Aging and Decaying Rail Infrastructure Places Northeast Corridor At Risk
The rail line through the Northeast Corridor -- Boston to Washington, D.C. -- is a heavily used transportation system that handles almost 100,000 trains daily and is nearly at capacity each trip. The system consists of two tunnels that run underneath the Hudson River. Each is 105 years old, badly deteriorated, and suffered significant damage in 2012 during Superstorm Sandy.
In July of 2015, service was completely disrupted four days in one work week -- no trains crossed the Hudson at all during that time. That event is likely a good glimpse of what the future holds for the region if new tunnels are not built.
The tunnels are in desperate need of replacement before something catastrophic occurs, impacting public safety and the regional economy, but efforts to move forward on the building of two new tunnels have been stalled for decades.
No Path Forward
Studies on improving the regional rail infrastructure have been ongoing since 1971, but a recent report by Common Good highlighted the insurmountable red-tape that has stalled any efforts to move any of the proposed projects forward.
After an environmental review that took six years, a proposal in 2008, Access to the Region's Core (ARC) Project, was approved in 2009, and had an initial budget of $8.4 billion. A year later, when the cost rose to $11 billion, New Jersey withdrew its portion of funding and the project, fully permitted, was later terminated.
The Gateway Rail Tunnel Project
The new proposal, the Gateway Rail Tunnel Project, again seeks to build two new tunnels under the Hudson River, both of which would end at Penn Station and was proposed by Amtrak in 2011. The project would include the two new tunnels, new Penn Station platforms, increased capacity, and upgraded bridges at a 2016 cost of $23.9 billion, an increase of $3.9 billion over the 2015 costs. Rehabilitation of the old tunnels could begin after the new tunnels were opened, and once completed, would double capacity in the area, likely reducing commute times and improving service.
The project is logjammed by a myriad of required permits from nearly two dozen local, state, and federal agencies, along with yet another environmental review requirement that could take anywhere from three to six years - time the region simply does not have.
Delaying the start of the project by say, five years, would mean that the first tunnel would not see its completion until 2028. That is significant because current estimates suggest that at least one of the tunnels will need to be completely shut down for repairs - within the next ten years.
Deteriorating Tunnels Need Extensive Repairs Soon
To make matters worse, the existing tunnels, due to their age and deterioration, will need significant upgrades and repairs in the next decade. So a minimum year-long closing of at least one tunnel in this time frame is almost guaranteed. That may be a best case scenario, because it does not account for any of the numerous issues that could arise and require closures for repairs on the second tunnel, resulting in both tunnels to be closed at one time for an extended period.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker toured the tunnels in May of 2015 and noted that the transportation system, and thus the region, is now in crisis mode. A lengthy closure of one of the tunnels without an alternate route (new tunnel) would reduce capacity by 75% - or over 65,500 trips one way, crippling transportation through the region and negatively impacting the area both economically - and environmentally - resulting in paralyzed, lengthy traffic jams that would likely last all day.
Estimates from the ARC study also indicate that such a closure would result in an additional one million miles per day driven on the regional roads, which is a major environmental impact. Simply put, the region would face what Chuck Shumer, New York Senator fears would be a "transportation Armageddon."
The Common Good report noted that there are no viable alternatives or objections to the Gateway Project, and a clear path forward is needed because delaying the work is resulting in an exponential increase in the project costs. It will also reduce the burden on taxpayers, saving them money, boost the regional economy, and reduce the environmental impact by improving capacity and service, which will reduce the number of commuter vehicles on the road.
Expedited Timetable for Approvals Urgently Needed
The coalition seeks a simple, common sense approach to the numerous requirements and permits, with a short timetable to beginning work through the resolution of disagreements likely to arise among competing agencies and interests by an overriding authority.
The report indicated that it can happen - with the right support - just like the Santa Monica Freeway rebuild that only took 66 days after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. In light of this, the Common Good report asks political leaders to commit to the project and seeks to ensure public support of the pressing timetable, further urging "an expedited and certain legal path to approval of Gateway."