By Noel T. Braymer
What about California? There is going to be a great deal of tunneling needed for the California High Speed Rail project. California has secured $3.3 Billion Dollars in Federal Funding for the first leg of High Speed Rail between Burbank and Merced out of a total estimated cost of $31.3 billion dollars. By comparison the Hudson Gateway Project, which would include a new double track tunnel under the Hudson River and related projects in Manhattan is now estimated to cost $16 billion dollars. For this the Governors of New York and New Jersey are demanding that Amtrak and the Federal Government pay half the cost which is $8 billion dollars.This is for a tunnel which the vast majority of use is for local commuter rail service on New Jersey Transit. Already Amtrak has spent millions of dollars on the Hudson Gateway Project even though it has not been funded. This is because the State of New Jersey refused to pay it’s share of that project.
In Southern California alone, we need at least 2 but could use 4 tunnels for the LOSSAN Corridor to be fully functional. The highest priority is for a tunnel in San Clemente to replace a long segment of slow, single tracked railroad which is a major bottleneck on the Corridor. Sooner or later this trackage is likely to be swept out to sea. At Del Mar is another major single tracked bottleneck on the bluffs overlooking the Ocean. Sooner or later these tracks will slide down the bluff of this major rail connection between the 2 largest cities in California and its busiest travel corridor. Each of these tunnels will cost about a billion dollars a piece.
So why do folks in the greater New York City area feel that their tunnel should have priority? And why is Amtrak being given the job to build and pay for this Hudson River tunnel? There are 2 major projects underway now in Manhattan. One is the Hudson Yards Redevelopment Project which at 28 acres is billed as the largest private real estate development in US History. It is being built over the yards of the Long Island Railroad on the west side of Manhattan. New York City has already spent 2 billion dollars to extend subway service to this project despite other needed improvements of the subways.The promoters of this project claim that it is only 2 blocks away from Penn Station. To make this project profitable will require major improvements in commuter rail service to Manhattan.
The other major project is the Hudson Gateway Project. This is the $16 billion dollar project that not only would add 2 additional tracks in a new tunnel to the existing 2 under the Hudson to Penn Station. It will also make improvements in several areas to speed up service around the New York City area. To carry additional New Jersey Transit commuter trains to Manhattan a new annex to Penn Station is planned for these additional trains. This will be a new station built 15 stories underground below the Manhattan Macy Department store. Little has been reported on how passengers are going to get out of this station and to Penn Station and the surface.
So why is this a Federal job for Amtrak? The state of New Jersey pulled out of the original project to transfer 4 billion dollars allocated for this project to its highway department so that it wouldn’t have to raise its gasoline tax which is already the 2nd lowest in the County. Since 2010 state of New Jersey’s budget is so screwed up now all the transportation funding for the state is nearly broke. But New Jersey hasn’t raise any of its taxes.
In makes no sense to build an annex to Penn Station for New Jersey Transit. A better solution would be to send more trains to Grand Central Station after leaving Penn Station. Grand Central Station has plenty of excess tracks and platforms plus it is in a better neighborhood on the eastside of Manhattan. Penn Station has run through tracks. Terminating trains at a station is a waste of money since this greatly reduces the number of trains you can operate at a station. This is why there are plans to build run through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station to increase the station’s capacity by 50%. Run through service can also open new markets and faster, more direct service to more places. By 2020 with run through tracks, 50% of the trains at Los Angles Union Station will be extended and not terminate there. For this to happen at Penn Station will require cooperation between New Jersey Transit, Long Island Railroad and MetroNorth. This is highly unlikely to happen voluntarily.
The agency that that should be building the Hudson Gateway project is the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, not Amtrak.The job of building transportation infrastructure has been the Port Authority’s job in the New York City area since the 1920’s The Port Authority has its own sources of revenue. It also has the power to sell bonds. In the past the Port Authority funded big projects with bond money and paid them off with the revenue from the projects it build. It controls many of the bridges and tunnels into Manhattan and collects the tolls too. It also runs and earns income from the 3 major airports in the New York City Area. It is also a landlord, including the World Trade Center. It was also responsible for building most of the tunnels and bridges into Manhattan. It even owns and runs its own rail passenger service:PATH, which connects the World Trade Center with New Jersey.
