(Map courtesy of Hudson River Tunnels Project factsheet, Summer 2017)
The white dotted line is the first train tunnels under the Hudson River. They took just two years to plan. Construction started earnestly in 1905 using primitive methods. They were innovated and the world’s longest underwater tunnels were made by a determined Pennsylvania Railroad by 1910. They whisked thrilled customers on new electric trains into the world’s grandest station. They set the standard for the key transport mode for the first half of the 20th Century. It cemented New York as America’s premier Transit Metropolis.
Today, that epoch-making success has deteriorated, along with the tunnels, into a telling metaphor for our failures to govern transportation. If we are serious about replacing the tunnels, we have to replace the agencies that created today’s crisis. This preview sketches how preventing an emergency in America’s key train tunnel may well be the crisis we need to start transforming how every American metro manages its mobility in the new era.
A Quick History Of What Cities Get When No Body Is In Charge Of No Policy
If New York only builds a new tunnel and its connecting infrastructure (now known as the Gateway), the symptoms of system deterioration will repeat themselves somewhere else. The Port Authority has two other sets of tunnels over 100 years old. Similarly aged are two sets on the East River. Manhattan is surrounded by connections reaching the end of their lives. Let’s see why so many replacements have been put off for so long; endangering so much.
In 1995, warnings that the Hudson Tunnels’ were reaching the end of life prompted plans for replacements. Fifteen years later the ARC project (Access to the Region’s Core) started construction and quickly was killed by New Jersey’s Governor under the pretext of not sharing cost overruns.
With borderline belligerence between neighboring states, federal intervention led by Obama’s Secretary of Transportation mediated a deal by 2015 that advanced the Gateway project (Above, the sagging orange dotted line are the replacement tunnels; but the Gateway includes 11 miles of rail infrastructure from Newark to Queens, centered by the Moynihan extension of Penn Station.) The recurring political dysfunction took a destructive turn when the current Executive reneged on the 2015 deal. This voided the Tunnels’ hoped-for 2026 completion.
Despite heightened anxiety over no body being likely to restore this vital artery, Congress’ response has been to try sneaking money into the Gateway to avoid the President’s veto.
This Bloomberg article highlights the grave economic consequences for the region and nation in what is appearing to emerge as a path to catastrophic self-inflicted wounds. The graphic below shows congestion’s negative multiplier of the most likely scenario of one tunnel failing.
graphic courtesy of the Regional Plan Association (RPA)
Two decades of turf-fighting has turned a routine infrastructure replacement into an unacceptable high risk of emergency. (If you want a refresher on pre-Trump political dysfunction, spend 15 minutes reading the middle of this 2016 article.)
Remember, all this drama is for an aged tunnel that would have been replaced long ago if it carried autos.
A way out might emerge from my working cut-to-the-chase analysis: multi-state mis-governance caused this threat to the nation’s economic heart. If we learn from democracies with train policies, their regions modernize mobility far faster because the national rail has proper authority to aid commuter rail. With new U.S. policies using the force of federal law, neither Governors nor Presidents can capriciously void them repeatedly as with these Tunnels. Formed in the 1970s as a caretaker, Amtrak is weak and never reformed. This allows executive caprice to rule. Worse, it creates a void where progress is more difficult and costly than other global cities face since they have national policies that convey proper authority to national rails. And they have even reformed recently to improve efficiencies.
Our reality is that today’s increasing dysfunction is unlikely to be resolved before one tunnel fails and causes an emergency. The cure is for a national rail policy in which metro rail is promoted by the inter-city rail authority. At this moment, that seems like a ridiculous long haul. But…….
Two Trends Open Our Bold Strategy: Divisive Politics and Comprehensive Proposals
As recent as 18 months ago, it was just assumed the tunnels would be built by existing agencies. This is not a responsible assumption today. This became evident; prompted by two trends. Fortunately, both now make agency overhaul possible.
