Moving Forward, Across the Hudson and Through New York

It's become a maxim that in every crisis is an opportunity. The region faced a crisis in 2010 when a project to build a new commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River, called Access to the Region's Core (or ARC), was cancelled by Gov. Chris Christie. Without a new tunnel, the region would be left with a century-old set of tunnels that are at capacity as passenger demand steadily grows. Even as he cancelled the project, citing legitimate concerns over cost overruns and the location of a new station in Manhattan, Gov. Christie said he knew that the state needed a new connection under the Hudson River.

Now, the opportunities are coming into focus.

Last month, more than 100 of the most influential transportation planners and public officials in the region gathered at the Princeton Club of New York to discuss options for building a new — and better — tunnel under the Hudson River. Sponsored by RPA, the General Contractors Association of New York, AECOM and Northeast Maglev, the forum provided an opportunity for an honest assessment of the hurdles the project would need to overcome. Participants debated the guiding principles, institutional relationships, costs and benefits, and funding options for the project. The results were encouraging.

Perhaps the most significant development was a broad consensus that the region needs to tackle the longstanding institutional and political boundaries that divide us. Our commuter rail system is a fragmented network run by five organizations within three agencies from three states and the federal government (Amtrak, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, NJ Transit, Long Island Railroad and Metro-North). These agencies have different drive systems (most NJTransit and Amtrak trains are powered by overhead catenary lines, while many Metro-North trains run on a third rail), overlapping ownership of assets, and often competing goals. While everyone agreed that new capacity is necessary for future growth, speakers also talked about the need to better coordinate and integrate these systems to get the maximum service out of our existing assets.

The workshop provided a showcase for Amtrak to give an update on Gateway, their proposal to build two new tracks and a tunnel between Newark, N.J., and New York Penn Station, doubling the number of trains that can run between New York and New Jersey (and coincidentally, from New York to Washington, or Boston to Philadelphia, or — well, you get the picture) from 24 to 48 an hour. Unlike ARC, this tunnel would connect directly to Penn Station by expanding the station to the south. This connection would provide important redundancy to the regional system, while deep tracks would provide the capacity for future expansion to the east and north. Recognizing that such a major expansion is a project with national significance, Gateway would be financed and managed by Amtrak, relieving New Jersey of the burden of potential cost overruns.

But the tunnel was not the only idea on the table. In response to a question about what would happen when LIRR trains start going straight to Grand Central Terminal, thanks to a project under construction called East Side Access, Joseph Lhota, Chairman and CEO of New York's MTA, suggested bold ideas for increasing capacity by having "through-running" commuter rail lines.

There was widespread acknowledgement that if the region were starting from scratch, it would not create the compartmentalized system like the one we have today. Ideally, Amtrak, MTA, LIRR and Metro-North should be able to use each other's tracks so that trains could run beyond their current territory. For example, a Metro-North train from Connecticut could stop in Penn Station and then move on to New Jersey. Not only would through-service improve service, but even more importantly, trains wouldn't need to stop and turn around in Penn Station, clogging track space. Running Penn Station in a unified manner would free up platforms and tunnel sections and boost station capacity.

Some limited through-running already takes place today. NJ Transit trains have game-day services that carry football fans directly from the New Haven line to Secaucus, with several stops in Connecticut and Westchester. So cooperation is possible. But especially as Metro-North looks to enter into Penn Station, the different agencies should consider more ambitious proposals to integrate their services and provide better operations, such as joint ownership of the station assets. Chairman Lhota suggested looking at how rail entities elsewhere in the world have dealt with the challenges of fragmented ownership and competing operators. That would be a good start.

RPA and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy recently looked at the European experience in passenger rail service governance. Most national railroads of the European Union unbundle their operating and infrastructure functions. The rail ownership is consolidated throughout the country or region, while public and private operators can offer competing services on the same line. If the Northeast Corridor took a similar approach of separating operations and infrastructure, it could provide an institutional structure to build a true high-speed rail system in the Northeast. A publicly chartered infrastructure corporation for the Northeast Corridor would relieve Amtrak of the dual burdens of developing high-speed rail infrastructure and simultaneously operating a sprawling national train network.

The Gateway project is envisioned to be part of the future Northeast Corridor high-speed rail. Establishing a special purpose institutional structure to develop the Gateway Tunnel project in the New York metropolitan region, as proposed by Amtrak's Stephen Gardner at the June 13 event, would become a stepping stone for creating a corridor-wide public benefit corporation that brings together all states and rail operators along the NEC to build high-speed rail along the entire Northeast Corridor.

At the close of the Gateway conference at the Princeton Club, Amtrak Board Member Anthony Coscia pointed out that all of the discussions and presentation reached the same conclusion: the question is not whether new investment in the Northeast Corridor is necessary, but how best to do it. The good news from the meeting is that everyone recognizes the importance of the issue, and new opportunities are becoming clear. So watch this space. As Amtrak's study nears completion, there may be exciting news over the next year.