Crossing the Hudson: How to Increase Transit Capacity and Improve Commutes

Posted by Content Coordinator on Monday, August 21st, 2017


Executive Summary

We are living on borrowed time.

The links between New York and New Jersey face a growing crisis of capacity, connectivity, and potential collapse. Each of the three primary trans-Hudson facilities—the Northeast Corridor rail tunnel that serves all Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains into Manhattan; Penn Station; and the Port Authority Bus Terminal— suffer frequent service failures, serve far more people than they were designed to handle, and need major repairs to prevent a catastrophe. The derailments, delays and emergency repairs at Penn Station this summer are mild compared to what will happen if one of the tunnels under the Hudson River fails before replacement tunnels can be built. Losing such a vital part of the regional network would have ripple effects across the entire metropolitan region, affecting everyone who commutes by any mode across the Hudson River, businesses on both sides that rely on these connections, and communities that thrive because of our robust metropolitan economy. Trans-Hudson Travel

Each day over 1.6 million people commute into Manhattan, the 21st century’s leading global city. For the last 25 years, more and more of those people have been coming from west of the Hudson River. Over that time, the number of jobs in Manhattan has only increased by about 75,000, and the number of daily commuters traveling from New Jersey grew by 70,000, from 250,000 to 320,000.

As a result, rail trips in and out of Penn Station have nearly tripled in the last 25 years, bus trips have grown by 83%, and PATH ridership is up by 27%. RPA’s research projects that this trend will continue over the next two decades, requiring far more capacity than the existing facilities can provide. Work trips to Manhattan could increase by 72,000, or 24%, by 2040, while trips to all of New York City could increase by 148,000, a 38% increase, as job growth in the other New York City boroughs rises even faster.

Our current system of trains, buses, subways, ferries and roads does not have enough capacity to serve another 72,000 — let alone another 150,000 — commuters every day. Without that capacity, overcrowding and delays will get even worse and jobs will depart to other regions.

Furthermore, the rail network fails to serve many communities in New Jersey, forcing commuters to rely on buses to a much greater degree than other parts of the metropolitan region. And commuter rail services from all directions terminate in Manhattan, rather than directly connecting the suburbs to each other, which limits the destinations that passengers can get to without transferring and reduces the number of trains that operate in peak periods.

To date, only piecemeal solutions have been proposed to address these problems. Amtrak has proposed the Gateway project: two new tracks under the Hudson River connecting New Jersey to Penn station. Gateway solves the immediate maintenance needs of the tunnels and doubles capacity in the Northeast Corridor, but will not meet longterm demand and limits service options by maintaining Penn Station as a terminus, rather than allowing through running between New Jersey and Long Island. The Port Authority’s proposal for a much larger Midtown bus terminal would accommodate projected bus passengers, but at a very high cost with unacceptable impacts on the neighboring community. And it locks in bus service for many areas of New Jersey, rather than providing more direct, reliable and efficient rail service. And current plans to improve Penn Station and build Moynihan Station would make some improvements in circulation and the passenger experience, but would not be able to handle the additional riders brought in by Gateway.

Each of these projects has been planned and studied in isolation of the others. Rather than looking holistically at the links across the Hudson River, and where people are coming from and going to, the agencies have been focused on solving their individual problems. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that they haven’t been able to come up with a comprehensive solution.

A much better outcome could be achieved through a series of complementary investments that address the problems of the system as a whole. These investments can address the inadequacies of the current facilities; create capacity for much more robust economic growth; and greatly improve service and reduce travel times on both sides of the Hudson River. The investments would be phased in to address the most urgent problems first and provide flexibility for the timing and type of future investments.

  • The first priority is to immediately begin construction of Gateway. The new tunnels must be in place before the existing tunnels fail. Simply put, this is the highest infrastructure priority for the nation. The entire Northeast Corridor relies on that connection. The federal government must honor its commitment to provide half the funding for this nationally-significant project that serves one-fifth of the nation’s economy, and the Gateway Development Corporation needs to move ahead as quickly as possible with environmental permitting and engineering to begin construction.
  • At the same time, the Port Authority should partner with New York State and New York City to build a second bus terminal in the basement of the Javits Convention Center with underground connections to the #7 subway station at Hudson Yards. A new facility in the basement of the Javits Convention Center would have many advantages over other proposals. It can be built very quickly — an important consideration since both Penn Station and the existing bus terminal are at risk of failing. It would be much less expensive than building a new bus terminal. It does not require the demolition of the existing PABT, but would complement it with better service to the Hudson Yards and other destinations that would reduce the demand on the PABT, which would be renovated to extend its useful life another 20 to 30 years. And the additional capacity the Javits bus terminal provides could also be used to serve both new commuters and existing intercity buses — many of which now park on city streets.