First, divisive politics have forced metros to reorder authority… if congestion and costs are to be reduced. The current Executive’s sabotage of a deal that took five precious years to negotiate should be seen for what it really did: preserve a regime in which state and federal policies restrict metros from using trains to stimulate growth and mobility alternatives. Note that the Gateway project already was a major retreat from the historic federal contribution of 75% capital. The Obama deal had only 50% federal capital. Trump merely wanted to reduce it further. Transcend Trump and we see Uncle Sam will not recapitalize transit to the required levels. More than ever, metros are on their own and must devise new methods.
Into that void must move the next Congress and the next Executive to start writing a new social contract with taxpayers and commuters in which metropolitan transportation is controlled democratically by the region… with the states and feds as lesser players and payers. I sketch this “new deal” later in this preview and, of course, will detail it in the chapter due in 2019.
Second trend…. Proposals to overhaul transportation agencies are emerging from New York’s civic groups. Since this will have more of a lasting impact than the Trump catalyst, the chapter will spend considerable space analyzing proposals. Here is some context for why a bold strategy for metros to rebalance authority may have an opening.
Four years ago when posting my Penn Station piece in Aaron Renn’s “The Urbanophile,” my series had concluded that proper updating of central stations required reforming transit agencies. But, I was on the fringe. Later that year, the Eno Center (transportation’s established trainer and think tank) collaborated with the upstart Transit Center to publish “Getting To The Route Of It.” Subtitled “The Role of Governance In Regional Transit, ” the study analyzed six of the largest U.S. metros; looking hardest at New York, but the study also was critical of my metropolis, Chicagoland.
That study changed the discussion so today’s crisis can be productive. Over the last three years, the damage to the Tunnels became more widely known. Precipitous decline — including New York’s 2017 transit summer in hell — pushed the civic establishment into calling for agency overhaul. But, New York civic leaders need time to work through proposals with the political powers-that-be. Do they have time? Nor will foresight grace decisions made during an emergency triggered by closing one tunnel for repairs.
Progress At Thinking Thru Through-Routes Still Cannot Integrate Systems
New York’s Vision is epoch-making again, at least by U.S. standards. New York’s civic leaders know they must overhaul agencies and this shows best in the RPA’s “4th Regional Plan.” Its wholistic approach to urban challenges focuses on reinvesting in its key asset, transit. For that, the “ 4th Plan” proposes four institutional changes for transportation: convert the Port Authority into an investment bank; rationalize road tolls; combine the three commuter rails into a regional network, called T-Rex; and form a public benefit corporation to update subways economically.
Supporting this “4th Plan,” RPA just published an 86-page booklet detailing its T-Rex proposal (cover is above). It is comprehensive and candid. Criticisms can be made of it. (Let’s understate the antagonism and say that New Yorkers, justifiably, have famously profound relationships with transit… but I found this series of articles by Alon Levy to inform best.) Through the early haze, we should recognize RPA is pioneering the technical work to make its metro’s trains competitive with other global centers.
But, New York’s political reality must change before serious hope can be mustered that the T-Rex Plan actually will improve commuting. For that cause, it also helps to remind ourselves that other global centers achieve this by conveying sufficient authority to agencies. By that key standard, T-Rex’s politics look pre-historic… or at least pre-New Deal. Only one of the booklet’s 86 pages discusses funding and governance. While that page suggests contemporary techniques (value capture, 3Ps, user fees), these will have minimal application as long as authority is held by byzantine bureaucracies.
The T-Rex booklet is a consensus tool so discussions lead to reforms. But the road to sufficient reform is not passable given this metro’s institutional politics require both state governments to agree. Then, both must prioritize transit. (This is more unlikely given other statewide priorities and, currently, very limited discretionary spending. Plus, New Jersey is closer to insolvency.)
The only positive to promote overhaul is the extraordinary cost of transit. States should be glad to give that cost and headaches to a true metropolitan authority. But despite this common sense, the bears still clutch their honey-pot. Who will pry it away?
