Enviro Review of Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel Set to Wrap By Winter

A Congressional road show on freight came to New York late last week, with Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye joining air, trucking, and rail industry representatives Friday afternoon to testify before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s freight panel. The hearing covered a range of issues, including a status report on the long-discussed Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, champion of the Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel, is leading a House panel on freight. Photo: ##http://nadler.house.gov/about-me##Rep. Jerrold Nadler##

The Cross-Harbor project, a longtime cause of New York Representative Jerrold Nadler — who led the hearing along with Representative John Duncan, a Republican from eastern Tennessee — would create a new rail tunnel between New Jersey and Brooklyn to carry freight to Long Island and potentially north through Westchester County. The tunnel would cut down on the New York region’s heavy reliance on trucking, but also increase freight demand on some corridors that see significant passenger service. A 2004 estimate from the New York City Economic Development Corporation projected it would cost between $4.8 billion and $7.4 billion, depending on whether the tunnel consists of one tube or two.

Foye said the draft environmental impact statement for the project is currently being reviewed by the Port Authority and the Federal Highway Administration, and should be released in the late fall or winter. Foye did offer a tiny glimpse of the report’s findings, saying that the tunnel is projected to carry up to 55,000 containers each year within 20 years. By comparison, the existing freight barge covering the tunnel’s route carried 1,600 rail cars last year. Before he left the Port Authority, Foye’s predecessor, Chris Ward, said the project would address the urgent need to reduce truck traffic on city streets.

The hearing’s testiest exchange came between Foye and Representative Michael Grimm, a Republican representing Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, and it wasn’t about the freight tunnel. Grimm repeatedly asked whether toll revenue funded Port Authority debt payments on the World Trade Center and other non-transportation projects, before Nadler stepped in. “You’re talking past each other,” he said. “I think what Mr. Foye is saying is that revenue from these tolls do go to service debt, but only for the transportation facilities, and not other things, like the World Trade Center.”

“Yes, sir,” Foye replied.

The cost of trucking was also a big issue for Republicans at the hearing, with Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) expressing disbelief at the cost of truck tolls in the New York area. Gerry Coyle of American Trucking Associations applauded Grimm’s effort to force the MTA to drop tolls on the Verranazo-Narrows Bridge through legislation.

Coyle also spoke against congestion pricing, saying that it “will not necessarily work or be effective for commercial traffic.” Although some ports have plans to encourage off-peak truck trips, Coyle said, hours-of-service regulations from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration often put trucks on the road during rush hours. “It’s really counter-productive,” he told the panel, apparently disregarding all the time commercial drivers would save if fewer rush-hour car commuters were on the road.

Foye said that the Port Authority is working with transportation departments in New Jersey, New York state, and New York City on a comprehensive regional freight plan. He also said that infrastructure replacement projects should receive speedier environmental review, citing the Bayonne Bridge and the Tappan Zee Bridge — which will build a new, wider span without additional transit investment — as examples of the Obama administration expediting the environmental review process. “The case is clearer with a project like the Bayonne,” Foye said. “We’re not building a bridge or knocking a bridge down.”

As Streetsblog reported earlier today, an amendment to the Senate appropriations bill from Louisiana Republican David Vitter would entirely exempt projects like the Tappan Zee Bridge widening from the environmental review process.

While the House is holding freight hearings, US DOT is working toward its own national freight plan with its Freight Advisory Committee, and top officials there have expressed a desire to prioritize some modes over others. “We want to keep goods movement on water as long as possible, and then on rail as long as possible and truck it for the last miles,” Deputy Secretary John Porcari said in 2010.

On Friday, Streetsblog asked Duncan if he agreed with Porcari’s modal hierarchy. “Yes,” he said. “It’s the goal of I think almost everyone in transportation to emphasize rail and water transportation a little bit more than it’s been emphasized in the past, and I think we can do that,” he said. “Everyone on this panel is very focused on trying to balance out our transportation a little bit more than it is at this time.”

