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Senate Approves Federal Funding for Commuter Rail Tunnel Between NY and NJ

Despite a previously canceled rail tunnel project, New Jersey commuters might receive an alternative mass transit route, after all. Photo by Tambako the Jaguar.

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate approved a funding measure that includes a minimum of $15 million for Amtrak to begin design and engineering measures on a proposed railroad tunnel project to connect New Jersey and New York.

The Gateway Tunnel project, which would extend from New Jersey’s Secaucus to Manhattan’s Penn Station, is one of two ideas to expand mass transit in the area. The other proposed idea is to extend New York City’s number 7 subway line to Secaucus, reports Newsroom Jersey.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie canceled the previously planned Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) Tunnel project in October 2010, a $9.8 billion commuter rail tunnel that would similarly offer alternative commuting options for the region. Christie cited potential cost overruns and poor connection to alternative mass transit routes as reasons for the cancellation. New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg had secured $3 billion in federal funding for ARC prior to Christie canceling it. Despite canceling ARC Tunnel, Christie showed support for the Gateway Tunnel project and the extension of the 7 line.

To assess the feasibility of the 7 line expansion, New York City paid $250,000. The project could cost an estimated $10 billion and take a decade to complete, reports. The Gateway Tunnel project, on the other hand, is expected to cost $13.5 billion and take nine years to finish.

“This seems to be a very interesting addition to regional transport and an opportunity for choice riders, as the existing capacity of Hudson crossing is reaching saturation levels,” said Dario Hidalgo, the director of Research and Practice at EMBARQ (the producer of this blog). “The investment will be sizeable and it will be very important to assess risk, especially considering that rail and tunnels have a very bad record in the past, with large cost overruns.”

Hidalgo sees the study and feasibility stage of this project to be a great opportunity to explore bus alternatives for regional commuters. Hidalgo continues:

For example, Bent Flyvbjerg  has documented average cost escalation of 47% in rail projects and 35% in roads and tunnels.   This does not mean that the tunnel is not worthy; it might be according to comments by those involved. But an adequate analysis shall be made, which seems to be happening with this phase of the project, in which detailed studies will be contracted.

In the mean time, as the project will take several years, it could be interesting to test additional bus priority schemes, in the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, and the Washington Bridge.   They are the best way to improve capacity.  A single lane for general traffic moves 2,500-5,000 passengers per hour (depending on the vehicle occupancy).  The same lane with buses is able to move 32,600 passengers per hour per direction.

Are you a commuter in this region? What do you make of the recent developments in the NY-NJ commuter rail tunnel projects? Share with us in the comments section below.

Correction, 11/17/2011: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to Holland Tunnel as Amsterdam Tunnel. 

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    While I appreciate Hidalgo’s advocacy for bus priority, I was surprised that he didn’t know much about the names of New York’s bridges. We don’t have an Amsterdam tunnel, it’s the Holland Tunnel. The Washington Bridge connects Harlem to the Bronx via the Henry Hudson Parkway. I’m pretty sure Hidalgo was talking about the George Washington Bridge which is a crossing comparable to the tunnels from New Jersey to New York. 

    Also important to note the Lincoln Tunnel has a peak hour bus lane. It’s the most used bus priority in America. Somewhere, someone should have mentioned that the George Washington Bridge maintains a huge bus station which would work efficiently in the same way as the Lincoln Tunnel works with PA Bus terminal. Holland Tunnel Bus priority probably would be very complicated and inefficient. The Holland is near no bus terminus and the area’s preferred public transit alternative is the PATH system. 

    I am also always surprised that no one every entertains the idea of integrating the PATH system into the subway system. The PATH and IRT subways lines run on the same voltage and are approximately the same shape. At the World Trade Center via Fulton Street, a six train could easily be extended to New Jersey. This isn’t to knock the seven train or regional rail connections. It’s just that you could reasonably get on an IRT train in Newark and make new East Side connections if the 1/4 mile tunnel connected the PATH to IRT. 

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    Cancelling ARC remains a mistake, and suggesting that $15 million in funding will get us anywhere close to a new tunnel is misleading. The ARC tunnel project was studied for over a decade, and the funding agreement took years to put together and was unprecedented. Given the fiscal realities in and spending priorities in Congress, the notion that the federal government will be willing to pony up $3 billion + is simply unrealistic. Moreover, the money that had been earmarked for ARC by both NJ and the Port Authority is gone. 

    Articles like this one that create the impression that the Gateway Tunnel or 7 extension will save the day and justify the decision to cancel ARC are little solace to commuters have to deal with decades more of delays and congestion.