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Keeping ARC on Track: A Message from Regional Plan Association

Posted by Steve Anderson on Monday, September 20th, 2010

A special note to RPA Members and Supporters

Over the weekend, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie abruptly halted work on the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project, saying he needed greater assurances that the $8.7 billion commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River could be delivered on budget. This has left transit advocates and New Jersey commuters wondering if the Governor is focused on reducing costs, or whether he intends to cancel one of the nation’s most important transit improvements. We’re all waiting with bated breath.

ARC will build two new commuter rail tracks under the Hudson River, doubling the capacity of NJTRANSIT to move commuters into and out of Manhattan and its 2 million jobs. NJTRANSIT’s ridership has grown at terrific rates over the past 30 years – from only 8 million passengers in 1980 to almost 45 million annual passengers in 2009. Over the same time period, this trend drove incredible growth in pharmaceutical companies, financial industries and business services, all of which depend on New Jersey’s joined-at-the-hip connections to New York City. And as anyone who has endured the cattle call of loading a 5 PM train at New York Penn Station or stood the entire ride from Newark to New Brunswick can tell you, there isn’t much free capacity in the existing system to keep adding those commuters and jobs unless there are more trains.

The benefits of building the tunnel will be enormous. ARC will double the number of households in New Jersey within a 50-minute commute to Manhattan. Jobs in Manhattan pay, on average, 60% more than jobs in New Jersey. A study commissioned by NJ TRANSIT estimated that ARC would increase the Gross Regional Product by $660 million a year, split evenly on both sides of the Hudson River. And RPA’s own research estimates that building ARC will increase the value of New Jersey residences close to train stations by more than $18 billion over 8 years. In addition, only one-third of the funding for the project is coming from the State. In addition to $2.7 billion from New Jersey, the project has committed funds of $3 billion from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and $3 billion from the federal government – the largest commitment of federal funds for a transit project – ever! These funds will be put in jeopardy if the project is cancelled.
So why would Governor Christie consider putting such a worthwhile project on hold?

One possibility is that the Governor is doing everything he can to make sure this doesn’t become another ill-fated Big Dig – the Boston Artery tunnel that ballooned from $2.8 billion in 1985 to $14.6 billion by 2006. If this is the case, then we should applaud the Governor for working hard to keep costs under control and make sure the project does not turn into another endless series of delays and overruns. This thinking does have some credence, since Governor Christie appointed two senior transportation officials – DOT Commissioner Jim Simpson and NJ TRANSIT Executive Director Jim Weinstein – with outstanding credentials and a record of supporting the project.

The less optimistic perspective is that the delay is a first step to killing or indefinitely delaying the project. Why would the Governor do this? Possibly because while ARC has its funding in place, the rest of the state’s transportation funding situation is a mess. This isn’t Governor Christie’s fault. Half a dozen Governors over ten years have spent more than the state’s Transportation Trust Fund could afford, collecting about $900 million a year in gas taxes and other sources, but spending about $1.4 billion each year on capital projects. The gap was filled by borrowing – a familiar story in New Jersey these days. Unfortunately, the bill is now due. Starting in less than one year, every dollar collected in gas tax revenues for the next 30 years will go to paying off bonds that have already been spent. Unless hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenues or significant cost reductions can be identified, the state’s capital spending on other transportation projects (street and bridge repairs, highway upgrades, other transit investments, etc.) will drop dramatically.

The fault with this thinking is that while ARC may be a big expensive project, it is also an excellent one. In the short term, building the new tunnel will provide new construction jobs. In the mid-term, companies and workers will continue locating in the Garden State, home construction will pick up, and the value of real estate will rise. And in the long term, New Jersey will be more connected to New York City and the expanding global economy.

Pulling back from ARC would be a mistake of enormous proportions. Here’s hoping that governor Christie seizes the opportunity to improve – and not abandon – this critical project.