    This plan also provides many benefits to the Javits Convention Center. The Javits Center is currently expanding to the north, but even with this expansion, there is still unmet demand for Class A conference facilities — as opposed to the Class B exhibition space on the basement floor. Building a bus terminal in the Javits basement would be part of a comprehensive plan to expand and modernize the Javits Center, including increased accessibility; expanding premium meeting and ballroom space onto Pier 76; and improving truck marshalling, loading and parking

  • Once the Gateway tunnels and Javits bus terminal are both complete, the next priority is to expand capacity under the Hudson River by converting Gateway to a higher-capacity, through-running service. Instead of terminating at 7th Avenue, Gateway should extend east, underneath Manhattan and the East River with two new tunnels, to connect to Sunnyside Yards in Queens. Instead of simply doubling commuter rail capacity under the Hudson River, “Gateway East” would increase capacity by 138%. It would also have much broader regional benefits, including through service between NJTransit and the Long Island Railroad and MetroNorth.
  • To serve all these additional riders, Penn Station needs to once again become a gateway for New York and the region. We should construct a grand Penn Station complex — including Moynihan Station and a “Penn South” expansion — to create a unified 31st to 34th street station. Eventually, Madison Square Garden should move to a nearby site and a new, open Penn Station would be built to serve as a true regional hub, with direct and more frequent service to New Jersey, Long Island, the Hudson Valley and Connecticut.

These actions can be phased in, and each step builds on the previous investment. This plan would provide enough capacity until mid-century, when trans-Hudson demand will once again begin to surpass combined rail and bus capacity and the existing PABT will have surpassed its useful life. At that point, another phase can add more capacity, either by rebuilding the bus terminal or planning for the fifth and sixth tunnels under the Hudson River.

Both sides of the Hudson River benefit from their proximity to each other — to the extraordinary jobs and vitality of New York City and the workforce and communities in New Jersey. We are cheating the clock by relying on connections that are more than a hundred years old. To prosper in this century, we need to make bold plans once again. Here is the way — now all we need is the will to do it.

A Growing Crisis

The transportation networks that cross the Hudson River and link New Jersey and New York are critical to the economy of both states. The transit connections, which carry nearly 400,000 people a day, are at serious risk. They are old, deteriorating, and unable to handle current and anticipated demands.

Two of the key elements of this network are especially at risk: the rail tunnel under the Hudson River that leads into Penn Station, and the Port Authority Bus Terminal (PABT). Each weekday the Hudson River Tunnel (HRT) carries some 330 NJ Transit commuter trains and 150,000 people — triple the number of passengers since 1990. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which is the heart of Amtrak’s national network and its only profitable market, runs another 100, intercity trains carrying 21,000 people a day

Superstorm Sandy badly damaged both tubes of this aging tunnel, which is threatened by a shutdown if conditions worsen. Each year it becomes more likely that one of these tubes will need to be closed for significant repairs, forcing tens of thousands of workers and visitors to find alternative means of travel in a system that is already over capacity. Huge disruptions to all who travel across the Hudson would follow, with disastrous affects to the economies of both states and the entire Northeast Megaregion.

Meanwhile, the PABT is succumbing to years of heavy bus traffic in the terminal and on the ramps leading to it. It was not designed for today’s larger and wider buses. Many of the 14,000 buses traveling through the Lincoln Tunnel each weekday overflow onto the city streets surrounding the terminal. The capacity limitations affect the 350,000 passengers daily, up from 233,000 in 1990. Each morning, long lines of buses try to enter the overtaxed Exclusive Bus Lane (XBL) leading to the Lincoln Tunnel, and long lines of passengers wait impatiently to board buses in the evening.

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC) and the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority (NJTPA) produce long-range forecasts for the city and region. They both project that population and job growth will result in an increase in work trips of 26% from communities west of the Hudson to New York City by 2040, adding 103,000 trips each way on an average weekday. RPA’s more ambitious growth forecasts estimate that demand could grow by 38%, or 148,000 trips. But the current system does not have spare capacity to handle either of these projections.

Many possible solutions have been suggested, generally starting with new rail capacity under the Hudson River. Amtrak’s proposed Gateway project would enable transit agencies to divert trains from the existing rail tunnels to make repairs and eventually double trans-Hudson rail capacity. Most business, civic and political leaders agree that Gateway should proceed, but funds for the project — which will cost in excess of $20 billion — are not in place.

At the same time, the search for a replacement to the PABT is hampered because the existing facility has two critical features that are difficult to duplicate: direct connections via ramps to the Lincoln Tunnel and the close proximity to ten subway lines. Any replacement not at the current site would forfeit either or both of those advantages. Moreover, the high cost and local impacts raise issues as to whether other solutions might be preferable. For example, the New York City subway #7 or L trains could be extended to add trans-Hudson capacity and relieve bus and rail demand on existing facilities.

All these solutions require consensus among the affected parties — the State of New Jersey and NJ Transit (NJT); Amtrak; the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; the City and State of New York; the ferry operators; and even the MTA and federal government. All of these alternatives are expensive and require close examination, including agreement on how the solutions will be paid for.

Table 1: Changes in Trans-Hudson Travel: 1990 to 2015

Download full version (PDF): Crossing the Hudson

About Regional Plan Association (RPA)
At RPA, our professional researchers and regional planners seek to improve the prosperity, sustainability and quality of life in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan region through work in transportation, economic development and real estate, environment and open space and more. We also provide leadership on transportation, environmental and economic-development issues in the Northeast and across the U.S.

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