Commuters board a New Jersey Transit train on July 24, 2015, after rail power problems led to massive delays. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Mayors of Jersey City and Hoboken discuss contingency plans for a tunnel closure coming soon to the New York metro region.

Last October, officials revealed a potential doomsday scenario for the Northeast Corridor: the century-old Hudson River train tubes connecting Manhattan with the mainland would need to be taken out of commission for lengthy maintenance at some undetermined point in time. Hundreds of thousands of riders a day would be impacted, from Amtrak travelers to New Jersey Transit commuters, as would local and regional economies. The only thing more frightful than that prospect were the images of tunnel damage suffered during Superstorm Sandy.

A year out from those warnings, Amtrak spokesperson Craig Schultz says there’s no timeline for the closure. Officials hope they can build a new tunnel, known as the Gateway project, before shutting down the old one. But even as momentum for Gateway increases—Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey finally pledged half the funding in September, and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced preliminary work last week—Schultz says the new tunnel’s completion is probably 10 years out “realistically speaking.”

“Our intent is to keep the existing tunnel open for as long as we can—up until that time,” he says. “It is urgent. There’s no question about it. We certainly hope it’ll last that long.”

An engineering report from September 2014 detailed extensive damage to Amtrak’s tunnel under the Hudson River during Superstorm Sandy. (Courtesy Amtrak)

Metro New York got a taste of what life without the tunnel would be like this summer, and unless you revel in anguish and chaos, it wasn’t a pleasant vision. Half-hour commutes turned into three-hour travel nightmares. Schultz says these types of disruptions “will continue to happen with increasing frequency” until the old tunnel can be repaired. In remarks prepared in the immediate aftermath of the gridlock, Senator Chuck Schumer dubbed the situation “transportation Armageddon”:

Because the tunnels were flooded in Sandy and are deteriorating faster than we anticipated — and purely because the tunnels are old, far too old — they are, inevitably, only a few years away from being structurally unsound. “Closed in need of repairs.”

We are fast approaching a regional transportation Armageddon: the busiest rail line in the country stranded without a way into New York.

Make no mistake: closing the tunnels would be cataclysmic for commerce. For New York. For New Jersey. For the country.

Senatorial grandiosity aside, the specter of the tunnel closure does haunt the region—especially the small cities on the Jersey side of the Hudson whose proximity to New York City jobs has been such a boon to population growth. CityLab reached out to the mayors of Jersey City and Hoboken to see how they’re preparing for this transportation Armageddon. Neither has been given a clear closure timeline by federal officials; both expressed concern at how the change could stifle local progress.

“Absent of a solution, I think Jersey City’s growth would suffer,” says Mayor Steven Fulop. “If you look at the lifespan left of these tunnels and the eventual need to have some sort of shutdown to build a new one or make improvements, it’s a challenge we talk about with our planning department, and one we’re very concerned about.”

“Obviously the Amtrak tunnels will have a cascading impact on places like Hoboken,” says Mayor Dawn Zimmer. “We’re facing a real transportation challenge in our region, and we need to be focused on making sure that in order to support our economy we’re supporting the ability of people to get back and forth to their jobs.”

Amtrak’s Gateway project (above, in purple) would build a new tunnel under the Hudson River connecting New York and New Jersey. (Courtesy Amtrak)

Contingency plans and expanded options

Fulop says that during this summer’s tunnel problems, commuters switched from New Jersey Transit to the PATH trains in Jersey City, which quickly became packed. “It was eye-opening for us,” he says. “There’s no way we can handle that.” The city has inquired about increased PATH frequency as well as a new station—even offering to help pay for preliminary studies—but Fulop says the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the system, hasn’t offered much assistance or inspired much confidence.

“By the time they decide what they’re doing and figure out a plan it’s going to take 10 or 15 years,” he says.

In the absence of expanded PATH service, Jersey City has also considered increased ferry service as a contingency plan. But the problem there, says Fulop, is that many people need to drive to reach the ferry stations, which leads to more local traffic on the roadways. He also believes that commuters facing a potential multi-seat ride into the city, instead of a straight shot by train, will rethink their entire decision to live in Jersey City or any of the surrounding areas.

“This would have a really, really negative impact to us,” he says. “All the growth we’ve seen, I don’t think we have the capacity to carry the added ridership if you see a prolonged shift.”

Mayor Zimmer of Hoboken seconds the PATH overload that occurred during the closure this summer: “It was packed to a point of being a huge public safety concern,” she says. During Sandy, the city also relied on shifting riders to New Jersey Transit buses, she says. But they’ve since been told that there’s no capacity left at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York, meaning there wouldn’t be room for extra bus lines in the event of an extended tunnel closure.

Zimmer says the main lesson Hoboken learned from Sandy and this year’s closure is the need “to increase connectivity throughout the region so people have different options to get to work.” To that end, the city will soon launch a bike-share system that allows users to dock their bikes in neighboring jurisdictions, including Jersey City. That way commuters can access another ferry or transit service during a shutdown that brings severe crowding to Hoboken buses and trains.

“What we learned through this whole process was that it’s really important to have a resilient transportation network where there’s a lot of different options,” she says, “and that you’re really doing the communications to let people know what those options are.”

Port Authority did not respond to multiple requests to comment on its contingency plan for a Hudson tunnel closure. Both Fulop and Zimmer wondered if the bi-state agency is as concerned with transportation planning in New Jersey as it is with projects in New York. Case in point: rail extensions to regional airports that would primarily benefit New York City residents have received loads of attention in recent months, even with the Hudson tunnel problems looming.

New Jersey Transit, meanwhile, has said publicly that it expects perhaps a third of all commuters to work remotely, with the rest diverted to ferry service or a bus program that’s been described as “robust” but remains limited by bus terminal capacity. Some train service is expected to be diverted to PATH trains in Hoboken. But given the crowding described by Jersey City and Hoboken officials, that plan suggests regional coordination on long-term solutions is lacking.

Where everyone agrees is that Gateway can’t progress quickly enough. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure [the existing tunnel] lasts as long as possible,” says Amtrak’s Schultz. “The reality of the situation is that the clock is ticking.”

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