Correction: Christie Pledges State Support of Portal Bridge Replacement

This afternoon, Amtrak requested $1.3B in HSR funding for the NEC. Amtrak’s request included $570M from the Federal government and $150M from the state of NJ for the replacement of the Portal Bridge. As reported on NorthJersey.com by Herb Jackson, Chris Christie has pledged state support of the Portal Bridge Project.

A 2009 Rendering of the Portal Bridge Replacement.

On Friday, April 1, Christie sent a letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood declaring the state’s support of the project. According to Jackson, Christie is supporting the project on the grounds that is shovel-ready and will produce jobs:

“The bridge is beyond its useful life, which is reflected in high maintenance costs and frequent failures, and resulting train delays,” . . . “Moreover, this project, which can commence almost immediately, will create approximately 6,000 much-needed jobs.”


According to Jackson, Christie continued to stress that the Federal Government must lead the project – and take the risk of potential cost over-runs:

“Amtrak realizes significant operating profits on the Northeast Corridor, which helps to subsidize its operations in other regions of the country,” Christie wrote. “This important distinction justifies both federal and state spending on high-speed and intercity passenger rail projects in both New Jersey and the Northeast Corridor.”

Christie’s support will be critical in assuaging a nervous Department of Transportation. After the failures of Florida and Ohio, the DOT will be wary of sending money where it is not supported by local governors.

Christie’s full letter is not yet available online. It will be posted here when it is available.

Amtrak Takes Lead on Gateway – Applies for HSR Funding

According to a press release today, Amtrak has formally applied for $1.3B in funding for the Gateway and HSR on the Northeast Corridor.  Amtrak’s move was not unexpected, since just three weeks ago, the Federal government designated the NEC as a HSR corridor, making the line eligible for HSR funding — including the recently rejected funds from Florida.

The request inclues money for three Gateway-related projects:

In addition, Amtrak is planning $450M investments on the NEC from Philadelphia to NYC, its busiest stretch of track on the corridor. Investments include upgrades to the signaling system and overhead catenary wires to support speeds up to 160mph (up from the stretch’s current maximum of 125mph). Investments in the catenary wires are critical, especially since a catenary failure in December 2010 between Newark, NJ, and NYC caused major regional and local delays.

What’s most interesting is that the Portal Bridge request includes a $150M request to the state of NJ. Chris Christie’s recently announced transportation budget for FY2012 includes no such funding, nor does the recent funding proposals by the Port Authority. The move on the Portal Bridge project comes after almost a year of virtual dormancy on the project. The last dollar spent on the project was $38.5M on final design in January 2010, back when the ARC tunnel was still under construction.

Christie’s 2012 Five-Year Capital Plan for NJ Transit does not explicitly earmark any funds for the Portal Bridge project (though the project is eligible under the funding category Transit Rail Initiatives which is set to receive only a paltry 28M over five years).

NJ’s commitment aside, Amtrak’s plans would be good news for trans-Hudson commuters. In a speech at MIT on March 11, 2011, Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman argued that improving commuter operations between NY and NJ is essential to its vision for High Speed Rail on the NEC. Boardman argued that, “when commuter services get investment, high speed services get operational fluidity.” He explained that the Gateway project and investments associated with Moynihan station will improve movements for NJ Transit trains underneath Penn Station. The result will be less congestion and more reliable service for NJT and for Amtrak’s increased HSR services – not to mention an increase for NJT from 25 to 38 trains per hour in the peak period.

Despite Amtrak’s commitment to breaking the NY-NJ bottleneck, numerous questions remain. While the Feds designation of the NEC for HSR suggests a good likelihood of the proposal receiving some funding, continued arguments about federal transportation spending obscure a bigger picture of the future. In the mean time, Boardman’s nod to regional commuters is more than welcome, since local support will be necessary to get Gateway in the ground.

Christie: NJ Ready to Invest in Trans-Hudson Capacity

In a speech yesterday, Chris Christie declared that he’s ready to invest in mass-transit between New York and New Jersey.  His current transportation approach, however, stresses roads over transit.

According to the Associated Press, Christie praised both the Gateway Project and the 7-Train Extension.  But he offered one principal stipulation on any future project – NJ will not go it alone. Christie remarked:

“We have a better project [Gateway] that I know at some point someone will come to us and ask us to contribute to, and we will stand ready to do that,” Christie said. “But we will do that as partners with the federal government and Amtrak, and we will do that, I am certain, only under the condition that New York City and state contribute as well.”

