Christie’s ARC

Northern New Jerseyans knew that the flap over the Fort Lee access lanes to the George Washington Bridge would inevitably lead to Gov. Christie’s cancellation of the ARC tunnels.  He made the cancellation decision when the financial crisis was at its height.

ARC was never sold to most of northern New Jersey as a commuter rail project.  Mainly, it was supposed to service freight trains, connecting them to Long Island.  No one said anything about PATH tunnels from Fort Lee to upper Manhattan.  They did speak about eventual commuter rail tunnels to Mid-Town Manhattan.  That sounded great even to the outer suburbs which depend solely on NJ Transit buses or private cars.  What was not going to happen was extended rail service out as far as Passaic County.  The PATH stations were for the use of the Bergen and Hudson County towns along the river, New Jersey’s Gold Coast.

What you probably didn’t read in the newspapers was Fort Lee’s plans to build two enormous, 47-story skyscrapers right near the bridge.  In fact, once built, motorists approaching the bridge wouldn’t even be able to see its 600-foot towers.  The city of Fort Lee is already home to eight luxury high-rise towers (30 stories or more).

The George Washington Bridge crosses into New York City at Washington Heights, 186th Street, miles north of Midtown Manhattan.  However, there are subway stops in that area, as well as a bus station.  Still, that crossing was quickly scuttled.

With 10 high rises and one more under construction, along with its maze of one-way streets, no one should be surprised at Fort Lee’s traffic congestion.  As new reports pointed out, traffic also comes from communities to Fort Lee’s north and south to get onto the bridge.  In the midst of economic crisis, and no benefit to western communities, no mass transit, Christie vetoed the ARC tunnel as too costly.

Still, Christie was foolish to cancel the tunnel.  Allowing the river communities their mass transit tunnels would have alleviated traffic heading for the GW, at least as far as Manhattan-bound commuters were concerned.  It would have been nice if the trains could have been extended out to the western counties.  We have the tracks and we have the stations.  Local activists in our communities have been advocating for rail transit for a long time, to no avail.  Not enough customers, they were told.  Considering the fare rail commuters would have had to pay, what difference would it have made?  We would have been subsidizing the river towns (who are wealthier) but at least we would have had faster access to the city.

But it was no deal.  The result is this fandango that has been going on between Fort Lee and the Port Authority.  Christie wasn’t wreaking revenge upon Fort Lee (it’s unlikely he knew about – 900 pages have produced no direct involvement on Christie’s part, much as the Democrat-ruled state legislature would love to find a smoking gun); its part of revenge being wreaked upon Christie for playing hardball during a bad economic crisis of the Democrat’s own making.  They would love to not only close the station to capital success but tear up the tracks, making life in the suburbs impossible.  They are determined that we should all live communally in high-rise towers in units that we cannot bequeath to our heirs, will not admit of pets or children, and isolate us from whatever of natural life that has not already been cut down and paved over in favor of malls and government buildings.

Here’s how the Progressive media basically explains the situation.

Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) was a commuter rail project to increase passenger service capacity on New Jersey Transit (NJT) between Secaucus Junction in New Jersey and Manhattan in New York City.  New infrastructure would have included new trackage, a new rail yard, and another tunnel under the Hudson River. A new station adjacent to New York Penn Station was to be constructed as running more trains into the current station was deemed unfeasible. An estimated budget for the project was $8.7 billion. Construction began in mid-2009 and the project was slated for completion in 2018, but it was cancelled in October 2010 by N.J. Gov. Christie, citing the possibility of cost overruns and the state’s lack of funds.  $600 million had been spent on the project.

The project was initiated after studies conducted in the 1990s determined that new rail tunnels under the Hudson River were the best approach address transportation needs for the New York metropolitan area.  At times called the Trans Hudson Express Tunnel (THE Tunnel) or the Mass Transit Tunnel, it eventually became known by the name of a Major Investment Study, and received endorsements from both New Jersey and New York governors.  It was colloquially dubbed the tunnel to Macy’s basement, in reference to its terminus under 34th Street in Manhattan.

After its cancellation, the federal government demanded repayment of funding received by NJT for the project. The Christie administration engaged a law firm to present its arguments for non-payment which were subsequently rejected by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).  An agreement was eventually reached in which part of the funds would be returned while other monies would be used on transit-related projects.