“We’re getting close to the time that we’re going to put out our report and our recommendations,” Duncan said, adding that recommendations could be enacted in future transportation bills or separate pieces of legislation. Duncan noted that the freight panel is modeled on a House Armed Services Committee panel on reforming acquisition in the Department of Defense. “Several of their recommendations were actually passed into law,” he said.

  • Bolwerk

    Force the tolls to drop through legislation? I don’t agree with high tolls for trucks per se (though I’m strongly for them for cars), but it’s always flabbergasting how much Republikans actually hate the idea of local decision-making.

  • Anonymous

    Without any other options its hard to justify the high tolls for trucks. With a Cross-Harbor Freight tunnel on the other hand you want to discourage long-haul and encourage short-haul trucking, so high tolls would be called for (especially given the fourth power relationship between weight and road wear).

  • Larry Littlefield

    On this issue, I have pointed out that if they are serious the route should be from New Jersey across the Hudson and Harlem deep underground, and into the Harlem River Yard. From there, a connection could be made over the Hell Gate Bridge for TOFC.

    Did the Fresh Direct deal just permanently take that yard out of action?

  • SteveF

    Rather than via Bay Ridge, have they considered starting a pair of Tunnel Boring Machines in the Meadowlands, running them under Penn Station and coming up in Sunnyside yard? Each TBM tunnel would be high enough for double stack freight cars, as well as bi-level passenger trains. Beneath Penn Station, bore out new platforms on a new level, above the through TBM, and below the existing Penn Station tracks. Similar to the LIRR East Side under GCT. There would be track ramp connections up from TBM to the new platforms, and if possible, fit one or more track ramps up to the old Penn Sta tracks. Or if practical, just build ramps up and down to the old upper level tracks. Being deep, it is likely this line can be connected to the GCT LIRR lowest level tracks with minimal conflicts.

    Benefits:

    Provides Penn with two new tracks to NJ and backup to the 100 year old Hudson River tubes, which are overdue for a life-safety overhaul.

    Provides more East River tracks thru to LIC/Sunnyside for Amtrak, NJT layover trains and future run through NJT/Metro North service.

    Provides additional platforms at Penn Station – if lower level is built

    Provides two freight tracks capable of moving double stack cars from NJ to LI and connecting directly to the Hell Gate Line to New England.

    The freight tracks would be available during off peak hours – probably not in the AM or PM rush.

    Keeping the thru TBM tracks below the Penn Station platforms keeps freight trains out of the way of the platforms and means the passenger tracks don’t need extra high clearance. Freight tunnel stays deep under Manhattan – no steep grades up and down for the freight trains.

    Downside:
    Bringing passenger trains into the tunnel “might” require additional life-safety equipment and ventilation above freight only. If so, this could increase the cost of the Midtown tunnel route.
    Sunnyside yard and interlockings may not have room to manage through freight trains. This applies to both trains destined to NYC and LI and those going directly to Hell Gate.

    Is the TBM tunnel mileage all that much longer through the center of Manhattan than a line under NY Harbor between NJ and Bay Ridge? If not, the basic tunneling would have similar costs. Bore the tunnels now for freight, expand into Penn Station platforms later.

    Why dig 3 or 4 tunnels when 2 will do the job?

  • Arnold Reinhold

    Do the math. Say the proposed tunnel costs $5.5 billion (near the low end of the 2004 estimate). Then each 1% of interest on that debt will be $55 million per year. At 55000 containers per year (a level they HOPE to reach in 20 years), that is $1000 per container per point of interest. At 2.5% interest, the current 10-year US treasury bond rate, that’s $2500 per each container! And that does not include the cost of running and maintaining the tunnel and connecting lines, nor the cost of unloading facilities on Long Island.

    Also note that, as the rail industry often points out, a standard rail car (not a container) can carry as much cargo as 4 highway trucks. So those 1600 rail cars per year now going by barge are equivalent to perhaps 6400 trucks. And the Port Authority is on record saying it hopes to expand the barge service to 20,000 rail cars per year, the equivalent of up to 80,000 trucks per year, presumably for a lot less than 5 billion dollars.

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