Think New York Transit Is Bad? Just Wait
In the past few weeks, commuters in New York and New Jersey have been dealing with the chaos caused by the derailments of an Amtrak train and a New Jersey Transit train in New York’s Penn Station. While the accidents themselves were minor, by closing down tracks, they provided a stark preview for what life could soon be like if we don’t follow through with critical investments to improve our infrastructure.
Alarmingly, if we don’t act soon to repair the two tunnels under the Hudson River, that same reduction in service our region experienced last week will become a permanent reality.
The current tunnels under the Hudson River were built in 1908 and are rapidly deteriorating. This problem was exacerbated by Hurricane Sandy, which filled the tunnels with corrosive salt water, and engineers now estimate that without major overhauls the tunnels are likely to fail within the next 10 years. The closing of either tunnel would be devastating because it would essentially shut down the Northeast Corridor, the transit route from Boston to Washington that produces over $3 trillion in economic output — a full 20 percent of the national gross domestic product.
Over the last year and a half Amtrak, along with New York and New Jersey, has been advancing a project called Gateway that would address this impending crisis. Gateway would update and increase the number of tracks at Penn Station and build a new tunnel under the Hudson River. That new tunnel would allow the existing tunnels to be closed and repaired, and after the completion of both projects, train service into New York would be doubled.
Last year the federal government, along with New York and New Jersey, agreed to split the cost of Gateway evenly, and engineering and permitting are now underway; construction on the next phase was set to begin later this year. But in his budget proposal, President Trump proposed slashing the two funding sources — federal transit dollars and Amtrak — that are the key to building Gateway and the new tunnel.
Time is running out to replace the existing crumbling tunnels, and our region cannot afford setbacks to this project like the one President Trump’s budget would impose. Over the past few weeks Penn Station commuters have gotten a taste of what it will be like if just one of those tunnels fails before the new tunnel is constructed.
The Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak were all forced to cancel trains. As a result of the first derailment alone, over 300,000 New Jersey Transit and Long Island Rail Road passengers were delayed, and the second caused eight of the 21 tracks under Penn Station to be shut down for days. Our regional economy paid a price: The Partnership for New York City estimates that every hour train commuters from New Jersey and Long Island are delayed costs Manhattan employers alone over $14.5 million.
If an entire tunnel crumbled and needed to be closed for repair, a reality that engineers agree is closing in on our region, the suffering and delays would last well over a year.
By building the new tunnel, we will have the flexibility to make the years’ worth of repairs that are needed to the existing tunnels without reducing service. Additionally, once the new tunnel is done and the existing tunnels are repaired, the increased capacity will mean that even when there is a shutdown, problem or derailment, service can continue with only minor delays because trains will be able to pass the derailed or broken locomotive.
Gateway is important in itself, but it is also an illustration of the country’s immense need for infrastructure investments. Senate Democrats understand the challenge and have put forward a real plan to make game-changing investments across the country, including Gateway.
However, despite the president’s campaign rhetoric and his continued promise to deliver major infrastructure investments, to date the administration has gone the opposite direction and proposed major cuts in infrastructure spending.
We’ll fight to restore these funds for Gateway and other projects, increase overall investments in infrastructure and continue to work with our state and local partners to make progress on this important project. But the past two weeks should serve as a cautionary tale for what will happen if proposals like those put forth in the president’s budget ever become reality. Like Scrooge meeting the Ghost of Christmas Future, transit riders were given a glimpse of the hair-pulling transit apocalypse to come if we do not make major investments in our infrastructure now.