The $30 billion rail tunnel project may be a victim of President Trump’s feud with Democrats. But New York and New Jersey could still save it.
Holding up the spending bill in Congress this week: a fight over a tunnel beneath the Hudson River.
President Donald Trump has said that he will veto the omnibus spending bill that lawmakers in Congress are now finalizing if it includes funding for the Gateway project, a massive replacement rail tunnel system connecting connecting Manhattan with New Jersey. According to Bloomberg, the compromise bill sets aside up to $541 million in a year’s worth of appropriations for rail tunnel and bridge projects, less than two-thirds of the $900 million Gateway backers were seeking this year. The president’s objection can be chalked up to his feud with Congressional Democrats in general and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer in particular, for whom the project is an enormous priority. There’s a reason why Gateway gets billed as “the most urgent infrastructure project in America.”
“The Gateway Tunnel is vital to our New York economy, [and] is vital to the whole Northeast,’’ Schumer said in July. “The tunnels that now go under the Hudson are old … and Sandy was the final blow. If they collapse, if they are not used, if they fail, we will go into a recession immediately. No one will get across the Hudson.’’
As it stands, the millions of passengers who cross the existing North River tunnels face frequent delays due to mechanical failures in the infrastructure, which were worsened by Hurricane Sandy’s flooding. On both sides of the river, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have insisted that without a major overhaul, one of the deteriorating tunnels could face long-term closure, which would “essentially shut down the Northeast Corridor.”
That overhaul—the core of which would be adding an tunnel for redundancy and capacity—would be extraordinarily costly, with the total cost now pegged at nearly $30 billion. It would also have extraordinary local impacts. Gateway is the kind of project a national infrastructure investment program should indeed fund.
But Gateway’s struggle for federal dollars may not necessarily be the existential threat to the regional and national economy that leaders claim. At $30 billion, the tunneling costs of this project are inexplicably high, even by the standards of recent astronomical subway expansion projects by the MTA. Gateway’s bare tunnel without stations shouldn’t be so expensive.
There might be a better way to create the benefits Gateway promises, with or without money from Trump.
Why is Gateway so important?
At the center of the $30 billion Gateway project is a $12.7 billion Manhattan-New Jersey rail tunnel. This is indeed a critical connection: While there are many tunnels connecting Manhattan with Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island, there are only two two-track subway tunnels between Manhattan and New Jersey, and one two-track tunnel for commuter rail and Amtrak, called the North River Tunnels. The North River Tunnels are at capacity: At rush hour there are 24 to 25 trains entering Manhattan, the maximum number that can be accommodated on a mixed commuter and intercity rail tunnel.
According to Gateway’s backers, the North River Tunnels are facing imminent collapse. The Gateway website claims that such closure would reduce capacity by 75 percent, allowing just six trains per hour in each direction if new Gateway tunnel were not complete.
What is Gateway’s political situation?
The projected cost of Gateway has been climbing for years, but the project has remained a top priority for both New York and New Jersey, earning the support of Schumer, both governors, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.
During the Obama administration, the states reached an agreement with the federal government in which the federal government would put up half the budget and the two states would together put up half. Because of the program’s high cost, the states only put up $5.55 billion in matching funds, enough for $11.1 billion for the rail tunnel with matching funds (the $12.7 billion figure includes rehabilitation of the North River Tunnels, which suffered extensive damage in Superstorm Sandy).
Early on in the Trump administration, it seemed that Gateway would be a point of cooperation between Congressional Democrats, especially Schumer, and the president. However, relations cooled through 2017, and by the end of the year, the administration was trying to kill the project. Trump’s final decision to cancel the federal matching funds was announced at the beginning of this month, leaving the project’s future uncertain. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao admitted that the decision to cancel the project came from the president himself, apparently because of his clashes with Schumer.
The loss of federal funding does not mean that the project is doomed, though. Potentially, the states could find more money themselves, or wait for a different presidential administration. But if the president vetoes the omnibus spending bill, a delay is all but certain.
Can Gateway’s costs be justified?
Although the current situation might make it seem that way, the politics of the Gateway program is not strictly partisan. The current administrations in New York and New Jersey are Democratic, but GOP Governor Christie was also a supporter of Gateway and helped find state funding for it. The centrist think tank Common Good claims a 3.5-year delay to the project would cost $10 billion.
But that there is consensus in favor of Gateway does not mean the project is so good that only a partisan administration would cancel it. There are big question marks concerning the costs and benefits of the tunnel.
One benefit of the tunnel is straightforward: It would create capacity for far more commuter travel between New Jersey and New York. New Jersey Transit’s commuter trains are standing-room only dozens of miles outside Manhattan, and the state would like to double its rail capacity into Midtown Manhattan. For a rough order of magnitude estimate, the state has 93,000 rail passengers traveling to New York in each direction every weekday, most of them at rush hour. Doubling capacity could come close to doubling ridership—perhaps 170,000 passengers per day, a hefty number justifying a few billion dollars of investment.
But it’s harder to justify a $30 billion project with such numbers. At $150,000 per weekday trip, that would be three or four times as costly as many recent American light rail projects, and more than ten times as costly as most French urban rail extensions. Amtrak could carry some extra ridership if it could run more trains, but Amtrak doesn’t urgently need the tunnels, as it runs eight-car trains serving stations most of which are long enough for 12 to 16 cars, so could create more capacity just by running longer trains.
