For the Hudson Rail Tunnels, Hints of Progress

Photo of Wendy Pollack

A series of excruciating rush-hour delays on NJ Transit in the last few weeks have exposed how reliant our region is on worn-out infrastructure that should have been modernized or replaced decades ago.

The tri-state area is loaded with bridges, rail systems and roadways that have suffered from years of under-investment. But perhaps the biggest risk we face is with the rail tunnel linking New Jersey and New York. Built more than a century ago, the fraying tubes that carry NJ Transit and Amtrak trains are the biggest chokepoint in the Northeast, and the source of constant delays for commuters. For years, the tunnels have needed extended repairs that are impossible to do while keeping trains running. The situation deteriorated when the tunnels flooded with salt water during Hurricane Sandy. Amtrak officials say the tubes are a ticking time bomb.

Fortunately, policy makers are recognizing the urgency of building new trans-Hudson tunnels alongside the existing ones. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said recently that inaction on Amtrak’s plan to replace the tunnels is "almost criminal." On Tuesday, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer called for the creation of a new authority, the Gateway Development Corp., to lead the tunnel project. The senator also recommended reinvesting the profits Amtrak receives from the busy Northeast Corridor into the tunnel project, and urged the long-term reauthorization of the Highway Trust Fund, which Congress has been keeping on life support with short extensions.

Getting new tunnels built will take tremendous coordination and effort among a huge group of stakeholders: Amtrak, NJ Transit, the Port Authority, and leaders in Albany, Trenton and New York City. It also will require a great deal of money – Sen. Schumer on Tuesday put the full cost at between $20 billion and $25 billion – depending in part on which projects are included. To move ahead, the new tunnel will need federal funding, and support from the states. Finding new revenue is never easy, but one obvious place to start is the federal gas tax, which has hasn’t budged since 1993.

Initially, a new tunnel will take over for the damaged tubes, which will be taken out of service for intensive repairs. But ultimately, the region should be able to operate all four tubes, which combined with an overhaul of Penn Station and other improvements will greatly expand transit capacity in the region. That means faster commutes, shorter waits between trains, less crowding and fewer delays.

The expansion is long overdue. Passenger demand at rush hour surpasses what the rail tunnels and Penn Station can handle, and the situation will only deteriorate as the region’s population expands. But for the first time in a long while, there are reasons to be hopeful.

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