The Port Authority also has a reputation for being highly political and corrupt. It has been deferring maintenance on many of its bridges and tunnels to fund other projects. La Guardia Airport which is owned and run by the Port Authority has been called the worst airport in America. The Governor of New York recently announced a plan for a 4 billion dollar overhaul of La Guardia. Funding calls for the Port Authority to supply half of the funding with private funding making up the rest. Critics of this plan claim it will encourage more driving in already grid locked New York City and ignores the needs for public transportation. There is almost universal agreement that the very busy Port Authority Bus Terminal is a mess and needs replacing. It handles over 60,000 commuters a day. Depending on the source, cost estimates for a new Bus Terminal vary from 1 billion up to 11 billion dollars. A major criticism of the transportation planning in New York is it is heavy on glamorous projects for carrying professional people on planes, trains and in cars. But it poorly serves most workers to Manhattan who ride buses and the subway. The New York subways need major improvements including a new signalling system to replace the 80 year old one which replacement parts need to be custom built for.
At the heart of the problems with the Port Authority is politics. This quote says it all from “Inside the Port Authority, the Corrupt Powerhouse Behind Christie’s Bridgegate Scandal by Jim Epstein on The Daily Beast Jan 21, 2014 “The Port Authority has been a money tree, an ATM machine…a place [the governors of New York and New Jersey] can go to do projects that they can’t get through their budgets,” Stephen Berger, a former Port Authority executive director, said at a recent breakfast forum held by the Citizens Budget Commission. During Berger’s tenure, New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean pushed the Port Authority to underwrite an office building in downtown Newark that had nothing to do with transportation. In 1992, Governor Mario Cuomo got the Port Authority to buy a portion of the Aqueduct Racetrack for $40 million to help plug a budget shortfall.
So who is one of the biggest boosters for Amtrak being in charge of the Hudson Gateway Project which is more about local commuter trains and land development than Amtrak’s purpose which is Intercity trains? It is Anthony Coscia, Chairman of the Board of Amtrak. Mr Coscia has been on the Amtrak Board since 2010.Before that he was Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey from 2003 through June 2011.Mr. Coscia is a lawyer from New Jersey. By law all Chairman of the Post Authority are from New Jersey. The current Board for the Port Authority are all White Men. None of them have a background in transportation, but the board is dominated by bankers and real estate developers.
The problems the New York area is having with transportation is not unique to New York. Everywhere in the United States there are major backlogs of infrastructure projects that have been underfunded for up to 40 years. These problems won’t be fixed overnight. Spending should be done on a priority basis, not by politics. To pay for this more money is needed. That will mean raising Taxes. Every region of the Country should get it’s share of Federal dollar, but it should include a hefty local share of the spending. California is doing its part with some of the highest gas taxes in the Country and high Sales taxes in many regions for improved transportation.
If the Northeast, particularly the New York area gets more Federal Spending, the largest share of that money will come from California since California has the largest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of any of the States. New York is third just behind Texas of the states GDP. California’s Gross Domestic Products is around 2.3 trillion dollars. New York’s GDP is around 1.3 trillion. If you add New York’s GDP with New Jersey’s of just over a half a trillion dollars, your get a combined GDP of just over 1.8 trillion dollars. If we also include’s Pennsylvania’s GDP of 6/10ths of a trillion you have a combined GDP of over 2.4 trillion dollars which is greater than that of California’s. California has a 60 billion dollar backlog of road work to deal with. It is building a High Speed Rail system largely on its own. It is also expanding both transit and regional rail passenger service. It is doing this largely with local taxes. California has raised it taxes by popular vote, turned the State’s budget deficits into surpluses and created economic growth. So what is New York and New Jersey’s excuse?