Cuomo and Christie Play Chicken With Trans-Hudson Train Commuters

It’s been almost five years since New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the ARC tunnel. Things haven’t improved since.

Photo: Governor's Office/Flickr
Photo: Governor Cuomo/Flickr

The existing two-track rail tunnel, already at capacity, has continued to shoulder growing ridership comprised mostly of NJ Transit commuters. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy added a dose of corrosive salt water to the century-old tunnels. Amtrak warns that one or both of the tubes must shut down in the next couple decades, forcing trains going both directions to share a single track. Commuters got a taste of this nightmare scenario just weeks ago when high-voltage power cables in the tunnel failed, cutting service to and from Penn Station.

Moving those commuters onto buses is unlikely. Like the rail tunnel, the Port Authority Bus Terminal is both falling apart and at capacity. Replacing and expanding that facility would cost up to $11 billion — a number the Port Authority is struggling to come to terms with.

Amtrak’s plan for a new tunnel, known as Gateway, has stalled without backing from Christie or his New York counterpart, Governor Andrew Cuomo. This morning, Senator Charles Schumer of New York pushed the governors to take the first of many necessary steps to getting the project built. Schumer wants a new partnership, which he’s dubbed the Gateway Development Corporation, to build the tunnel.

The partnership, comprised of Amtrak, the Port Authority, the MTA, and the two states, would be able to access a wide range of funding sources. “Amtrak can’t access federal mass transit funding. The Port Authority and regional transit agencies can’t access federal railroad dollars the way Amtrak can,” Schumer said, reported the Observer. “We’ll only get Gateway done by adding up several pieces of financing, with an eye toward getting the maximum amount possible from the federal government.”

Neither governor has yet agreed to the partnership. Last month, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx asked the governors to meet with him about the Gateway project, but the two executives want cash from the feds, not just loans, before they’ll commit to anything.

In fact, the governors — neither of whom hesitates to spend big on highways and airports — have tried to portray the rail tunnel between their two states as somehow not their problem.

“It’s not my tunnel!” Cuomo said yesterday, reported Politico. “There’s no moral, legal or ethical reason why the state should be looked at to fund it, or the states plural, New Jersey and New York.”

Christie, for his part, has agreed to meet with Foxx, but like Cuomo, he wants a bigger commitment from the federal government. Christie’s rationale for canceling ARC, after all, was that New Jersey was stuck with what he thought was an unfair share of that project’s cost.

Christie and Cuomo are striking a tough negotiating pose in a bid to squeeze more money out of the feds. But sooner or later, something’s going to have to give.

Although the tunnel is important for getting workers to Manhattan, Cuomo is unlikely to bend first. He can easily pass the buck to New Jersey and the federal government for a tunnel used by NJ Transit and Amtrak. Christie, facing pressure from New Jersey commuters and the legacy of canceling the last attempt at a rail tunnel, could agree to put up some money while still claiming to avoid a repeat of ARC. Or the federal government could offer up more than just loans.

Whoever makes the first move, commuters are left to hope the first thing to give isn’t the existing tunnel. The clock is ticking.

  • ohnonononono

    What terrible human beings.

  • roguebagel

    There’s a total lack of leadership being displayed here. We live in a sad age of a 100% self-serving political and economic class.

  • I don’t think 9% of the cost – which is what Christie was rejecting as NJ’s part – is unreasonable. Just because Christie doesn’t want to raise gas taxes to help pay for the tunnel (and NJ’s gas tax is one of the lowest in the US), he’s lying about what a “burden” NJ would have been paying.

    Since NJ residents would be the primary recipients of less congestion, it’s only fair it should shoulder at LEAST 9% of the burden… if not more.

  • Mark Walker

    Two things strike me. (1) “The partnership, comprised of Amtrak, the Port Authority, the MTA, and
    the two states, would be able to access a wide range of funding sources.” Why the MTA? Does it run services through the existing or planned tunnels? Should the MTA borrow even more money for this and stick subway riders with the bill? (2) “Christie’s rationale for canceling ARC, after all, was that New Jersey
    was stuck with what he thought was an unfair share of that project’s
    cost.” Not “thought” — said. Christie was lying and we all know it. The GAO called b.s. on him.