Soon after work was halted there was speculation that the previously discussed idea of New York Transit Authority’s No. 7 Subway Extension continuing into New Jersey would be revived, but was later scuttled.  In February 2011, Amtrak announced the Gateway Project, a plan to build a right-of-way and new tunnels from Newark Penn Station to New York Penn Station (Mid-Town Manhattan), passing through Secaucus Junction, which would be shared with NJT trains.

Christie later directed that funding be directed to road projects.  A March 2012 Government Accountability Office investigated the decision to cancel the project and provided comments that questioned Christie’s rationale.

The project would have more than doubled the number of trains from New Jersey to Midtown Manhattan, providing direct, one-seat service from most of New Jersey Transit’s rail lines, as well as more frequent service to in-state destinations.  The improvement would have included the construction of two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River as a supplement to the North River Tunnels, which operate at 100 percent capacity. The new tunnels would have connected to a six-track, state-of-the-art construction of a new station under 34th Street east of the existing Penn Station with pedestrian connections to the existing station and New York City Transit’s Eighth, Seventh, Seventh, and Sixth Avenue, and Broadway subway lines.

Also planned were a new rail loop near the Frank R. Lautenberg Secaucus Junction Station allowing Main Line/Bergen County Line and Pascack Valley Line trains direct service to Midtown, and a new mid-day rail storage yard in the Kearny Meadows.  While the terminal station would have dead-ended trains, there was hope that it would one day be extended eastward depending on future funding.

2009 Federal Transit Administration projections for the cost of the ARC tunnel. Later increases in projected costs, which would have to be assumed by the State of New Jersey, led Governor Chris Christie to cancel the project.

New Starts — $3.0B (34.48%)

Port Authority — $3.0B (34.47%)

CMAQ & FHWA — $1.32B (15.18%)

NJ Turnpike — $1.25B (14.37%)

ARRA — $0.13B (1.50%)

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) projected the cost for ARC as $8.7 billion in their 2009 Annual Report on Funding Recommendations for the New Starts Program, which identified the funding for the project as follows.

  • Federal New Starts = $3.0 billion
  • Federal American Recovery &      Reinvestment Act = $0.130 billion
  • Federal Congestion Mitigation      & Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) Program & Federal Highway      Administration (FHWA) = $1.320 billion
  • Port Authority of New York and New      Jersey = $3.0 billion
  • New Jersey Turnpike Authority =      $1.250 billion

Projections rose to close to $11 billion by the time of the cancellation of New Jersey’s funding of the project.   It is estimated that $610 million has been spent on the project.  Before being terminated, the Port Authority had purchased, or otherwise acquired rights or leased land on Manhattan’s West side. About $250 million was spent on studies and design.  Condemnation procedures initiated by the state for properties along the route in Hudson County were left pending at various stages after the cancellation.

Christie later directed that funding be directed to road projects. In March 2011 the PANYNJ agreed to redirect $1.8 billion earmarked for the project to repairs to roads and bridges in Hudson County that it saw as part of the larger network of the distribution system in the Port of New York and New Jersey.   In September 2011, the Turnpike Authority voted to spend the funds committed to the project on roads within the state.

In 1995, the ARC project began with the initiation of the Access to the Region’s Core Major Investment Study (MIS) in which an initial list of 137 alternatives was identified, including bus, light rail, subway, Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) rail, commuter rail, ferry, new technologies, and auto.  This Major Investment Study was completed in 2003, and recommended two alternatives for advancement into a Draft Environmental Impact Statement.  Alternative P would create new tracks and platforms under the existing Penn Station. Alternative S would create a new rail link to existing Penn Station as well as new East River Tunnels to expanded rail storage facilities at Sunnyside Yard. Alternative G would have provided a link to Grand Central Terminal, but that alternative was not recommended for further advancement.

The environmental review stage lasted from 2003 to 2009. In June 2003, NJ Transit Board of Directors awarded a $4.9 million contract to Transit Link, a joint venture of Parsons Brinckerhoff and Systra Engineering, to produce a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the project.

In the very early stages of the project, there were plans for track connections from the new tunnels to existing Penn Station, the Penn Station Connector, which would have provided NJ Transit and Amtrak with the operational flexibility to use either the existing rail tunnels or the new ARC tunnels. In order to achieve a less than two percent grade from the low point in the tunnel under the river to Penn Station, the Penn Station Connector would have to diverge from the new ARC tunnels somewhere under the Hudson River.