As for my current situational summary….. The states of New Jersey and New York no longer should be higher authorities; based on their poor performance and the need for future accountability to the region’s taxpayers. As powerful as New York’s civic movement is, only federal leverage for the Tunnels sets in motion the required overhaul of state-controlled agencies.
History Lesson: Only two higher authorities can make a way out of no way.
First, God must grace Manhattan with enough time to replace the Tunnels. Even if Providence (or luck) intervenes, this fact remains: Man’s agencies have created extraordinary and unnecessary risks… and they will do so again. Specifically, the East River tunnels are also at the end of their lives. And so is most infrastructure surrounding Manhattan; making a moat of the nation’s central business district.
The second higher authority is Uncle Sam. Constitutionally obligated to promote commerce between states, NY/NJ’s chances in Congress improve by stretching this assistance to all metros. Emergency action for the Gateway starts setting the legal frame for regional transportation by applying the prototype appropriately along the NEC’s metros and extending that to solve the Midwest’s multi-state mess around Chicago.
If Plan A was the 2015 Obama Administration hand-shake that was so vulnerable to sabotage, Plan B declares the Hudson crossing a vital piece of national infrastructure for the NEC and the nation’s commercial center. To protect both, an Emergency Task Force (ETF) using federal authority manages the crossing’s update. This ETF also is charged with prototyping modern regional rail by tying together these three goals outlined here and detailed in the fuller study.
1. Build new tunnels, fix the old ones and update the remaining Gateway infrastructure; making sure Penn Station updates can evolve efficiently into a through-station serving a through-network. (Of the many Penn proposals, a practical summary runs from pages 22 to 25 of RPA’s 2017 comprehensive booklet “Crossing The Hudson.”)
2. Take the next step. Prevent a similar emergency across the East River by structuring investments that maximize capacity of a through-network. So the ETF’s job is to help organize a tri-state transportation agency whose Board has clean elections. The Board has routine accountability for taxes and user fees.
3. Utilize private sector partnerships to get the most value for passengers and taxpayers alike.
Transportation’s New Deal: Legal and political arguments sketched and stretched.
Let’s paint a Big Picture: we are in the process of shaping a new order for transit. Cited by me early in the Introduction as a framework for this website’s strategy, the premise of “The Metropolitan Revolution” is upheld in case studies of “The New Localism.” (Brookings Institution Press released both books three years apart and both share Bruce Katz as co-author.) This sequel looks closer at how we transfer power from states and the feds to localities and metros. The book implies a corollary realignment in which we redefine each level’s role and, thus, smooth-out difficult transfers. “The New Localism” acknowledges that transportation infrastructure is a laggard in the realignment already taking place in other public services.
To evolve transportation into the new order, ARC and the Gateway are central to understanding the new federal role. ARC mostly was three regional agencies hoping to solve problems. With federal power as a bit player, the ARC could not withstand its 2010 capital crisis. Learning there must be a higher authority to make it through a crisis, the feds led the Gateway. Despite Trump’s sabotage, Amtrak is the funding channel that keeps the Gateway alive.
But to prevent the catastrophe of one tunnel closing, the federal role gets redefined further with a takeover of the Tunnel (again, justified as infrastructure of national importance) and includes the entire Gateway project. To prevent future calamities, the federal task force then assists in forming a representative metropolitan government.
The theory of a metro/local revolution sounds like it might work for transportation except for this: New York and every metro must contend with this historic joke, “all you have to do is get an Act Of Congress.” This has been a bad joke for probably all of this Century. But fortunately for metro transportation, the joke has been replaced by the reality of today’s crunch time.
When tunnel-failure is in the hands of God, Man’s misplaced authority has reached its tipping point. The game-changing conclusion is that states should not restrict metros from governing their transportation. An authority realignment strategy is equally simple: instead of letting Congress retreat from funding responsibilities, it first must agree to re-allign metro transportation so it can be more self-sufficient. We should expect lawmakers to start as early as 2019…no matter who is in the White House… or how un-civil Washington has become.
