STATE – Over the weekend, New Jersey Transit announced that new work on a planned rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York would be suspended for 30 days. The delay would not affect already on-going work, but it is intended to allow officials to re-examine the project’s budget.
There are concerns that the nine-mile, $8.7 billion commuter rail link project could go over budget by as much as a billion dollars.
Some hope that the delay will provide time to re-envision the project and combine it with rail expansion efforts by other transportation agencies.
“This time out is important for the transportation needs of the region because we can come up with a comprehensive transportation plan that works and that will save the taxpayers of New Jersey money,” New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel said.
Originally, the ARC project was designed to serve several purposes. First, the plan was to create another tunnel into New York. There were other important goals, including providing New Jersey commuters access to the Grand Central Station and the East Side of Manhattan, creating a backup tunnel for Amtrak that would service Penn Station or the new Moynihan Station, and enabling trains to travel from one area of the metropolitan region to another.
“Currently, the different groups in charge of mass transit are acting like spoiled children each with their own set of choo choos,” Tittel said. “There’s NJ Transit, Amtrak, the Port Authority, New York City subways, Long Island Railroad, and Metro North. Reevaluating the tunnel could bring all the groups together so we can really develop a coordinated transportation system for the region.”
The Sierra Club has opposed the project in its current form because they believe it is poorly designed and does not meet the goal of making public transportation more accessible and functional.
“Unfortunately, this tunnel only meets the first of those goals and not the other four,” Tittel said. “Instead of connecting to Penn Station or the new Moynihan Station, the tunnel dead ends 180 feet below the ground, two blocks from Penn Station. The project is now the tunnel to Macy’s basement.”
The Sierra Club believes this configuration will undermine good transportation planning for the region. Because it the tunnel is proposed to be so far under ground, it may deter people from using it and could be a risk in the event of an emergency.
As proposed, to get to ground level, passengers will have to travel the equivalent of 20 stories via a series of escalators that will be longer than two football fields. “This labyrinth of tunnels will be more reminiscent of a corn maze than a train station,” Tittel said.
Besides the long travel time involved in getting to ground levels and the added risk during an emergency, the configuration as planned will be confusing for passengers, the Sierra Club says. For example, NJ Transit will continue to use Penn Station in addition to the tunnel station. At rush hour, when there many trains are coming and departing, it will be confusing for passengers, who will have to determine if they are leaving from Penn Station or the ARC tunnel station two blocks away.
There are presently five major proposals for the expansion of train service in and out of Midtown Manhattan. Mayor Bloomberg is working to extend the Seven Train, which will go right above this NJ Transit tunnel. The Long Island Railroad wants to provide access to the East Side. Sen. Chuck Schumer is pushing for the new Moynihan Station in Midtown. Congressman Jerry Nadler wants to establish a freight rail tunnel to displace traffic from the roads. Then there’s this NJ Transit tunnel proposal. Each project is expecting, and actively seeking, federal dollars.
“The fact that all of these projects are within a few blocks of each other demonstrates the lack of collaboration that exists in improving the region’s transportation. Instead of a cohesive plan, we have created a mishmash of disjointed ideas. Each organization is acting like a bunch of children who don’t want the others to touch their train set,” Tittel said.
The Sierra Club believes some of the options that should be considered to allow for East Side access would be to have a train station enabling passengers to connect with the Seven Train or to design the tunnel so the Seven Train goes right through out to Secaucus Junction. The tunnel should meet up with the Moynihan Station so as to allow through trains access.
“A coordinated plan is the first step to improving public transportation access,” Tittel said. The Sierra Club is calling on Gov. Christie, Gov. David Patterson, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, senators Schumer, Lautenberg and Menendez, as well as Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, to sit down together and develop a comprehensive plan that constructively brings all of these projects together. The establishment of a regional transportation board, not five agencies that deal with transportation, should also be considered.
“We agree that a third rail tunnel is needed to improve access to the region’s core but it must be done right. It took us 50 years to get to this point; we can’t wait another 50 years for an effective solution,” Tittel said.
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