Indeed, Christie continues to stress that leaders in NY care more about the tunnel than leaders in NJ. According to the Star Ledger, Christie repeated is claim that after canceling the tunnel, “the only phone calls he got in protest were from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Gov. David Paterson and Manhattan real estate developers.”

Despite his support, Christie’s current approach to transportation funding continues to favor investment in automobile infrastructure.

Christie plans to use tolls originally dedicated to ARC to support road projects, including raising the deck of the Bayonne Bridge (pictured above).

First, in his speech, Christie also lashed out at state democrats who voted last week to cancel planned toll increases approved in 2008 to fund the ARC Tunnel. Tolls went up in 2008 and were planned to increase again in 2012. Christie’s plan is to direct the toll revenues to the Pulaski Bridge and the raising of the Bayonne Bridge.

While these projects are critical in their own right, Christie is questioning the very idea that highway tolls can support transit. According to Mike Frassinelli’s for the Star Ledger, “Christie said the Democrats had no problem using Turnpike toll money to go toward a train tunnel, but all of a sudden have a problem because the money is being used for roads and bridges — which he said is a better fit.”  Christie’s logic that road projects are a “better fit” for toll funds is both flawed and out-dated, particularly since road users benefit from transit projects that take other cars off the road.

Second, Christie reiterated his refusal to raise the gas tax. At just 10.5 cents per gallon, NJ’s gas tax is the third-lowest in the nation and the lowest in the tri-state area by far – Connecticut and New York charge 25¢ and 24.35¢ per gallon respectively.  Democrats have argued that even a small increase in the tax could help fund both road and transit projects.

Christie’s vocal support of mass-transit but his lack of action bears a resemblance to the rhetoric he displayed in the Gubernatorial election in 2009. His cancelation of the ARC project, for example, came as a surprise after he repeatedly expressed his support of the project as a candidate. What is clear, however, is that Christie will not push a trans-Hudson rail tunnel on his own. The political will must come from NY, NJ and the federal government.

Northeast Senators to LaHood: Give us Florida’s Money

The Washington Post reports that, on Friday, ten Senators from the Northeast made their case for the $2.4B in HSR funding rejected by Florida Governor Rick Scott. Although the fate of project is, remarkably, still on life support, the Senators join a growing chorus of politicians demanding a piece of Florida’s dollars.

In a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, nine Democrats and Independent Senator Joe Lieberman (CT-I) requested the funds for improving the Northeast corridor’s existing high-speed service. Five of the Tri-State area’s six senators signed the note (only Schumer, D-NY, sat out).

The Senators argue that the Northeast is ideal for HSR investment:

The region served by the Corridor accounts for roughly one-fifth of the nation’s gross domestic product and twenty percent of our nation’s population. More than 250 million rail passengers use the Corridor annually and the Acela Express has built the foundation for high-speed rail service throughout the country. In a recent report, America 2050 rated the Northeast Corridor as the region with the greatest potential to attract high-speed rail ridership in the United States.

The Senators also complain (fairly) that the Northeast has been given short-shrift in Obama’s first-round, HSR funding:

Although the Northeast Corridor has the only operating high-speed train in the country, the Corridor has received less than two percent of the $10.5 billion provided by Congress for the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program to date. We believe that this is an insufficient investment in the Northeast Corridor, given our region’s position as a population and economic mega-region.

The Senators’ appeal likely will have little significance in the short-term. Democratic politicians across the country have also expressed their interest. Earlier in February, Maryland Governor O’Malley (D) requested the funds for various projects in his state, including the replacement of the century-old tunnel under Baltimore, which is facing many of the same capacity and performance problems as the existing Trans-Hudson rail tunnels.

According to the LA Times, California’s politicians are also eager for a share of the Florida funding. Indeed, the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA)  is the most likely candidate for the largest portion of the money. CHSRA has already benefited from the rash of Republican governors turning down federal funding. After the governors of Ohio and Wisconsin turned down their shares, CHSRA received half of the reallocated funds ($616M).

Unlike California, the Northeast cannot offer a demonstration project for other states exploring HSR. If Obama is seeking to encourage a nation-wide program, investments here will not dispel the myth that HSR can only work in the most densely populated part of the country. Still, with seriously congested airports and rail infrastructure at-capacity, the Northeast would arguably benefit the most from HSR. And, the unified voice of the Northeast’s Democratic Senators bodes well for the long-term prospects of expanding rail capacity in the NY area.

A full copy of the Senators’ letter can be found here.

Is ARC Replacement Just a Dream?