  • Larry Littlefield

    This is a symptom. There are a dozen issues like this. Include DeBlasio too, the Governor of Mass, the Governor and legislative leader of Illinois.

    These are people who inherited financial, pension, infrastructure crises after their predecessors pursued popularity by pandering to the something for nothing preferences of Generation Greed.

    Now they find that things are worse than they ever imagined. And to ward off disaster, they would have to make life much worse for millions of people. Fare increases, toll increases, tax increases and service cuts. So they ride the latest stock market boom, put off decisions, and hope to get out before it all blows up, like their predecessors. Solving the problem would involve goring too many oxes.

    The federal government is no different. Which is why there is federal loans, not federal money.

    The only issue left to be decided is who gets stuck with the blame. The fact that the focus on Streetsblog is Cuomo and Christie, and not all those who came before them and benefitted from their priorities, teaches them what they need to do. Don’t try to implement painful solutions. Try to get popular and get out before disaster strikes.

    Pataki even has the nerve to run for President.

    “There’s a total lack of leadership being displayed here. We live in a sad age of a 100% self-serving political and economic class.”

    Leadership in today’s context means telling people what they don’t want to hear.

  • Bolwerk

    It was rather obvious he was lying then, before the GAO confirmed it. It’s not like he ever cited anything specific, and he never tried to alter the project to negate the stated issue (“cost overruns”).

    But while NYS shouldn’t resist this project, it really should be in the PA/Amtrak/NJT (and by extension NJ and Feds) court. Demanding NYS chip in here is a bit like demanding NJ pay for the Cross-Harbor freight line.

  • Brad Aaron

    “The fact that the focus on Streetsblog is Cuomo and Christie, and not all those who came before them and benefitted from their priorities, teaches them what they need to do.”

    You keep saying this. Please explain what we might accomplish by demanding accountability from people who are no longer in office.

  • Boris

    “Why the MTA?”

    Because of LIRR, and eventually Metro-North, in Penn Station.

    The feds should give money only on the condition that through-running and interoperable equipment will be used by the three commuter railroads in the new tunnels. We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to unify the systems and bring major cost and time savings to the region’s commuter rail system.

  • Larry Littlefield

    It’s not just the politicians. It’s those who benefitted from the deals. They are the obstacles.

    And with regard to the state legislatures, they serve forever, until they are indicted. They are worse than any of the Governors. They need to be in the focus.

  • Joe R.

    Much the same thing that is accomplished by punishing war criminals long after the fact. You send the message loud and clear that the type of self-serving, “let’s make a deal”, and let’s avoid facing our problems nonsense which has passed for leadership in NYC/NYS will no longer be tolerated. If it turns out the present generation is saddled with ongoing expenses from a sweetheart deal some politician made with the UFT or TWU 25 years ago you void that deal, put the politician in jail without possibility of parole (I would prefer execution but that would be hard in NYS), and get reparations from everyone in one on it, including the beneficiaries of these deals.

    At some point we have to say enough already. Crooked deals from the past shouldn’t be honored. And politicians should be forced under penalty of law to solve the problems they were elected to solve. If Cuomo and Christie fail to do this, they should resign and never run for public office ever again. Sure, these are hard problems to solve, but if everyone shares the pain it can be done.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    why can’t The tunnel Users Pay for this ?

  • lop

    They don’t want to pay/can’t afford an extra $10 each way?

  • Alexander Vucelic

    i argue that The TPZ Bridge Users should Pay full cost of their Bridge ( ie a $20 toll )

    so Ditto for Tunnels

  • BSPABNY

    A big part of the problem is that these projects are characterized as “the $15 Billion Gateway Tunnel” and the “$11 Billion Port Authority Bus Terminal replacement.”

    In Amtrak’s case, Joe Boardman brought this impasse on himself (and us) by shouting to the news media, repeatedly and with characteristic hyperbole, about one monolithic mega-project that we must build “or else.” And elsewhere he’s braying at the sky about $50 billion of investment needed in Northeast Corridor high speed rail. In what parallel universe is he living?

