Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Not Quite Rightous Rant on the ARC Tunnel Nonsense

Brian Donohue at the Star Ledger has a story on their site about the craziness surrounding the ARC Tunnel and the bickering among the politicians and Gov. Christie's demand that the state not be held accountable for cost overruns. He even has a video with a not quite righteous rant about the project.

The ARC tunnel saga: a sad state of affairs

In that video, he mentions that the wars in Iraq cost $1.1 trillion dollars and that we could have built quite a bit with that money (except that no one knows what money would have been spent considering that in the years prior to 2001 the government never spent more than a few billion dollars on infrastructure in New Jersey as a part of the federal transportation bills such as TEA-21).

Donohue mentions that if New Jersey repeals the law requiring self-service gas, prices at the pumps could drop a few cents and the state could raise the tax a few pennies to keep prices at the current levels. That's just trimming away at the margins, because the state's fiscal problems are much deeper than just trying to salvage the Transportation Trust Fund that spends a significant percentage on debt payment - far more than it can bear.

No, what gets glossed over is the fact that the Swiss recently reached a major milestone in completing the Gotthard base tunnel - a 2 tunnel system with miles of additional connecting passageways and emergency stations carved out of solid rock, which stretches 35 miles and cost $10 billion. The ARC tunnel is just over 1 mile in length including approaches and we're talking about $10 billion. What justifies that kind of cost?

No one wants to discuss that particular aspect, nor does anyone want to pay serious attention to the fact that the French have been able to lay high speed rail by the mile at a fraction of the cost of projects here in the US. That includes the proposed Las Vegas to California route through vast expanses of open desert.

Major infrastructure in the Northeast in particular was built more than a century ago, and it's showing its age and wear and tear. That means that the operating costs for those projects are higher because of higher maintenance. The Brooklyn Bridge is undergoing just the latest in a series of rehabilitation that will make it capable of carrying traffic for the next two decades, but costs hundreds of millions of dollars.

The existing pair of Hudson River tunnels was built a century ago, and besides the PATH tubes, are the only rail links into Manhattan from New Jersey. That has to change, but the ARC tunnel isn't the way to get it done.

As I noted yesterday, misplaced priorities plays a big role in NJ Transit being in a fiscal bind it faces. It has cut service and has shown itself incapable of maintaining the system at its current level, yet it is clamoring for a new rail station and tunnel system that it wants the state to cover on cost overruns but which it can't afford. Instead of linking the tunnels back into Penn Station, NJ Transit wants a separate terminus in Manhattan that does nothing to alleviate congestion or problems if a disabled train blocks one of the tracks to Penn Station.

Then, there's the issue with the Portal Bridge (a movable span on the Hackensack River), which is yet another bottleneck that Donohue doesn't mention. That bit of infrastructure is also 100 years old and is the site of repeated delays. Replacing that bridge is just as important, and even that project is expected to run $1 billion or more. Building that fixed span replacement would eliminate many of the delays that customers regularly face on the Northeast Corridor, and yet the state and federal government couldn't find the money in the stimulus package to get work underway last year. That is on the New Jersey congressional delegation that includes Sen. Frank Lautenberg who is on the transportation committee and whose name graces the Secaucus Transfer.

A replacement for a critical piece of infrastructure doesn't get nearly the press of a new tunnel system, but the outcomes are the same if they don't get built - delays and reliance on obsolete infrastructure that increases travel times along one of the most heavily traveled stretches of rail in the nation.

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