Last night, the Museum of the City of NY hosted a panel on the future of transportation in the New York Metropolitan area. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, but StreetsblogNYC has provided a great summary of last night’s proceedings.

According to Streetsblog reporter Noah Kazis, Jeffrey Zupan had bad news for those dreaming of a replacement of the ARC Tunnel:

“Zupan, who was director of planning at New Jersey Transit for ten years, said that plans to replace ARC were pipe dreams. “We’re not going to see any of that money any time soon for a substitute,” he said. “To think that we’re going to find a substitute for ARC I think is really folly.”

Despite Zupan’s skepticism, Senator Lautenberg’s office continues to advocate for the Gateway Tunnel. On Monday, February 28, Zoe Baldwin (formerly at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and now a Transportation and Environment Project Specialist for  Lautenberg), will be delivering a presentation on Gateway to the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition.

New York’s Pull Makes Trans-Hudson Expansion Essential

Train service to Manhattan remains a powerful economic and political force in the tri-state area.

The Asbury Park Press reports that NJT is planning to provide transfer-free service to riders on the Raritan Valley Line.

Currently, riders from towns in Union, Somerset and Hunterdon Counties must transfer at Newark Penn to continue the journey to Manhattan. Since the line is not electrified, trains are pulled by diesel locomotives that are not allowed in the existing trans-Hudson tunnels. According to NJT Executive Director James Weinstein, the key to the one-seat ride service will be dual-mode locomotives that can use either diesel or the electrified, over-head wires that travel through the tunnels. The dual-mode engines were ordered in 2008 and won’t begin service until 2012 at the very earliest.

The news come on the heels of a recent real estate report by the NY Times that explains that towns with strong economic and transportation ties to Manhattan have outperformed other towns over the past year. According to the report, in 2010, some affluent NJ towns, like Ridgewood, Summit, and Millburn, have seen higher increases in average home prices than other similar, affluent towns. Jeffrey Otteau, a real estate consultant based in New Brunswick, NJ, points to the fact that these towns have “a train station with direct service to Manhattan,” as well as relatively strong growth of Manhattan jobs:

Manhattan regained vigor as an employment center, while New Jersey continued a decade-long decline in the number of new jobs, he said. “This means Manhattan is becoming an increasingly potent force in the New Jersey market,” he added.

The powerful effect of Manhattan-bound train service on NJ property values is  well documented. In 2004, Juliette Michaelson completed an analysis on the impact of the introduction of Midtown-Direct service on the Morris & Essex Lines on property values, as her Master’s Thesis at Columbia University. According to her analysis, from 1993-2003, homes withing a half-mile of stations increased by 113% and properties a half-mile to two-miles away increased by 82%. (Houses more than two miles away increased by 65%.)

The Regional Plan Association (RPA) has also demonstrated the relationship between transit and housing values. In July 2010, the RPA released a report titled The ARC Effect, which estimated that the ARC Tunnel would raise home values by a collective $18 billion. With ARC, home values were expected to increase by an average of $19,000; and the number of NJ residents within a 50-minute train commute would have doubled.

Looking ahead, the Gateway Tunnel would not have so dramatic of an effect as ARC. First, Gateway will not provide a one-seat ride to riders on the Bergen County, Main, Pascack Valley and Port-Jervis (Metro North) Lines — at least not at first. Second, Gateway offers NJT only 13 additional trains per hour (compared to ARC’s 25), providing limited capacity for delivering commuters a quick ride to Manhattan. For its part, the 7-Train extension would require all NJ Transit passengers to transfer at Secaucus, diminishing some of the benefits of expanded rail service.

The real estate market and NJT’s expansion plans reflect the strong demand for Manhattan-bound service. All future trans-Hudson projects must take this demand into account, particularly in order to build a strong base of support among suburban constituents in NJ and NY State.

In the Wake of Delays, NJT Promises Better Performance Measures

This morning, the Star Ledger released an extensive profile on NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein. The report gives a fairly positive review of Weinstein’s performance in a year of many challenges, from an employee fired for burning a copy of the Quran to the cancelation of the ARC Tunnel.

The report gives special attention to NJT’s delays over the past year. In the summer of 2010, NJT experienced a truly epic series of delays reportedly caused by an unusual mix of high temperatures, sagging over-head wires and deaths on the tracks.  This winter, NJT’s performance has gotten mixed reviews. The Star Ledger reported in February that the severe winter weather had caused NJT’s worst delays in six years.  And, yet, local blogs reported that NJT had weathered the storms surprisingly well, thanks to equipment preparations and smart changes to the schedule ahead of each storm. Indeed, NJT has not suffered from any of the debilitating schedule changes that Metro North has been forced to implement on the New Haven Line.