    A more savvy leader may have asked his people what the #1 priority is within the Gateway program (probably the new tunnels) and pushed that project first, and then advanced the #2 priority, and so on, until we have the new capacity and renewed infrastructure we need between Penn Station NY and Penn Station Newark. I’m not saying $4B (or whatever) for new tunnels will be easy to find, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to fund a $4B project than a $15B project.

    I believe the engineering and construction cabal created the PANYNJ’s PR mess with the new bus terminal when they announced the results of their “study” on the “solution” to the bus terminal’s current state. What the PANYNJ and our governors need to do is push back and say, by no means are we going to fund a $11B replacement terminal. (They’re kind of doing this passively by ignoring the whole mess.) Come back with a set of smaller, implementable projects that accomplish the same goal of moving people (by bus and other modes) from NJ into NYC. Tell us what the priorities are, who is responsible for each piece of the plan, etc.

    We are not in an era where leaders like Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Tip O’Neill can manipulate Congress into writing NYC a big check for these mega projects. We need to figure out how to redefine the solutions so that we can advance smaller, discrete projects that together accomplish the same goal but can actually get done. It’s fun to fantasize and think big, but we’ve been doing that for a couple of decades now with no positive results.

  • knisa

    I’d say there’s two reasons:

    1) the tunnel users aren’t the only ones who benefit from them using the tunnel instead of driving. drivers actually benefit as well, since they save time and are stuck in less congestion. the people of NYC benefit from the reduced pollution and dangerous traffic in the streets. thus motorists and the public should pay for these benefits.

    2) the costs of the tunnel are well beyond what they would be if it wasn’t subject to special interests like the contractor lobbyists and construction unions who overinflate the price. get the budget down to private sector levels, and perhaps you could let the free market set the prices for the tunnel. but as it stands, every infrastructure project in NYC is one part infrastructure improvement, two parts pork for the special interests. this seems inevitable in a place with politics as cynical and corrupt as those of NY, but it’s not fair to put the burden of enriching the contractors and unions squarely on the tunnel’s users.

  • Bolwerk

    Probably closer to $5 or $6 per user, which could likely be less per NJT user.

    I’m not sure that’s so unreasonable.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    could you reasonable calculate a benefit for The Holland, Lincoln, and GW crossings and add a surcharge ?

    The argument ‘its good for Manhattanites’ so we should pay for it – isn’t a winner for a Number of reasons 😉

  • ohnonononono

    NJ Transit rail is already the most expensive per mile in the country, and every time they hike the prices they do see a significant decline in ridership. Amtrak’s NEC service is also the most expensive passenger rail in the world when compared per mile to say, taking trains comparable distances in Europe or Asia. This all just makes the Northeast a region where despite terrible traffic, it can be more cost competitive to just drive everywhere on the free roads, especially when you can fill up with NJ’s cheap gas.

    Obviously some people can afford an extra $10 to take the train from NY to DC or an extra $5 to commute from Edison, and some people can’t. Amtrak already positions itself at the upper end of the travel market with Acela for business travelers with large budgets. Everybody else can sit in traffic on the bus and suffer.

  • Bolwerk

    Many roads are tolled in the northeast, especially when you consider trips where rail and road are competitive with each other.

    Of course, nobody discusses bringing railroads in the USA down to first world staffing levels to get costs down. Especially the debt scolds and supposedly “fiscally responsible” Christie.

  • JamesR

    Wait, an extra $5 or $6 for each one-way ticket? That’s actually incredibly unreasonable. $12 extra a day for a round trip, $60 extra a week, $240 extra per month. That’s a shit ton of extra money to ask of working families who are actually doing the right thing by taking transit to work and not clogging the road network.

    As if the middle class in this area wasn’t on the ropes to begin with.

