Think you’ve heard enough about Accessing the Region’s Core? Sorry guys. A reader, Eric X. Wigginton, very kindly forwarded an email he sent to a friend about the potential downsides of the ARC project, which, by his account, sounds problematic on a number of levels.
Eric argues that there is good reason to believe that the cost will be much higher than current estimates suggest:
The cost is actually LOWBALLED. Why? If you ever take a train into Manhattan, look at the tracks. After you get past Secaucus, the alignment narrows to one track in each direction over the Hackensack River, through Kearney, North Bergen and into the tunnels. This project only added a set of tunnels.It did not resolve the bottleneck between North Bergen and Secaucus, making the project useless as a capacity enhancer in and of itself. There is a SEPARATE PROJECT in design, to expand the Portal Bridge and approaching trackage to 5 tracks. That project, by itself, assuming no overruns, is over $2 billion! At least that last project would be useful to Amtrak, as it enhances the entire Northeast Corridor (and should be built whether or not these tunnels are ever done). Lest you think I’m joking, see.
Also not included are the costs of additional rolling stock and train crews. It’s not like the tunnel itself adds capacity, unless you have trains to put through, and that’s a massive added cost not included.
On the equity question, Eric offers a more vivid portrait than yours truly:
The financing for the project includes $1.25 billion in Turnpike tolls. Every time you drive to NJ you are paying for this tunnel. Apart from the fact that this toll diversion seems a clear violation of bond covenants, it is a regressive tax. The jobs in Manhattan are the highest paying in the region. You have guys commuting from Linden to warehouse jobs in Cranbury paying tolls so some hedge fund trader can get a one seat ride to Manhattan from Summit. The NJTPK has at least $1.25 billion of projects that it could apply that money to
And there are higher value uses for the Port Authority’s share of the project as well:
The financing included $3 billion from the Port Authority. Every time you go through the Holland Tunnel or pay to park at Newark Airport you are financing this tunnel. The PA has shelved plans to enhance its aging bus terminal in Manhattan and to replace the Goethals Bridge in order to finance this tunnel. Again, the PA has short-term needs that will enhance regional competitiveness that it could use $3 billion for right now.
Eric also addresses a number of critical flaws in the design of the project itself:
(1) This tunnel would not connect to Grand Central or even Penn Station. It would lead to a dead end terminal under 8th-6th avenues. This limits capacity of the station, does not permit NJ people access to the east side of Manhattan (where the jobs are, and which was the original purpose of the project when conceived). Note that the tunnel could only be used by NJTransit. It could not be used by Amtrak.
(2) The terminal design leads to much higher costs. As it is now, NJ trains to Penn station, go on to Queens and get stored during the day. Due to the terminal design, trains to the new terminal would have to reverse out empty and get shunted all the way back to Secaucus to a new storage yard built from scratch with a separate trackage loop to handle the train flow. Plus the cost of a brand new station.
(3) The end terminal would be — listen carefully here — 180 feet below ground! You have to get yourself literally 20 stories up to reach the surface. On a practical level, it makes the station very inconvenient because it will take 15 minutes just to get out of it. The reason for the dungeon station is that NYC demanded that the tunnel run under the Hudson River bulkhead, instead of through it, and then rise within Manhattan at a gentle grade. Note that this station so far below ground makes transfers to other trains or subways extremely time consuming, as it requires one to surface and then go back underground to the shallower transfer station.
If Eric is right, it seems that the ARC project was badly misconceived, and that a lower-cost alternative — a tunnel designed for bus rapid transit — might be a better approach:
My personal view is that the project should be redesigned. This is also a region that has not added any lane miles to its network in 50 years. A bus tunnel into Manhattan would be cheaper and quicker, as buses can handle curves and steep grades that a train can’t handle. The PA Bus terminal takes in more people each day than NJ Transit’s operations at Penn Station. I’d love to see a network of high-speed bus lanes funneling into a new terminal in midtown east and lower Manhattan. Keep in mind, as a sense of scale, that the entire Turnpike Exit 8A to Exit 6 widening project, adding 3 lanes in each direction and rebuilding 5 interchanges is about $2 billion and will take 5 years. That project is 100% toll financed and is currently under budget. This tunnel project is easily 5 times that cost and will take twice as long if nothing went wrong. Planners need to look at bus routes as they can get them done quicker and cheaper than this nonsense.
You won’t be surprised to know that I think Eric’s approach makes a great deal of sense, assuming our goal is to help commuters reach their destinations rather than to line the pockets of various contractors, to put things indelicately. I’m very grateful to Eric for sharing his thoughts, and I’d love to hear from other readers on the subject, particularly those of you who are familiar with the sources of the cost overruns, etc.