The mixed reviews this winter highlight an obvious reality for many commuter rail customers. The company line on delays often falls short of the pain experienced by riders. For some evidence, the Clever Commute service enables riders to share system delays as they happen with others customers on the same line – circumventing NJT’s service announcements. It is not unusual, for example, to see a delay on Clever Commute that is not posted on NJT’s website.

In the Star Ledger report, Weinstein has indicated that NJT is planning to overhaul its performance rating system. The agency will be creating a new “balanced scorecard,” looking at metrics like “on-time performance, employee safety, financial stability and customer service.”  According to Weinstein, the move to transparency is essential to serving tax-payers:

“Frankly, our warts are going to show with this,” Weinstein says. “Why do it? Because we’ve got a responsibility to our customers and a responsibility to the taxpayers. … I want to get to a position where our customers believe they’re getting value for the money that they’re paying for the ticket and believe that they’re getting value for the money they’re paying in taxes.”

The agency plans to release on-time performance monthly on the NJT website. The truth of the matter is, however, that transparency will not fix the precarious state of the existing rail infrastructure between NY and NJ. First, NJT does not have operational control over the existing trans-hudson tunnels. If Amtrak has a delay, NJ commuters will inevitably feel the pain. Second, the system has no redundancy. If one train gets stuck in the tunnel, all trains going in and out must share one tunnel.

So, while increased transparency is essential, the only thing that will surely improve NJT’s on-time performance is expanded trans-Hudson capacity.

Regional Advocates Propose Phased Approach to Gateway

MyCentralJersey.com reports that the Regional Rail Working Group (RRWG) has offered a Two-Phased Proposal for the Gateway Tunnel.

According to their website, the RRWG is a consortium of transit advocacy groups that cover the Tri-State area. The group’s primary goal is to convert the tri-state’s separate commuter rail systems into a single, integrated regional system. Back in the days of the ARC Tunnel, RRWG joined other advocacy groups in arguing that the trans-Hudson tunnel serve Moynihan/Penn Station.

Now that the Gateway Tunnel has been announced, the RRWG appears to be focusing on refining the plan to ensure its get built. On Saturday, Joe Clift, a member of the RRWG and former planning director for the Long Island Railroad, outlined plans for a phased construction of the Gateway Tunnel:

Two-Phase Proposal for the Gateway Tunnel

The current Gateway proposal calls for $13.5B in investments, including replacing the Portal Bridge with two new bridges across the Hackensack river and the construction of the new Penn Station South between 30th and 31st streets. Besides the very large pricetag, which is yet unfunded, the demolition required for Penn Station South has already inspired opposition. Earlier this week, DNAInfo reported that businesses on the block are already concerned about their future livelihood.

The RRWG is proposing a step-by-step approach that could lower the initial cost and significantly diminish resistance from Manhattan property owners. In the first phase, the plan proposes constructing only those infrastructure pieces necessary for expanding trans-hudson capacity. In a later, second phase, the more disruptive items of the project like Penn Station South would be constructed, unlocking the full capacity of the entire Gateway Tunnel project. (See the chart above.)

According to the report from MyCentralJersey.com, Clift explained the benefits of the the initial phase:

“It is a much more accomplishable project,” Clift said. “You would have a project that is more affordable (to start) because all the Manhattan property cost (for Penn Station South) goes away.”

Indeed, Cliff gave a very rough and very preliminary estimate of Phase 1 costs of only $6B – around half of Gateway’s current estimate.

The proposal joins a list advocated by the RRWG, both practical and ambitious, including linking Penn Station with Grand Central and connecting the PATH to the Lexington Avenue Line. The Group plans to present their plan to Amtrak, NJTransit and public officals once they have garnered support from other rail advocacy groups.

As for NJTransit, Executive Director Jim Weinstein told MyCentralJersey that NJT is continuing to explore both the Gateway Tunnel:

“I’ve spoken to Joe and it’s their project, so we’ll assume they call us,” Weinstein said. “It’s not like we’re in a foreign country. If Amtrak moves forward on this project, it will have benefits to us.

– and the 7-Train Extension:

“We’re supporting that. I’m working with New York City on that to address it,” Weinstein said.

Both Weinstein’s comments and the RRWG proposal make clear that both Gateway and the 7-Train extension remain very nascent proposals. There is still a great deal of time to work out the physical, financial and programmatic aspects of each plan.

