed instead to focus on rebuilding existing infrastructure in the state, essentially repeating Governor Chris Christie’s rationale for rejecting the ARC project money. 

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