The Sorry State of the New York-New Jersey Public Transit Connection

The two states desperately need a new link — but with every new plan comes a new problem.

A few days ago, New York City released a report showing the feasibility of a plan to extend the subway system across the Hudson River and into New Jersey [PDF]. The proposal — which would connect a new 7 train station in Manhattan with a rail terminal in Secaucus — would carry 128,000 riders a day. Mayor Bloomberg called the plan a "promising potential solution" to a "serious and urgent" problem.

No sooner did that call go out than the MTA, the city's subway authority, put a serious damper on this solution's potential, saying the project was not "an economically viable idea."

So it's been with New York-New Jersey transit plans in recent years. The importance of such a project to the New York metro area is painfully clear. Though the transit corridor is operating near capacity, estimates suggest travel demand between the two states will increase 38 percent by 2030. Meanwhile the two single-track tunnels currently running under the Hudson into Penn Station are a hundred years old.

Despite this need, every great new trans-Hudson plan that emerges is met by some greater obstacle. First there was Access to the Region's Core, or ARC, which would have helped New Jersey Transit carry 254,000 daily trips to and from an expanded Penn Station by 2030. The plan broke ground in 2009, and for a while became the country's biggest infrastructure project, but it was halted by Gov. Chris Christie in 2010 as costs ballooned from the original $7.4 billion price tag. (A federal report [PDF] later found that Christie exaggerated the burden for New Jersey taxpayers.)

Then there was the "Gateway Project," a tunnel plan proposed by Amtrak that would increase trans-Hudson capacity from 62 trains an hour to 92 trains (including 13 more New Jersey Transit trains) [PDF]. The project has enormous potential to improve metro area commuting, not to mention regional intercity travel, and it's still very much alive, with officials announcing earlier this year that a placeholder "box tunnel" will be built in anticipation of the Gateway. Still the unfunded project is expected to cost some $14 billion, and it relies on the completion of long-awaited Moynihan Station — an expansion of Penn Station, itself largely unfunded.

Then there's the 7 train extension. This plan was actually announced before the Gateway project, back in late 2010, but the preliminary feasibility report (the one released this week) took far longer than expected for the city to deliver. The report shows the great promise of this plan, too. Unlike the ARC or Gateway plans, the 7 extension gives New Jersey commuters one-seat access to all of midtown Manhattan. Travelers can expect an 8-minute trip from Secaucus into Hudson Yards on the west side, a 12-minute trip into Times Square, and a 16-minute trip to Grand Central on the east side. And of course the 7 train continues across the East River into Queens.

As importantly, the 7 train extension would divert some 18,000 trips from Penn Station, and 41,000 trips from Lincoln Tunnel buses, and 24,400 car trips from roads into the city. The plan would require improvements to already crowded passenger facilities at Times Square, Bryant Park, and Grand Central, but it would enhance the strides being made in the Hudson Yards area with a completely new station at 10th Avenue and 41st Street. The new feasibility report oddly fails to give even a broad cost estimate, but the project leverage several billions in investments already committed to a new 7 train station at 11th Avenue and 34th Street and the Frank J. Lautenberg Station in Secaucus.

The MTA's latest disavowal of the plan isn't its first. In 2010, then-chairman Jay Walder said the authority didn't have funds for the project. Last year, then-chairman Joe Lhota amplified that statement quite a bit, saying it wouldn't happen "in anybody's lifetime."

Of course, the MTA's position isn't necessarily the final one. Officials could cobble together some combination of federal grants (ARC was set to receive $3 billion in New Starts funding) and state and local commitments. Secaucus, in particular, seems poised to benefit from the idea, and while New York City is already on the hook for $2.1 billion for a current 7 train project, some sort of value capture at the improved Hudson Yards, or a tax on the new district, could theoretically be arranged.

With Mayor Bloomberg on his way out, however, the big question is who will carry the project torch. Gov. Christie's office says he's "intrigued" by the plan, but he's unlikely to transform into a great transit champion overnight. At some point the population pressure will become too great and some new trans-Hudson plan will get pushed to the fore, but its destiny may resemble that of the 2nd Avenue Subway: far too long delayed, and far too expensive as a result.

Images courtesy of the G.A.O., Amtrak, and New York City, from top to bottom.

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