With a recent record that invites intervention, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is an interstate compact authorized by a federal Charter in 1921. The PA coordinates the Gateway Development Corporation responsible for the Tunnels, Penn Station and infrastructure along an eleven mile route. Congress should revoke this part of the PA’s Charter, setup an Emergency Task Force (ETF) and also remake laws so the ETF can innovate public-private partnerships and apply those efficiencies. Specifically, let’s also test how the ETF can avoid unnecessary red-tape and stabilize funding to complete the project before a tunnel has to be closed.
With Governor Cuomo Declaring A Transit Emergency, Commuter Rail Should Follow Suit … Before It Is Too Late… And Too Costly
Avoiding the Tunnel’s crisis-to-emergency has a helpful analogy. Governor Cuomo put the MTA under a state of emergency in July 2017. The response has been sweeping, at least judging intent in the “Plan To Modernize New York City Transit” (cover above) released in May 2018. To adapt these actions to the PA, both governors must declare an emergency for the Tunnels. But, the realignment to a metro government that is required to modernize regional rail must be pushed by Congress. Let’s consider coining that campaign as “Modernizing By Metro-izing.”
Regardless …… Lawmaking is the lever. Let’s think of this as a formula explored in the forthcoming chapter: Congress’ deal is it provides less capital, but metros get more clout.
Despite the imminent Hudson emergency, we must prepare for challenges. Legal challenges, of course, can be preempted partially by effective political arguments.
The primary popular lever is “no taxation without representation.” Taxes are essential to any ambitious re-build of infrastructure. The key factor in Denver’s impressive build-out is its transit district has an elected board. Revisit the end of my preview on how mid-sized metros changed and adapt that success to New York’s tri-state metro. A modernization managed by an elected Board whose campaigns are non-partisan and actually discuss clearly how tax dollars are invested. Ask the taxpayers who have to fund the deferred costs of bringing our systems to a “state of good repair.” That starts a good Deal.
The second political level argues taxpayers at all levels must receive value. Since the federal government is already lending most the money for the two states’ contribution to the new tunnels, then Congress also needs to protect federal taxpayers so they get their money back. And the best way to insure that Uncle Sam gets his money back is to encourage a metropolitan government that can adjust taxes and user fees much more effectively than states can whose priorities are to feed existing programs. Setting up a metropolitan government with powers to deliver economically should be the corollary to the U.S. lending more money.
The protecting-the-taxpayer lever is supported by news stories of runaway costs, probably the easiest-understood need for agency overhaul. Yet, a federal ETF also needs to reinvent how to maximize return to taxpayers and private partners. While the RPA’s “4th Plan” proposes solutions, U.S. criteria for financing is more likely to persuade states to realign power.
Both political levers make it possible for emergency powers to plan a through-network that is turned over to a new metropolitan body. But the stretch is necessary since the NEC uses the same pieces of infrastructure as commuter trains.
For example, my literature review analyzing the Gateway’s Moynihan Station concludes most independent observers do not think this is a good use of taxes. Moynihan/Penn remains a terminal when a through-station is the best investment to expand capacity. So, new federal lending standards must establish metro governance that modernizes outdated terminals.
To stretch from emergency to sustained progress, Congress must empower a metro’s public to hold new agencies accountable. Consider overhauling Metropolitan Planning Organizations, creatures of the feds intended to spend taxes effectively within a regional plan. New York’s tri-state MPO collapsed in 1982 and the U.S. made scant effort to enforce its intent. Now, it can.
Other enabling legislation could be considered within Amtrak reform (Amtrak owns the Tunnels and Penn Station.) While today’s bitter debates reduce our chances of effective solutions, let’s hold up the model of the German national railroad as the enabler of regional rail modernization.
The policy entry point to seize control of the Gateway and get it rebuilt is still unclear. Yet intent is clear: the U.S. simply cannot reduce its capital funding and leave regions powerless to raise cash. The new deal’s policy principle is that U.S. empowers regions to solve their problems.