This would have required approval by the EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard and to allow construction of a very large, expensive coffer dam (a temporary enclosure in the water to permit construction) mid-river. Regulatory approvals seemed unlikely; construction of the coffer dam would have disrupted the contaminated river bottom which was previously declared a Superfund site and would have obstructed busy river shipping channels. In addition to Hudson River impacts, the Penn Station Connector would have required excavation of a wide trench across Manhattan’s West Side. Known as cut and cover tunneling construction, this wide trench would have displaced many businesses and residents and required unlikely support from the Hudson River Park Trust, Community Boards, and other stakeholder organizations.

After the initial engineering and expert peer review in 2006 and 2007, NJ Transit determined that moving the station deeper and using modern tunnel boring techniques was the only way to avoid environmental, community, and engineering concerns. The agency opted to construct an underground terminal, which later became a source of controversy.

Design and construction management contracts were awarded respectively to THE Partnership, a joint venture of Parsons Brinckerhoff, STV, and DMJM Harris/AECOM, and CM Consortium, a joint venture of Tishman, Parsons Corp. and ARUP, both in 2006.

In July 2006, the (FTA) announced its decision to allow preliminary engineering to begin on the new trans-Hudson rail tunnel.  Supporters called the FTA’s announcement a positive sign that the federal government eventually intended to commit funding to the project. The FTA approved the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the project in January 2007, and the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) in March 2008. The SDEIS identified and evaluated the environmental impacts of a deeper profile tunnel with no track connections to existing Penn Station. These changes to the project scope were necessitated by a significant number of environmental, community, and engineering concerns regarding construction of the previous shallow tunnel and station. The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) was approved in October 2008.  In January 2009, the FTA issued the Record of Decision for the project and approved the start of final design

The first construction contract was awarded to construct a new railroad underpass at Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen in June 2009, and the project’s groundbreaking was held on June 8, 2009. The Palisades Tunnels construction contract, the first major tunneling contract for the project was awarded on May 5, 2010.

At the time of cancellation, construction was already underway on the Tonnelle Avenue Underpass and the Palisades Tunnels, one of three tunnel segments in the project, the construction contract for the Manhattan Tunnels was pending award to Barnard-Judlau JV and the Hudson River Tunnels, the third and final tunnel construction contract, was in the procurement phase.

Governor Christie endorsed the project in April 2010, but his support for the project was later called into question.  On Sept. 10, 2010, with final design and construction on the first two contracts was already underway, NJ Transit’s executive director, James Weinstein, ordered work on the tunnel to be suspended for 30 days for a 30-day risk review of the project’s cost and schedule, because of concerns that the project would go $1 billion over budget and the State of New Jersey couldn’t afford to pay.  News reports mentioned the possibility that Gov. Christie’s administration was considering scrapping the project to use the project’s funding to replenish New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund.  However New Jersey’s Transportation Commissioner James S. Simpson denied that the Administration ever contemplated such a possibility.

On Oct. 7, 2010, Christie announced that the ARC Tunnel project was officially cancelled, citing rising costs and concerns over New Jersey residents fronting the bill for the estimated $15 billion project.  The next day the governor agreed to a two-week reprieve, so that additional options for funding the tunnel could be developed.  Christie did briefly reconsider, reviewing options in discussions with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, but made a final decision to terminate the project on Oct. 27, 2010.

Christie’s choices were never good to begin with.  Agree to a transit rail system that would benefit the denizens of the Gold Coast and probably relieve traffic congestion leading to the bridge but bankrupt the state in the bargain.  Or cancel the transit tunnels while river towns continued to build high-rise, luxury towers on their postage stamp towns and send the resulting traffic over the bridge, clogging up Fort Lee’s one-way streets, causing local havoc, and road rage farther west on the connecting highways.  Not to mention a media frenzy that would put his presidential bid in jeopardy.  Note, however, that the original obstacle to the tunnels was not Christie and his minions, but the Federal government.

While no fan of Christie’s, there are two sides to the bridge, to the river, to the Port Authority, and to this story.

Published in: on January 13, 2014 at 10:33 am  Leave a Comment  

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