— RPA staff

Over the past two years, RPA has published a number of reports and white papers detailing the benefits of ARC and New Jersey’s transportation funding crisis:

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One Response to “Keeping ARC on Track: A Message from Regional Plan Association”

  1. Bruce W. Hain says:

    It may be Christie knows more about transit planning than he’s given credit for. It was he who badgered the Port Authority into buying the Greenville Yards in Jersey City with the aim of restoring high-volume lighter service from Manhattan for the first time in years. And Fast: by 2013. This will get a large number of trucks off the Hudson crossings and save considerable man hours, and do it quite cheaply. It may also be that he’s the one behind getting Port Authority to buy the Bayonne Military Ocean Terminal located in the finest natural harbor in the world. This move was essential, as we have been diverting traffic to the St. Laurence and other ports by avioding using New York Harbor. These are about the only things the Port authority has done planning-wise in the past thirty years that are right. But NJ Transit is worse:

    The latest environmental doc. on the Rube Goldberg Connecting Loop says top speed is 30 mph. But that’s on the straight part. It’ll be considerably slower on the curves, especially the one right by the NE Corridor where it enters the line. What are they gonna do, put a stop sign?

    Then every train’s got to stop at Lautenberg Sta. anyway – or run by the platforms a low speed – unless they get platform barriers which is another half billion. Likely they’ll stop, because trains from Bergen-Main and Pascack are never full like the ones on the NEC are by the time they leave Lautenberg.

    Given the slowness of the loop (quite aside from the fact that it’s a ludicrous idea) it should be possible to walk just as quickly in the station at certain times, and others you’ll still have to make up for time lost getting to some kind of connection from 20 stories down in NY.

    The Regional Plan Association’s figures are questionalble at best. And I don’t understand why they’re quoting different time savings for different stops on the same line. (just the ones to the north.) It should cut the same amount off of each trip. But 22 minutes difference to Montclair? Come On. They say the same thing about Raritan Valley and others. That is, different stations will have different time savings. Contrary to the RPA’s assertions, really, it looks like most schedules will remain essentially the same. A slight improvement would result with Phase II of Portal Brudge Capacity Enhancement, but nothing compared to electrifying the RVL, for instance.

    Given the current situation with politicians coming to groundbreakings and saying train tunnels will handle plenty of cars (that is automobiles) the best thing to do is to try and get them to call it off:

    If the tunnel is going somewhere north of 32nd Street (32nd Street is location of the present Penn Station tunnel.) why doesn’t it start out somewhere north of 32nd Street in New Jersey, instead snaking its way from the Northeast Corridor opposite 32nd Street as far south as 21st Street before finally turning, underground, and proceeding north to 34th? …CROSSING UNDER THE EXISTING LINE IN THE PROCESS?! The route is circuitous and – obviously, if you look at a map – the new tracks should go on the NORTH side of the existing Northeast Corridor if only to avoid the stupid tight curve at Bergen Hill, a ludicrous insult to the original line built at cost of life and limb.

    Why do they wait till the Final EIS to make borings, relying in the Draft EIS on one 1906 Pennsylvania Railroad boring? …then change the entire configuration on land and under water based on their new borings? …MAKING THE LINE VASTLY MORE CIRCUITOUS IN THE PROCESS?! (The version usually shown on websites is more direct that the one in the Final EIS, though it is less direct than the one in the Draft EIS.)

    Why now… do they figure out a plan (West Side Y and Loop) obviating the already built Lautenberg Station? God only knows. But putting this ludicrous 1.5-mile loop connection into service NOW will have catastrophic effects on both the Lautenberg and Hoboken stations, diverting traffic to the deep-subterranean Penn Station annex that might otherwise benefit from what will rightfully be THE regional ferry terminal, just in time for completion of the most recent $30-million phase of ferry terminal remodeling. Trains that would otherwise have been stored at Hoboken for the day will now need to be backtracked from New York to a purpose-built yard with conflictual access problems before returning to New York again for outbound service. And besides, passengers can walk it in less time than it will take trains to traverse the steep grades and tight radiuses of the connecting loop – then making the nevertheless required stop at Lautenberg Station – WITHOUT the dicey train scheduling on the Northeast Corridor.

    Despite its one hundred-year age, the Pennsylvania Tunnel and Terminal Railroad with its North Bergen approach is probably still the greatest piece of railroad engineering ever built: 13 minutes to Newark. The question why so few forward-thinking rail improvements have been made in intervening years – and why especially in the US – is painfully in evidence. The twisting alignment, tight radiuses and three percent grades of the ARC Tunnel Project, and its jerry-rigged provisions for a one-seat-ride – made AFTER the Lautenberg Station is already built – ARE AN INSULT to American railroading, to Alexander Cassatt, and especially, to anyone who would let the perpetrators go through with construction.

    .

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