Thursday, April 07, 2011

Major Delays Once Again Hit Northeast Corridor; Highlighting Need For Additional Capacity

The moment an Amtrak train became disabled entering one of the two Hudson River tunnels entering Manhattan, the morning rush hour was a lost cause for anyone attempting to commute into Manhattan or even to Hoboken as a result of delays that mounted throughout the NJ Transit and Amtrak operations.

Those delays on the Northeast Corridor were 30-60 minutes (at a minimum), and because NJ Transit was diverting Midtown Direct trains to Hoboken, those who normally commute to Lower Manhattan or Hoboken/Jersey City were also hit with delays due to congestion.

On that latter point, I have to wonder why NJ Transit isn't better prepared to deal with the extra trains. After all, prior to the opening of Secaucus Transfer, Midtown Direct trains used to route into Hoboken and Hoboken could handle the traffic. Now, it appears that the institutional memory of how to deal with the extra trains is gone. It's something that needs to be fixed - and quickly, given that relief on replacing the Portal Bridge and construction of new Amtrak tunnels is still years off.

Speaking of the Portal Bridge project and the Gateway tunnel project, Amtrak has submitted a proposal to claim more than $1 billion to go to replacing the Portal Bridge and begin preliminary study work on the Gateway tunnel project from the more than $2 billion that Florida Gov. Rick Scott rejected when he killed Florida's high speed rail project.
The high-speed rail funds became controversial in some states after the 2010 elections, and Florida’s governor recently scuttled a project that was to receive $2.4 billion.

Under Amtrak’s proposal, New Jersey would have to contribute up to $150 million and Amtrak $570 million toward replacing the Portal Bridge, which connects Kearny and Secaucus and has been in use since 1910.

The movable bridge, which swings open to allow ships to pass, would be replaced with a high-level fixed bridge, removing a bottleneck often blamed for delays on Amtrak and NJ Transit.

Governor Christie approved the state’s commitment in an April 1 letter to DOT Secretary Raymond LaHood.

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

Christie, a Republican, had dismissed arguments about job creation benefits last year when he halted construction on a new $8.7 billion NJ Transit tunnel project that his predecessor, Democrat Jon Corzine had begun in 2009.

That project, known as Access to the Region’s Core, had a $2.9 billion federal funding commitment, which New Jersey gave up. The state has also been ordered by LaHood’s department to repay $271 million the federal government had already spent on the project, but New Jersey has hired a Washington law firm to contest the charge.

Amtrak’s application to DOT also seeks $188 million for preliminary engineering and environmental analysis on two new high-speed tunnels, and $50 million for similar work on a new Penn Station South with additional tracks and platforms. This preliminary work is slated to be finished in June 2015.
The Record's report ignores that Christie's central argument to killing the ARC project was that the state would have been on the hook for all cost overruns relating to the ARC project, and that would have been at least $1 billion. Taxpayers could have been exposed to up to $5 billion in overruns, and attempts to get New York or the federal government to cover those overruns came to naught. The fact that the federal government refused to cover the overruns showed just how flawed the financing of the project was, especially since it was an interstate project that would benefit Amtrak, New Jersey and New York and improve reliability on the nation's only "high speed" rail corridor - the NEC - by increasing the slots available to Amtrak and NJ Transit.

The Gateway project would not increase NJ Transit slots nearly as much as the ARC project would, but that too isn't nearly as bad as it appears considering that NJ Transit simply lacks the operational funds to run more trains as it claims from Northern New Jersey into Manhattan. It can barely afford to operate the number of trains it has at present.

The Portal Bridge replacement should go ahead regardless of what happens elsewhere with the high speed rail money, precisely because it has been in the works for years, and now that the financing is available, it should be carried out immediately to reduce the chances of further overruns and cost increases.

No comments: