A major rail advisory commission presents a sobering new wish list for the Northeast Corridor over the next five years.
There's a new report out from the Northeast Corridor advisory commission, established by Congress to help improve the most critical stretch of rail in the United States, and it isn't pretty. The commission—made up of officials from states, the U.S. DOT, Amtrak, and commuter rail agencies—has outlined a "first-of-its-kind" coordinated 5-year plan for major projects between Washington and Boston via New York. It's effectively a construction wish list for 2016-2020:
The NEC Five-Year Capital Plan integrates all categories of capital investment from all owners of and operators on NEC infrastructure, from the routine swapping of old rail ties for new, to the replacement of generations-old major bridges and tunnels. The Plan is a consolidated statement of proposed action over the next five years if adequate funding were available.
That bit about "adequate funding" is the sticking point. Over the plan's five-year period, the amount of money available to realize these infrastructure projects declines, even as the total needs grow:
There's a slight funding gap on basic infrastructure, but the big chasm occurs on preservation and improvement projects, the type that will not just maintain good service but enhance it. These include replacing century-old bridges and tunnels and alleviating congestion at certain segments that have reached capacity. The related chart is grim:
The complete list of much-needed Northeast Corridor projects is worth a review for rail policy buffs. For everyone else, we've identified the eight most important ones here, limited to those that the commissioned labeled as closely related to Amtrak, shovel-ready, and (at least partly) in need of funding. Watch the gap.
Washington, D.C.'s Union Station Expansion
Additional Funding Needed: $424 million
If you travel through Washington, D.C.'s Union Station often, you'll no doubt have noted that while the retail areas have improved over the years, the passenger areas have not—lines of travelers ready to board routinely spill out of the gate and block the main concourse. There's a master plan in the works that would triple passenger capacity at the hub over the next 20 years. Though the effort already has nearly $200 million in hand, it needs more than twice that to get going.
Baltimore & Potomac Tunnels
Additional Funding Needed: $310 million
The Northeast Corridor commission calls the Baltimore and Potomac tunnels—which date back to the Civil War—a "primary chokepoint." Train volume is limited as four tracks narrow down to two, and speed decreases, too, down to 30 mph. There's a little bit of money on hand, and plans for preliminary engineering and environmental reports before 2020, but Amtrak and the Maryland DOT need another $310 million to complete the design and start the reconstruction.
Susquehanna River Bridge Replacement
Additional Funding Needed: $405 million
The Susquehanna River Bridge, a movable span in Maryland, is identified by the Northeast Corridor commission as a terrible bottleneck "badly in need of replacement." For nearly a mile, four tracks go down to two, restricting speeds and volume. A "modern high-level, fixed structure" is being planned, with preliminary engineering and environmental work in progress; if the additional funding were secured, construction could start within the 2016-2020 timeline.
Portal Bridge North
Additional Funding Needed: $1.02 billion
Yes—that is billion with a "b." But reconstructing the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River in northeastern New Jersey is worth it. The century-plus-old span, finished in 1910, creates "one of the most persistent reliability challenges" on the entire Northeast Corridor, according the commission. That train speeds must drop to 60 mph from 90 mph in this section isn't the worst of it; the bridge has to open for water traffic about 100 times a year, with the resulting delays averaging 15 minutes. And when there's a malfunction—as occurred 15 times in 2014—the delay hits 72 minutes a pop.
The good news is designs are in hand. The bad news is the money to realize them is not.
The Gateway Program
Additional Funding Needed: $610 million
Perhaps the most high-profile project on the Northeast Corridor wish list is the Gateway Program to build two new train tunnels under the Hudson River (and rebuild the existing ones). All told, Gateway would "nearly double rail capacity," according to the commission, and also address some of the terrible infrastructure damage suffered during Superstorm Sandy. But the price tag is great, and the urgency is even greater: Amtrak officials have said repairs will require them to shut down tunnel tracks for a year—a procedure that will cause major delays for intercity travel in the absence of new capacity.
Additional Funding Needed: $51 million
The Moynihan Station project would create a new passenger annex for Amtrak travelers going through jam-packed Penn Station. That's a far less critical need than new track capacity, but it would certainly be a welcome one for America's most heavily used transit hub. The Northeast Corridor commission says $51 million is needed to complete phase two of the development—a seemingly attainable figure that's well below the $200 million reportedly needed as of last September.
Pelham Bay Bridge Replacement
Additional Funding Needed: $165 million
The Pelham Bay Bridge, which dates back to 1907, creates a bottleneck for intercity travel heading north from New York. Speed must drop to 45 mph to cross the span. Worse still, the bridge "occasionally fails to properly close" after opening for marine traffic, according to the Northeast Corridor commission. Amtrak would like to replace the bridge with a new one that adds additional boat clearance—removing the need to open so frequently—but it has precisely $0 in hand for a project that will require $165 million to advance into environmental review and final design.
Connecticut River Bridge Replacement
Additional Funding Needed: $661 million
The Connecticut River Bridge is another piece of infrastructure between New York and Boston that dates back to 1907. "Many key elements of the bridge have reached the end of their design life and require extensive maintenance to remain in operable condition," according to the commission. The targeted $661 million would help Amtrak complete design, preliminary engineering, and initial construction of a new span that would not only improve reliability but also cut travel times.