Subway Extension to N.J. Could Speed Commute for Thousands

(Bloomberg) -- As the Trump administration blocks the Gateway commuter-rail tunnel project, a half-century-old alternative that’s cheaper and quicker is under review: extending into New Jersey a New York City subway under the Hudson River.

The idea would stretch the 7 line, which runs between Flushing, Queens, and Manhattan’s west side, under the river to a bus-and-rail terminal in Secaucus, New Jersey. The cost, estimated in 2013 at $6 billion, would be about half of Gateway, which has been held up by a lack of federal support despite boosters calling it the nation’s most urgent infrastructure project.

Subway Extension to N.J. Could Speed Commute for Thousands

Governors Phil Murphy of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York are focused on Gateway, and local members of Congress are pushing to have it included in any federal infrastructure legislation. But there’s no Plan B for train commuters should the existing tunnel be forced to close for repairs. Buses and roads are already packed, while ferries have no room for mass traffic at their terminals.

“The subway extension is not a replacement for Gateway,” said Chris Jones, senior vice president for the Regional Plan Association, which has set area transportation policy since the George Washington Bridge’s construction 90 years ago. “We’ll need another commuter rail tunnel to serve parts of New York and New Jersey that don’t have commuter trains now.”

Feeding Manhattan

The 7-line extension and another Hudson River tunnel feeding into Manhattan’s 57th Street are among several ideas under consideration, though cost estimates won’t be developed for any of the concepts, said Mary Murphy, the Port Authority’s planning director.

“We aim to complete the assessment, in collaboration with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New Jersey Transit, by early next year,” she said.

Extending the subway line was first proposed 50 years ago but took on new life in 2011, a year after then-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stopped construction on an $8.7 billion trans-Hudson tunnel, citing concerns about the design and potential cost overruns. Then in 2012, Hurricane Sandy flooded the existing century-old tunnel with corrosive salt water, giving fresh urgency to the need for a tunnel replacement.

Gateway would allow repair of the existing tube, which handles 200,000 Amtrak and NJ Transit commuters a day and is crucial to all rail travel between Washington and New York, a region that generates 20% of the nation’s gross domestic product. An RPA study last year said that by 2040, trans-Hudson commuting will have increased 31% compared with 2015, to 345,000 passengers a day.

Trump Dismisses

In 2015, former President Barack Obama promised federal financing to pay for half of a new tunnel, and the Gateway project became a top regional priority, projected to cost at least $13 billion. But President Donald Trump has withdrawn support, dismissing it as a local project lacking national importance.

Regional transit and roads are already stressed beyond capacity. Three commuter trains share an aging combination of lines built by private railroads more than 100 years ago for travel in a metropolitan area that was less than half today’s size, according to the RPA. Today’s job opportunities in commercial zones outside Manhattan lack rail service, worsening congestion, pollution and barriers for those who don’t drive.

While the 7-line extension wouldn’t provide a way for Amtrak’s interstate train traffic to cross the Hudson, it could take the pressure off the existing tunnel by speeding the travel time for tens of thousands of NJ Transit commuters. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has been considering it as part of a “Trans-Hudson Rapid Transit Study” since 2017.

The engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff International Inc. deemed the idea viable in a 47-page report commissioned by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg six years ago. Bloomberg is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

“All options and previous studies will likely be reviewed by the Port Authority as it takes a fresh look at what trans-Hudson links are the most promising,” Carolyn Grossman Meagher, the city’s current director of regional planning, said in a statement.

Job Opportunities

Potential 7-line destinations include Manhattan’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, Hudson Yards, Times Square and Grand Central Terminal as well as job opportunities in Queens, including Long Island City and downtown Flushing, the New York Mets’ Citi Field, and the Arthur Ashe Tennis Stadium, home of the U.S. Open.

New Jersey transit advocates disagree about the idea.

David Peter Alan, whose Lackawanna Coalition has pushed for improved commuter rail for 40 years, said the plan’s “biggest problem is that ingress and egress at Grand Central Terminal would be overburdened with its limited escalators and stairways.”

Joe Versaggi, spokesman for the New Jersey Association of Rail Passengers, said it would “reduce the increasing, unsustainable bus traffic into Manhattan and offer a quick 22-minute ride from Secaucus to Manhattan’s east side.”

For now, local officials and advocates are continuing to push for Gateway funding.

“Our energies are probably better spent, all in, on getting Gateway over the goal line,” Murphy said at an appearance on May 23.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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