Furthermore, the assertions by Gateway’s backers that closure is imminent or that capacity would fall by a factor of four do not seem supportable. A study from 2014 recommending long-term closure of the North River Tunnels one track at a time once Gateway is complete notably refrains from saying that such closure is necessary. Right now, track workers are repairing the Sandy damage by shutting down one track at a time on nights and weekends, when there is no need for as much capacity.
Moreover, scheduling trains at peak times on a single track is difficult, but not so difficult that there is only enough capacity for six trains per hour. A bidirectional schedule allowing 10 trains per hour in each direction appears possible given the tunnel’s short length, with only about four minutes of travel time between the portal and the station throat.
Long Island-based rail activist Patrick O'Hara suggests that it would be possible to provide for 18 peak trains per hour into Manhattan in the morning and four reverse-peak trains. Moreover, New Jersey Transit’s commuter trains have good connections to the subway system connecting Newark, Jersey City, and Manhattan, so passengers could transfer. Long-term shutdowns, if they are even necessary, would be painful—but not as catastrophic as Gateway’s pushers would have us believe.
Can we do Gateway cheaper?
The main benefit of Gateway is clear: It would permit a doubling of peak rail capacity into Manhattan. There is no other way to move so many people from the North Jersey suburbs into the city; the roads are gridlocked, and the buses, which have a dedicated tunnel lane into Manhattan, have capacity problems of their own. This benefit justifies a budget in the single-digit billions of dollars, based on national and international costs for urban rail.
Is it possible to reduce the cost to this level? Probably yes.
Most of the budget of Gateway beyond the $12.7 billion required for the tunnel itself is unnecessary. Penn Station South, the project to enlarge Penn Station by razing a full Manhattan block, has little value—it’s useful mainly because it makes it easier to remodel and redevelop the rest of Penn Station.
Instead of Penn South, there are two alternatives. The first is to terminate trains at the existing Penn Station. Based on rail capacity at stub-end terminals in Paris, the existing layout at Penn Station would permit new tunnels to carry about 18 trains per hour in each direction or a few more. This is not the advertised 24 trains per hour, but is close, and much cheaper. The second is to spend a few billion dollars on adding new tracks going east. In the 2003 studies for ARC, a never-built predecessor to Gateway, one alternative called for a connection between Penn Station and Manhattan’s other main train station, Grand Central. Spending billions there would have more benefit than spending billions on Penn South, since it would provide better connections between suburbs in New Jersey, Manhattan, and suburbs north of New York, which are connected by rail to Grand Central.
But even the cost figure for the bare tunnel—$11.1 billion including minor reconfiguration of the Penn Station throat—is suspect. A three-mile tunnel without station platforms has no reason to cost so much. East Side Access, another New York commuter rail project that is setting world records for its high construction costs, also has a tunnel component: It’s costing only about $350 million per mile for excavation. Second Avenue Subway, another record-setter, cost $240 million per mile for excavation; it’s the station excavation that blew up its budget.
If Gateway cost as much as Second Avenue Subway, the entire project, including systems and overhead, would cost $1.7 billion; if it cost as much as Parisian subway tunnels, it would cost $700 million. Moreover, tunneling underwater seems only somewhat more expensive than underground, enough to raise the budget to $2.5 billion at New York costs or $1 billion at Parisian costs.
It is hard to explain why the cost is so unusually high, but this may have to do with poor project management on the part of Amtrak and the region. In Boston, hiring an experienced project manager led to sharp reductions in the construction costs of a light rail line, the Green Line Extension.
What would the region look like if tunneling were cheaper?
New York and New Jersey have committed $5.5 billion for Gateway. Right now, the budget for the bare tunnel is $11.1 billion, so it is not enough. But were the budget reduced to a more reasonable $2.5 billion, they would be able to complete the tunnel as well as related above-ground improvements, and still have money left over.
If it could reduce construction costs in general, New York would be able to invest far more in its infrastructure. New York is a large, dense city, with a busy rail network and multiple overcrowded subway lines. The Second Avenue Subway, only two miles long, generated 176,000 daily riders within months of opening.
Were it possible to build subways in New York at Parisian costs, a few billion dollars would complete Second Avenue Subway from Harlem to Lower Manhattan and add new subway lines into transit deserts in Brooklyn and Queens. In New Jersey, the budget programmed for Gateway could potentially be enough to build a third rail tunnel, connecting more commuter lines to more of Manhattan as well as to suburbs on the New York side, in Long Island and in Westchester County and Connecticut.
So what is the solution for Gateway?
The Gateway tunnel is not as crucial to the region's prosperity as the grandiose claims of some backers would have it. But it is still useful for decongesting commutes and improving public transportation in the region, and is worth a reasonable budget, if New York and New Jersey invest in better cost control. As it is, the budget is too high. The states should spend time figuring out how to remove unnecessary scope from the project and improve their project management and procurement, in order to reduce costs to more acceptable levels.
To the extent that the Trump administration’s decision is motivated by political dislike of Schumer, it’s unlikely that anything the region does will get federal money while Trump is president. Fortunately, the state money already committed to Gateway may be enough to build a useful tunnel.
And besides, Trump will not be president forever. In the future the region can expect more funding from Congress. If it can figure out how to construct transportation infrastructure more cheaply, the New York City region could build far more public transit than currently exists with those funds. One tunnel may not be a game changer, but many tunnels together would be, if the region could learn to stop breaking the bank.