Gov. Chris Christie is still facing accusations his administration caused a massive traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, N.J. to get revenge on a mayor who declined to endorse him last year. But the Bridgegate gridlock is nothing compared to another looming commuter disaster the Governor has been accused of fueling.
Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman made comments last month indicating the potential crisis involving train tunnels under the Hudson River between New York City and New Jersey is even worse than anyone realised. Capital New York reported Wednesday that, while speaking at the Regional Plan Association’s annual assembly April 25, Boardman said he expected “one or two” of the tunnels would need to be “shut down” within the next twenty years. Perhaps more importantly, given the amount of time that would be needed to come up with a plan to repair the tunnels, Boardman said he was unsure an alternative could be completed in time to be in place ahead of a potential shutdown.
“I’m being told we got something less than 20 years before we have to shut one or two down,” Boardman said. “Something less than 20. I don’t know if that something less than 20 is seven, or some other number. But to build two new ones, you’re talking seven to nine years to deliver, if we all decided today that we could do it.”
However, there was a plan underway to build a new tunnel that began all the way back in 2009. That project, which was called Access to the Region’s Core, was scrapped by Christie when it ran over budget, a move that drew harsh criticism from Democrats in both New York and New Jersey.
There are two tunnels under the Hudson shared by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit. The pair of tunnels, which are more than a century old, are two of the only direct rail links between New York City and New Jersey. According to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, the tunnels were used by over 160,000 local commuters each day in 2012. They are also a vital component of Amtrak’s crowded Northeastern Corridor, which runs from Washington D.C. to Boston. Boardman said the tunnels currently accommodate 24 trains per hour and shutting even one of them would mean only six trains would make it through each hour, a drastic reduction in service that would impact commuters and business travellers between D.C. and Massachusetts and all points in between.
Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the chairman of the Assembly’s transportation committee, told Business Insider Wednesday a shutdown in the Hudson tunnels would be “traffic Armageddon” for New Jersey commuters and Amtrak riders.
“For the people of New Jersey who rely on getting into Manhattan on a daily basis because of their occupation or trade, it’s an absolute, unmitigated disaster,” Wisniewski said. “The Northeast Corridor will cease to function for all intents and purposes. The Northeast Corridor train will not exist effectively because of this. … We will have traffic Armageddon in the New Jersey/New York port area because of it. It is just too horrible to think of.”
Wisniewski said the “disaster” could have been avoided entirely if Christie had not stopped the ARC tunnel. Though he said he was surprised by Boardman’s prediction that a tunnel shutdown could come so soon, Wisniewski said lawmakers have always known the 100-year-old tunnels would not last forever. Wisniewski said Christie’s decision to kill that project “dashed away” the “20 years of planning that went into the first tunnel.”
“Had we built the ARC tunnel, this would not be an issue. Had the Governor not stopped the construction that was already underway, this would not be an issue,” explained Wisniewski.
Concern about the state of the aged tunnels has intensified since Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In a statement provided to Business Insider Wednesday, Democratic New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said Boardman’s comments underscore the “urgency” of the need to support an as-yet-unfunded tunnel plan proposed by Amtrak known as the Gateway Program.
“Mr. Boardman’s words are yet another alarm bell warning of the urgent need to expand the region’s rail capacity through Amtrak’s Gateway program, especially following the tunnel flooding that occurred after Sandy,” Schumer said.
Capital reported Regional Plan Association Executive Director Tom Wright described Boardman’s prediction about the dire state of the tunnels as a “shock.”
The ARC tunnel plan scrapped by Christie in late 2010 included $US3 billion in federal financing and would have doubled the number of rail tunnels across the Hudson. Christie aborted the ARC tunnels after construction had already begun and New Jersey had already spent $US600 million, because he said state officials told him it would cost at least $US2.5 billion more than the original price of $US8.7 billion. Critics described Christie’s decision as unprecedented and foolish. Schumer called Christie’s move “one of the worst decisions that any governmental leader has made in the 20th century, or the 21st century.” The late New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg was similarly dour.
“Killing the ARC tunnel will go down as one of the biggest public policy blunders in New Jersey’s history,” Lautenberg said. “Without increased transportation options into Manhattan, New Jersey’s economy will eventually be crippled.”
Wisniewski disputed Christie’s concerns about the ARC tunnel going over budget. He said expecting a project of that size to stay exactly on budget was “ludicrous.”
“The premise of the Governor’s argument is that, unless you know the amount of the overrun, you can’t build it,” Wisniewski said. “There’s not a construction project or a public works project of this scale that doesn’t have some variation from what the original projection was.”
On Wednesday, after Boardman’s comments were reported, Christie’s office provided a statement to Business Insider defending the decision to scrap the ARC tunnel. Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said the Governor “remains committed” to improving rail options across the Hudson, but felt the burden of the ARC proposal was not fairly shared between New Jersey, New York, and Washington.
“Governor Christie has always recognised the need for additional trans-Hudson transit capacity, and he remains committed to a plan that is fair and equitable, with costs shared between all benefiting jurisdictions, including New York State, New York City and the federal government,” Roberts explained. “Unfortunately, the ARC tunnel project was not an equitable solution and in fact left New Jersey exclusively responsible for billions in cost overruns.”
Christie clearly seems open to new solutions. However, based on Boardman’s assessment of the situation, the delays caused by Christie’s decisions in 2010 may mean any new plan comes too late for train travellers all over the East Coast.
For his part, Wisniewski speculated Christie’s concerns about overruns with the ARC tunnel budget had more to do with his widely rumoured presidential ambitions than the needs of people in his state.
“The Governor sacrificed New Jersey’s commuters … on the altar of his conservative principles, to be able to show voters in Iowa and New Hampshire that he’s a conservative,” said Wisniewski.
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