Newark Penn Station is a key stop along the Northeast Corridor rail line and the mass transit infrastructure leading into Manhattan, which would undergo sorely needed upgrades under Amtrak’s $24 billion Gateway program.
By Mark Lohbauer
The New York region is the most productive urban metropolis in the country and generates roughly 10 percent of the national gross domestic product. The highest-paying jobs in the region are in New York City, and a large proportion of those jobs are filled by New Jerseyans, earning billions of dollars in wages that are recycled into the New Jersey economy.
But there’s the rub: Every weekday, all of those workers have to travel from one location to the other, across the Hudson River and back. Many of them cross by NJ Transit trains, through a tunnel that connects Newark to New York. Four hundred and fifty trains carry 200,000 riders through the twin tubes of that tunnel every work day. Built by our great grandparents’ generation, that tunnel has carried trains since the Titanic was being assembled in an Irish boatyard over a century ago.
But that tunnel is a weak link that could totally disrupt our access to New York City. If just one of the two railway tubes in this old structure were to be shut down, train service would be reduced not by half, but by 75 percent. The daily rider capacity would drop from 200,000 to 50,000.
There is no adequate alternate transportation form to absorb that many riders per day: PATH trains are at capacity, buses to the Port Authority Bus Terminal are at capacity and additional capacity on ferries is limited. A substantial portion of city workers would be effectively locked out of their jobs. If New Jerseyans couldn’t get into NYC, both regional and national economies would feel the impact; U.S. Sen Robert Menendez has said that the shutdown of one of the tunnel tubes would result in a loss of $100 million per day.
How likely is a shutdown of one of those tubes? John Porcari, the executive director of the Gateway Development Corp., said recently, “We know we’re looking at borrowed time in the aftermath of Sandy, when the existing 106-year-old tubes in the North River Tunnel flooded; that accelerated the degradation damage in the tunnel.” Porcari added: “We know for a fact that within the next 10 years, we will have to take those two existing rail tubes out of service, one at a time for at least 18 months, to rehabilitate them.” We have less than 10 years to build a second tunnel that could absorb the diverted train traffic.
Amtrak’s Gateway Program is a plan to do just that. It involves construction of two new rail lines into Manhattan, including a new tunnel, new bridges, expanded Penn Station and other infrastructure improvements in New Jersey. The project will cost approximately $24 billion, and take years to complete. New York and New Jersey have committed to paying for half of the cost, but the federal government must commit the balance of funding. The Trump administration’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget cut the funds to the project.
If the federal funding can be restored, the benefits to our region will be great. Opening the new tunnel before closure of the existing one will allow us to avoid a catastrophic loss of service. Once restored, the old tunnel would add to our rail capacity, with more frequent train service. This is critical, because rail ridership is rising with the growing New York City job market.
We also know that rail improvements will yield returns on real estate values. Several years ago, the Regional Plan Association analyzed the potential economic impact of a new rail tunnel and found that it would add a cumulative $18 billion to home values.
Properties within walking distance to train stations would increase up to $34,000 per home. The light at the end of the (Gateway) tunnel is our continued prosperity.
MARK LOHBAUER, is the New Jersey director for the Regional Plan Association. He leads RPA’s research, planning and advocacy activities in New Jersey and is an economic development policy specialist who was a principal at the economic consulting firm JGSC Group for 12 years before joining RPA in 2016. He also is a lawyer who, after serving respective turns as a township and county elected official, became an assistant New Jersey state treasurer in Gov. Christine Todd Whitman’s administration. In that role, Mark helped devise policy on economic development programs throughout New Jersey, particularly in support of downtown retail. He was a member of the boards of directors of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority and the Urban Enterprise Zone Authority, among others.