Wednesday, November 17, 2010

NYC Floats Tunnel Plan To Secaucus

This is a plan I can definitely get behind. Not only would this result in a more than doubling of mass transit capacity across the Hudson River, but it would inject a real purpose and utility to the Secaucus Transfer. Mayor Mike Bloomberg has floated a plan to further extend the 7 line from its current planned terminus at 11th Avenue and 34th Street to the Secaucus Transfer using some of the right of way previously allocated to the ARC tunnel.
Like the project scuttled by Mr. Christie, this proposed tunnel would expand a regional transportation system already operating at capacity and would double the number of trains traveling between the two states during peak hours. It would do so at about half the cost, an estimated $5.3 billion, according to a closely guarded, four-page memorandum circulated by the city’s Hudson Yards Development Corporation.

Unlike the old project, the new plan does not require costly condemnation proceedings or extensive tunneling in Manhattan, because the city is already building a No. 7 station at 34th Street and 11th Avenue, roughly one block from the waterfront. In July, a massive 110-ton tunnel boring machine completed drilling for the city’s $2.1 billion extension of the No. 7 line from Times Square to the new station.

Still, the proposal faces a number of daunting political, financial and logistical hurdles in an era of diminishing public resources. Mr. Christie, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Governor-elect Andrew M. Cuomo of New York would have to agree to make the tunnel a high priority and work in lock step to obtain the city, state and federal money needed to make it happen.

“Extending the 7 line to New Jersey could address many of the region’s transportation capacity issues at a fraction of the original tunnel’s cost, but the idea is still in its earliest stages,” said Andrew Brent, a spokesman for the deputy mayor for economic development, Robert K. Steel. “Like others, we’re looking at — and open to discussing — any creative, fiscally responsible alternatives.”

Mr. Christie had not yet received a formal briefing on the idea, but his office said it was curious to hear more. “We’ve been open to ideas for solving the trans-Hudson dilemma, ideas that are affordable and fair amongst the interested jurisdictions,” said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Mr. Christie.

Last month, Mr. Christie, a Republican, put an end to the long-planned Hudson rail tunnel project after the estimated cost climbed to at least $11 billion, from an initial $8.7 billion. The project would have created two new tracks for New Jersey Transit from Secaucus to a new station deep under 34th Street, near Pennsylvania Station. The federal Transportation Department had pledged $3 billion, as had the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. New Jersey was responsible for the rest.
Consider the possibilities: a sports fan from Queens would no longer have to drive to the Meadowlands to see a Jets or Giants game. They could simply hop on their local 7 train for the ride out. Commuters would have access to the entire MTA subway system via the 7 train connections at Times Square.

This proposal would have tremendous political and bureaucratic hurdles to overcome since it would extend the MTA's subway presence into territory normally serviced by NJ Transit (MTA trains on Metro North operate to Port Jervis, NJ on NJ Transit's Main/Bergen Line from Suffern to Hoboken). I think Gov. Chris Christie would be receptive to the project since its cost is nearly half the cost of the ARC tunnel project he killed, and it would vastly enhance the purpose and necessity of the Secaucus Transfer - in fact it would breath new life into the surrounding areas, which would have the potential of being a boom town of residential and commercial properties that are linked via the Transfer to the heart of Manhattan.

Not only would New York and New Jersey commuters benefit, but this would be a much more effective use of mass transit funds than the killed ARC tunnel project since it would potentially service far more people at a much lower cost. The cost savings are largely achieved because the MTA would not need to engage in costly condemnations in Manhattan, and the rights of way have largely been allocated.

Benjamin Kabab at 2d Ave. Sagas is wary of the plan and focuses on the one-seat ride aspect of the project, which is a consideration only if you think that the sunk costs of the Secaucus Transfer being made obsolete in the process isn't something that should be ignored. However, he thinks it is a plan that thinks big and outside the box when it comes to mass transit in the region. I think more people would use a MTA stop at Secaucus than trying to catch an already packed subway at Penn Station, and it gives the added benefit of direct access to the East Side and the rest of the City for New Jersey residents.

The benefits of a one-seat ride are overblown when factoring in the reality that the 7 line would potentially operate far more regularly than the NJ Transit service - giving 24-7 rides which is something that NJ Transit doesn't do - particularly for North Jersey.

Gov. Christie may want to tack the $3 billion originally designated for the ARC tunnel to other infrastructure projects in New Jersey, but he might be open to this proposal since it is more cost effective than the project he killed. Getting NJ Transit would be a tougher task, although I think the Port Authority would go along with the plan. Getting the feds to kick in the balance would be the trick since it isn't clear whether the 7 train plan would get the funding for the project.

Moreover, it isn't clear whether the 7 train plan would need to start from scratch on its environmental impact statement or whether the ARC tunnel plan could be rejiggered to match the repurposing.

The Record reports on the proposal, and like several other outlets and critics, complains that this would not create a one-seat ride for commuters. This is a non-argument for most people considering that unless your destination is Penn Station, you are going to have to transfer to another mode of transportation if you're taking NJ Transit into Manhattan. You have to switch to PATH in Hoboken to reach Lower Manhattan. You most certainly have to switch to the subways to reach anywhere else in Manhattan or the outer boroughs. Not everyone works at Penn Station.

An added bonus would be that the cost of traveling into Manhattan would be significantly reduced - because the MTA allows free transfers within its system, so someone coming to Secaucus could go anywhere in the City after paying the fare at Secaucus. It would also be significantly cheaper for commuters coming from North Jersey than taking NJ Transit all the way into New York. You have to believe that this is going to factor into the potential opposition to the project.

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