Friday, July 06, 2012

The Star Ledger Doesn't Get It On ARC/Gateway Tunnel

The Star Ledger's editorial page doesn't get it when it comes to talking about the ARC tunnel and its successor, the Gateway Project.

It laments the billions that Gov. Chris Christie supposedly left on the table by killing the project because overruns would have been a multibillion dollar hit on New Jersey taxpayers.
Plans for a new rail tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan took a nasty PR hit in 2010, when Gov. Chris Christie pulled the plug on the ARC tunnel, citing billions in potential cost overruns to the state.

That concern was reasonable, if overblown. But he left billions of federal dollars on the table that we might not get back. And his real motive, it seems, was to grab the money set aside by Gov. Jon Corzine, so that he wouldn’t have to raise the gas tax.

The ARC tunnel would have doubled rail capacity — helping commuters get to high-paying Manhattan jobs and increasing property values in New Jersey. It was set for completion in 2018. But Christie didn’t have a Plan B. A tunnel is still needed, and he isn’t committed to the Gateway plan.

Even that 2025 date will cause hardship. NJ Transit says tweaks — adding double-decker buses, encouraging commuters to use ferries and PATH trains — could wring another decade out of the existing transit system. That gets us to 2022.
After that? Doomsday.
Let's just ignore the fact that Gov. Corzine fast-tracked the ARC project to get it underway before he left office, ignoring the fact that NJ Transit has never been able to contain costs on its infrastructure projects.

The federal government understood this as they estimated the overruns to be anywhere from $1 to $5 billion, and the feds further refused to cover any cost overruns on this interstate project. Had the federal government wanted to keep the project going, it would have ponied up a deal to cover cost overruns. It knew, or had reason to know, that the overruns would be more than what NJ Transit was willing to admit, and there was no way that they would do so. Instead, they let Christie kill the project and touch off the ensuing political finger pointing.

Amtrak is better suited to be the lead agency on the Gateway tunnel project because it assures that the rail connections under Manhattan lead to a high speed rail setup, and not just a tunnel ending without any place to store trains when they are done with the run into Manhattan. The ARC project was ill-conceived and the Gateway tunnel is a far more practical approach to getting new capacity.

That doesn't mean that there aren't capacity issues with the existing infrastructure - there most certainly are.

However, NJ Transit has cut its capacity all while raising fares because it lacks the operating funds to run as many trains and there's no timetable on when those cuts would ever be restored (something that they admitted during a recent customer survey blitz in Hoboken). That means that the supposed 1-seat ride into Manhattan wouldn't happen, or it would mean reduced service to Hoboken - far from an ideal situation.

It's also interesting that New York, which stands to benefit greatly from whatever tunnel project is built, hasn't put up funding to cover its end of the deal. That's another reason why Christie killed the ARC project. ARC's funding structure was disproportionately hitting New Jersey residents, while New York gained benefits without contributing its fair share.

The Gateway project is truly an interstate venture, as it produces a major upgrade to the NEC - an interstate corridor and the only real high speed rail option for the country (the Acela service isn't anywhere near European or Japanese standards, but it's the closest thing that the US has in service). Upgrading the stretch in New Jersey through Queens, New York would shave significant time on a Washington DC to Boston run.

It's a project that has to get done, but the Star Ledger also oversells the benefits to New Jersey. Values cannot be expected to rise without additional service by NJ Transit. If the agency can't increase its operating budget to provide more service, it doesn't matter what kind of capacity is available.

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