June 1 is the start of 2018’s hurricane season. The prediction is about average: seven hurricanes and possibly three major storms. The twin tubes carrying passenger trains between New Jersey and New York’s Penn Station probably could not survive another Sandy-like deluge. The country’s largest city would be cut off from the national rail network. The economic disruption would be enormous.
It appears that is OK with the president. He wants to eliminate federal funding for two new tunnels. It is in this context that planners like Eric Kober of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation have called for New York State, New York City and New Jersey to pay for those tunnels themselves. Mr. Kober writes, “[W]aiting for the Federal funding picture to improve is risky.”
The storm that finally closes down the old Pennsylvania tunnels could be this year or next. Even without major storms, the tunnels have a projected life of only about seven to 20 more years. It may indeed be time for New York and New Jersey to stop relying on Washington to fund critical infrastructure and build it themselves.
That is how they used to do it.
New York learned at an early date that it could not rely on federal help. At the beginning of the 19th century there was fierce competition to be the dominant port for the Atlantic trade. New York determined that a canal from the Great Lakes to the Hudson would enable it to prevail. The state looked to President Jefferson but he refused to help. Undeterred, New York State sold bonds and built the 360-mile Erie Canal, the most expensive infrastructure project in American history up to that point. By doing so New York became the most powerful port in North America.
Toward the end of the First World War both New York State and New Jersey realized that the railroads serving the region were in ruinous competition. In 1921 the Port of New York Authority came into being with the mission to rationalize the distribution of goods in the metropolitan area. Meanwhile, the two states had already initiated a pair of commissions to build an automobile tunnel from Jersey City to lower Manhattan. The Holland Tunnel, opening in 1926, was paid for by tolls paying off bonds. As automobile and truck use dramatically escalated, the Port Authority was redirected from trains to build the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel. The bridge was completed in 1931 and the tunnel in 1937. They were both paid for by the Authority using toll backed bonds. New York and New Jersey, working through the Port Authority, reshaped the metropolitan area without federal support. In the 1920s Governors Al Smith in New York and George Silzer of New Jersey teamed up to drive projects forward. The two Democratic Governors today have the same tools.
The Pennsylvania Railroad tunnels under the Hudson River and the East River to Pennsylvania Station were completed in 1910. No new rail tunnels, passenger or freight, were built under the Hudson in the last 108 years. In 2009 two new tubes were begun to serve the New Jersey Transit system. The project was called Access to the Region’s Core or ARC. Moving Jersey Transit trains to the new tunnels would allow greater capacity for Amtrak on the existing rails and the possibility of the closing the old tunnels for repairs. The total budget was $8.7 billion. The Port Authority was to pay $3 billion while the federal portion was about $4.4 billion. New Jersey was to pay the final $1.25 billion. Newly elected New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in 2010 cancelled the project and used the New Jersey funds to repair existing highways.
A year after Christie’s termination of ARC, Amtrak announced a new program called Gateway. This $20 billion effort is to be a renovation and expansion of the Northeast Corridor in the New York metropolitan area. Besides two new tubes under the Hudson, the project includes new bridges in New Jersey and a new station in the old Post Office behind Penn Station. The agreement between New Jersey, New York and the Obama Administration was that the states and the federal government would split the cost of the project 50/50. It was hoped that work would begin in 2019. That is now in doubt as President Trump is calling for cancelling federal funding for the work. Unlike President Jefferson who had constitutional concerns, President Trump is simply mad at Senator Charles Schumer of New York.
If Gateway follows ARC into oblivion, the Northeast Corridor will either continue to have a third-rate railroad or, if the tunnels fail, none at all. While Europe, Japan and China have bullet trains, Washington cannot manage to properly maintain a pair of century old tunnels. As was the Erie Canal, Gateway is under the gun to get started. Failure to act could mean an economic disaster throughout the entire New York/New Jersey region. Support from Washington could be years away. The region needs to pay its own way now or risk calamity.
At a moment when New York is facing a $19 billion subway repair bill, the prospect of spending $20 billion to build Gateway may seem ill timed. While the subway collapses slowly switch by switch, the tunnels could go in a single howling night.
After a century of inadequate rail investment, New York and New Jersey face a crisis. Fortunately, the New York metropolitan area is the richest in the nation. Some of the finest financial minds in the county work here. From the Erie Canal to the George Washington Bridge the region figured out how to find the money. It has the means to build Gateway. As President Obama asserted, Gateway is the most vital infrastructure project in the United States. We need to get this done, with or without DC.
Charles Lauster is an architect in New York City and is writing a book on the city’s 19th-century infrastructure.