Not just commuters impacted if rail tunnel closes before Gateway
A new report from the Regional Plan Association anticipated startling consequences for New Jersey and beyond if the decaying Hudson River rail tunnels are taken down for repairs without new ones being built first, as envisioned by the Gateway project.
“It’s still amazing to me that this has not risen to the level of a crisis not just for this region but for the country,” said Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future.
Those projections include:
- A $16 billion cost for the national economy over four years. A big drop in tax revenues – including $1.5 billion for the federal government, $4.5 billion in New Jersey, more than $1 billion in other states.
- A $22 billion decline in home property values – most heavily concentrated in Essex, Middlesex and Union counties, averaging nearly $14,000 in value, knocking 6 percent off of home values in areas by train stations and 2.5 percent of all home values in New Jersey. Owners of commercial properties would also take a hit, mostly acutely in Manhattan.
- Thousands of workers forced to move or accept lower-paying jobs, once 38,000 of the current daily 67,000 riders are unable to take NJ Transit trains into Manhattan. There would be room for more than 20,000 of the displaced commuters on PATH trains, buses and ferries.
- Notably longer commutes for 245,000 drivers, including 101,000 impacted by an hour or more each day and another 36,000 spending an extra 30 to 60 minutes a day in their cars. More car crashes as a result of more cars on the road.
- Higher airfares for flights between Washington and the New York area – perhaps averaging $334, rather than $202, because long-range Amtrak riders would fly instead. The cost to fly between New York and Baltimore could double.
Nat Bottigheimer, New Jersey director for the Regional Plan Association, said North Jersey roads are already crowded, so the impacts of thousands more cars a day would mean “you don’t even have to be a transit user yourself to experience the impact of the tunnel closure.”
“You already have levels of uncertainty, and now this is like uncertainty squared. Not only does your trip take longer, but it’s more crowded. You have to introduce a buffer time to make sure you get someplace on time,” Bottigheimer said. “… It adds up to aggravation. It adds up to inconvenience, lost time, lost family time. It’s a total loss.”
Kasabach said the closure of the tunnel would “just back up the entire system in New Jersey” and jeopardize reversing the recent emphasis on growth in transit corridors.
“You’re not only looking at the losses that would occur from losing the tunnel, but you’re also looking at all the lost growth and economic development that’s going to happen because people are worried about losing the tunnel,” Kasabach said.
“You lose the transit service, you lose that tunnel, and all the gains that have been made over the years are going to be lost,” he said. “It will affect a lot of towns in New Jersey – directly, the ones that have train stations, but then indirectly, the ones that are going to see more traffic.”
There’s a two-track tunnel under the Hudson River built more than a century ago that carries 200,000 Amtrak and NJ Transit passengers a day – the only rail link between Manhattan and its western suburbs, able to accommodate 24 trains an hour.
The tunnel was already aging, but its problems were accelerated after it was flooded with salt water during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. That damage can’t be fully repaired without closing the tubes – one at a time, two years apiece, unless a calamity happens first. If one is closed, the number of trains would be cut to six an hour.
There is a proposal to build a new rail tunnel, which would allow rail agencies to maintain the current levels of service, then do the needed repairs. After those are completed, rail capacity would be twice the current levels, as 48 trains an hour.
“We have to get going now. We have to get it funded now. We have to start doing – you know, it takes a long time to build one of these things, so you need to start right away,” Bottigheimer said.
“This single tunnel is a major connector that is the lifeblood of this region and this economy,” Kasabach said. “And the fact that there aren’t more people and more decision-makers involved in figuring out how to make this simply happen is amazing to me.”
Gov. Phil Murphy said he spoke briefly with President Donald Trump about Gateway over the weekend at the National Governors Association conference and that the two agreed to have a formal meeting on the subject.
The Gateway project has received initial funding but not nearly enough to cover the plan’s entire cost, which could approach $29 billion, including $11.1 billion for the new tunnel, $6 billion to expand New York Penn Station, $1.8 billion to repair the existing tunnel and $1.6 billion to rebuild the Portal Bridge.