Other policy threads can be woven to broaden this deal’s coalition. Trains are underutilized to stimulate redevelopment equitably (a section in RPA’s “4th Plan”.) Regional authority can use trains to correct disparities between Manhattan and the former industrial and underutilized lands of Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey. Trains tie these disparities into a whole in the T-Rex (map below.) Follow its new through-route tunnel from Brooklyn’s Atlantic Terminal through Wall Street and Mid-town and on to still-struggling Newark. Trains connecting Wall Street to poor neighborhoods is a metaphor and tool for those who want to highlight equitable redevelopment as part of the metropolitan new deal.
Conclusion and Prelude: Organize Regional Authority To Tunnel and Through-Route
If the Tunnels crisis uses federal authority to help civic leaders remake their legal and political framework in New York, then other American metros have a better chance to find their particular path to reorder power and modernize into regional rail.
While RPA’s proposals are getting to the root, they have not really asked states to share more power with the metro. To a large degree, that is Uncle Sam’s job. In reducing the reign of ineffective state bureaucracies, the U.S. also can mitigate how states failed to resolve city-suburb tensions. Captive to suburbs, state rail agencies did not modernize.
Totaled up, U.S. intervention is the force that stimulates rebalancing transportation’s formula for taxation, representation, accountability and, finally, modernization.
Let’s think of Uncle Sam’s intervention as the liberation of the New York metro’s residents who — trapped by their state governments — had become inured to the condition of their transit. Indeed a majority of NYC residents use transit daily (see the first table of 15 largest U.S. cities.)
On a percentage basis (and playfully to shift to rivalries), NYC has over twice as many passengers as my city, The Second City. While still backward by European standards, Chicago recently updated its “L” (heavy rail) at a rate far faster than far-richer New York. And Chicago did this despite Illinois being broke, endlessly corrupted and even having a constitutional bias against Chicago. On a relative basis as the globe’s center, Manhattan has few true excuses for how its agency neglect brought transit so far below the standard of global cities.
On the other hand, Chicagoland has better excuses: having the one broken state of Illinois has caused more rail deterioration than trying to coordinate three states. Minimizing Illinois control is the key element in the preview of Chicago Union Station (CUS); due to be posted in late June. Below is CUS’ Quiz question. (The Quiz is the most entertaining part of this site.) Take the Quiz and click on any fantasy rendering to read the Answers, short write-ups for why each central station is restricted by its states, including Manhattan’s Penn.
4 thoughts on “Preview F: Penn Station And The Hudson Tunnels….. Are We Ready To Start Testing The 21st Century Standard For Regional Rail ?”
my friend in New York, a planner, wrote the following,
‘Well, certainly hits on the fact that NY metro area has some big challenges.
But to elaborate, there’s lot of “musts” and “shoulds” in this piece. But easier said than done… My take is that a big problem like this, namely the need to build new tunnels from NJ to Penn Station (which would allow for maintenance work on the existing tunnels), needs a big champion. A powerful politician (Sen. Schumer?), very well-organized groups with big business and civic support, or maybe some outside-the-box private sector figure. What this piece doesn’t mention is that there is a massive infrastructure project underway in NY to connect the Long Island RR commuter system to Grand Central Terminal. That project is years behind schedule and billions over budget. It has sucked up a lot of NY’s transit capital money. And meanwhile, the city subway system needs billions in repairs.
I don’t know the solution. Construction costs here are super high compared to everywhere else in the world; NY Times did an article on this a few months back. So that adds to the challenge of improving transit, we’re not getting value for money. These problems don’t solve themselves. Without some leadership, there’s not much room for hope. My take is that the best that advocates can do is to organize and pressure in the hope that someone takes up that leadership role.’
Thanks for the comment.
And it really reinforces the need for an elected metropolitan body with the authority to rebalance the region’s transportation. They are the leadership you call for because it is their job. Denver’s elected RTD Board faced cost overruns that would have killed commuter rail and they developed a 3P solution. The New York Metro can do the same if the two states will release themselves of a responsibility they failed at.