  • lop

    A $10 eastbound toll (2015 dollars, increasing a quarter or so a year for inflation) would pay for the bridge over thirty years. Today commuters pay $3. It’s a big shock. You could get it down somewhat if you had the rest of the thruway contribute some to make up for years of being subsidized by Tappan Zee tolls. Figure that knocks it down to $8 round trip. Add in the billion or so Cuomo will send from the state and it’ll probably end up around $6. Still double the commuter price today. But most (~75%) of the bridge will end up paid for by current and past TZB drivers. What they won’t pay for is the extensive road widening on either side. That’s how Cuomo got the price down. The old price had lots of related projects thrown in. The current project, not so much (especially no new viaducts and tunnels for bus or rail spanning a 30 mile corridor). Not that some of that won’t get built in the future, just financed more opaquely. But it reduces the sticker shock enough to get the ball rolling on the project. It would be like pushing through gateway and only counting the cost of the new tunnels and rehabbing the old ones. No new portal bridges, sawtooth bridge, highline rebuild, penn south, Secaucus loop and station expansion etc…You’d get the price down to something reasonable, so if you asked tunnel users to pay 75% of it over 30 years it wouldn’t seem so ridiculous, maybe $1-2 extra each way. People would grumble, but they’d pay it just fine. If Cuomo/Christie wanted new hudson tunnels Cuomo showed you how it would happen with TZB.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    think your math is roughly correct for the tunnel surcharge

    but woefully wrong on the TPZ bridge; only 134,000 vehicles cross the TPaz each day, paying full cost for bridge over 30 years plus interest, plus maintence, plus vigorish adds up to a $20 toll R/T. of course that’s a average lumping cars & trucks, but I think the number is roughly accurate.

    Of course, one would have to model the decrease in traffic from increasing the toll to pay for the bridge. Trying to model price elasticity for a $20 toll is tough, but let’s agree that at least 15-20% of cars trips would be substituted with train.

    Finally VMT is declining, so one might suggest that even a $20 toll isn’t

  • lop

    What train?

    Traffic on the TZB is increasing.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    port jervis line

    traffic increasing on TPZ ? what was traffic in 2006/7 ? what is it now ?

  • lop

    That’s a lot of transfers and very indirect for most travellers. Very little TZB traffic goes to Manhattan.

    http://www.tzbsite.com/tzb-library/study-documents/level-2/survey-summary-index.html

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/26/nyregion/new-tappan-zee-bridge-rises-amid-unanswered-questions-over-funding.html

    Peak was 2004, then driving started to slow as the housing market bust, dropped further when tolls were hiked. It’s rising again. 2014 was down 1.3% from the peak.

    http://www.thruway.ny.gov/about/financial/monthly/2013/vtm/dec2013vtm.pdf
    http://www.thruway.ny.gov/about/financial/monthly/2014/vtm/dec2014vtm.pdf
    http://www.thruway.ny.gov/about/financial/monthly/2015/vtm/june2015vtm.pdf

    YTD 2015 has increased by more than that. Likely to be the new peak year if the economy doesn’t start to crater. I think the EZpass toll is up 25% adjusted for inflation compared to 2004 FWIW.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    I’d argue those numbers suggest flatlining for last 10 years. 10 years suggests a structural change not a cyclical.

    also suggests the new bridge is about twice the size needed.

  • Bolwerk

    Didn’t say I was a fan of doing that, but I’d sooner do it or partly do it than not get a tunnel at all. Keep in mind that such a surcharge would mean less and less over time as the loan is paid off because of inflation.

    Not sure I buy the narrative about the middle class. Might be convincing with the Subway, NJT buses, or even LIRR. But NJT fares are already obscene.

    (BTW, I assumed it was attributable to the five billion$ or so I take a tunnel to cost, not the entire Gateway project.)

  • Joe R.

    A good start might be getting these ludicrous estimates under control. Use what similar infrastructure projects cost just about everywhere else in the world as a basis for comparison. The PABT should cost less than $1 billion. Not sure about the tunnels, but I’d say $2 billion would be on the high side. Only in an alternate universe would $26 billion for both projects make any sense.

  • JoshNY

    Honest question, is our current equipment modern enough to handle staffing levels reduced in that manner?

  • Bolwerk

    I don’t see why not. They mostly are operated by one person, but have armies of conductors doing collection that could be based on POP or turnstiles. A lot of stations in the region (not sure about NJT) are staffed, but probably shouldn’t be.

    AFAIK, staffing minimums are more regulatory than technical.

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