The Ghost of ARC Continues to Haunt

The consequences of the ARC cancelation continue to reverberate in NJ on the state and federal levels – almost five months since the project was canceled.

On Wednesday, NJ’s congressional delegation — republicans and democrats — delivered a unanimous letter to Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood, requesting that the federal government drop their demands for repayment of the ARC Tunnel money. The logic of their request is that the federal funding can be re-used in the future. The letter states:

“While some of us may differ on whether or not the ARC project should have been cancelled, we are united in our effort to protect New Jersey taxpayers from harm. We are deeply concerned that forcing New Jersey to pay these funds will undermine efforts for a new Trans-Hudson tunnel, and require the State to postpone or cancel other essential, job-creating transit projects throughout the State. This will only exacerbate the State’s transportation and economic challenges, and impose an unfair burden on taxpayers in New Jersey.”

This bi-partisan effort is the most recent of a series of steps by lawmakers to remove the bill. Since October, Christie has been waging a legal fight against the bill. Meanwhile, in December, NJ Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez successfully negotiated with La Hood to effectively cut the $271M bill in half. As part of the deal, NJ would re-pay the bill in full, while La Hood would provide a $128M credit to the state for future transportation projects. Christie did not take up the offer. Now, with the Gateway Tunnel  on the table and Obama’s infrastructure plan the center of a fight between republicans and democrats, La Hood may need to heed this letter to ensure the support of the NJ delegation.

While the federal legislators have exhibited an uncharacteristic bi-partisanship, state lawmakers have shown less cooperation. On Thursday, the NJ Senate voted to cancel planned toll increases that were meant to fund the ARC Tunnel. NJ Democrats are using Christie’s own anti-tax argument against him. Christie has repeatedly declared that there be no new taxes for NJ residents. If the tunnel project is canceled, the Democrats’ logic goes, then the associated tax should be canceled as well.

Without the toll revenue, NJ will have to find an alternative way to fund the depleted Transportation Trust Fund, which Christie had planned to support using the tolls. With the margin of victory in the Senate so high (27-9), an over-ride of any veto seems very possible. If the repeal goes through, Christie may be forced to raise the gas tax — a move he has repeatedly refused to make. Before Christie can sign or veto, the bill will have to be voted on by the Assembly, also controlled by Democrats.

Despite targeting Christie, the bill wasn’t without Republican support. Seven republican senators voted for the toll repeal. On the other side of the aisle, only one democrat, Senator Ray Lesniak (D) voted against the repeal.  Unlike his fellow democrats, he had a constructive idea for the toll revenues: re-direct the funds to the Gateway Tunnel.

Although Lesniak’s plan would provide the biggest benefit for trans-hudson capacity, his proposal is pre-mature. Relatively little is known about the Gateway Project and its funding mechanisms are likely a year or two away. Furthermore, it remains in the states’s best interest to wait for the federal government to firmly articulate its plans for High-Speed Rail before committing any funding.

Christie Slams Infrastructure Spending

Despite lauding the announcement of the Gateway Tunnel last week (and taking credit for the proposal), NJ Governor Chris Christie continues to criticize federal infrastructure spending. As I reported last week, Chris Christie has criticized Obama’s proposed investments in HSR and high-speed internet access as “candy.”

According to TransportationNation, Christie has repeated his “candy” message. During a talk at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, Christie said:

“[Obama] says the big things are high speed rail. The big things are high speed internet access for almost  80 percent of American or something  by some date.  A million electric cars on the road by some date.  Ladies and Gentlemen, that is the candy of American politics, those are not the big things, because let me guarantee you something  if we don’t fix the real big things there’s going to be no electric cars on the road.”

For a video of Christie’s remarks, visit TransportationNation.

Christie’s remarks reveal his two faces toward infrastructure. In his cancelation of the ARC Tunnel, Christie praised the idea of the trans-hudson tunnel; it was the cost-overruns that he claimed were the problem. And in November, Christie said he liked the idea of the 7-Train extension to Secaucus. And yet, now, projects like High Speed Rail are deemed by Christie to be categorically a bad idea.

Christie’s double-talk may reflect a split between his local and national audiences. While Christe’s criticism of high-speed rail may be received warmly in other parts of the country, the Northeast currently faces significant infrastructure constraints. Meanwhile, countries like China and Brazil continue to invest in infrastructure to support their long-term growth. Christie must know that infrastructure expansion in the Northeast is not “candy,” it is essential for continued economic success.