Sunday, July 26, 2015

Train In Vain - Delays, Politics & The Hudson Rail Tunnel Project

Passengers await a delayed NJ Transit train in 2012
Yesterday July 25th was my niece's fourteenth birthday, an important milestone on her path towards becoming a young woman.

To me, the age of fourteen marks a critical turning point between childhood and young adulthood; after fourteen, there's no turning back.

She just "graduated" from middle school and was accepted into one of NYC's most prestigious high schools in Brooklyn where she'll start this fall.

To celebrate this momentous occasion, on Friday afternoon my niece and two of her close friends took a subway from Brooklyn to Penn Station and then caught a New Jersey Transit train out to Hamilton, New Jersey where my mother picked them up to host the three of them at her place in Lawrenceville for a birthday party weekend.

"Grandmom" has an extensive premium cable package, a 48" flat screen television, Wi-Fi and access to a private pool, so it was a nice summer excursion for three whip-smart teens from Park Slope, Brooklyn.

The following morning (Saturday) my sister came out from Brooklyn to join the birthday party, and I drove over to pick her up from Hamilton station; her train was scheduled to arrive at 12:30pm but it didn't pull in until about 12:55pm.

Now in the grand scheme of things, a 25 minute train delay is not a life-altering event, but just consider the small slice of life I illustrated above and magnify that by thousands and you can start to get a sense of how the recent rash of train delays have impacted the lives and plans of thousands and thousands of average everyday commuters who traveled back and forth between New Jersey and New York this past week.

Those delays made national headlines across a nation wrestling with crumbling infrastructure issues.

As I write these words the U.S. Senate (during a rare weekend session) gathers to vote today on an absurd amendment tucked into the long-delayed highway infrastructure spending bill by Republican Senators that would (drum roll please...) repeal the Affordable Care Act. 

As Jeff Goldman reported on the Website on Friday morning, NJ Transit was still announcing train delays of at least 30 minutes going in and out of Penn Station even after the delays that disrupted commuter service on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) line on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.

As commuter Jeff Schneider told New York TV station WCBS-2 during an interview on Friday about NJ Transit's response to the delays, “They raise fares 9 percent and then they say they have delays. ‘It’s Amtrak trouble,’ it’s always the same excuse,”

Hudson rail tunnel? Not a priority for Gov. Christie [Photo - AP]
In response to a flood of similar passenger complaints, on Thursday, a day after NJ Transit issued a public apology to thousands of outraged rail passengers, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie refused to answer a New York Times reporter's question about whether or not he cared about the NJ commuters impacted by the delays.

Frankly speaking, he doesn't care.

And it's not just because politically acitve billionaires like the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and the other deep-pocketed Republican rainmakers whose campaign money Christie covets use private planes instead of NJ Transit trains.

During Christie's two terms he's had ample opportunity to work with the New Jersey legislature to authorize spending to start construction of the long-delayed project to build a new rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York, but he's flatly refused to do so.

In October of 2010, Christie canceled the start of construction on what was then known as the ARC Tunnel project because the cost of the project (estimated to be as high as $20 billion) would have meant increasing state taxes to help fund the state's share of the construction.

Grover Norquist, Republican architect of fiscal disaster
NJ taxpayers already pay some of the highest taxes in the nation and the rail tunnel project could have been financed with a modest increase of about 15 cents a gallon on gasoline, or through other proposed revenue growth methods.

But Christie, like so many other Republican governors, state legislators and at least 279 members of Congress, has quietly signed onto the bizarre "no new taxes" pledge of extremist anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform organization.

Republican governors like Sam Brownback of Kansas, or presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal of Louisiana have literally dragged their state economies to the brink of fiscal disaster over their refusal to violate a pledge not to raise taxes to create much-needed state revenue.

But they stubbornly cling on to their "pledge" to Grover Norquist - a non-elected fringe "starve the beast" anti-tax advocate whose economic theories have been dismissed by actual economists like Christina and David Romer of the National Bureau of Economic Research, William Niskanen, chairman emeritus of the Cato Institute and Princeton economist, author and Princeton University professor Paul Krugman.

So instead of demonstrating visionary leadership to meet the infrastructure needs of NJ citizens, Christie has chosen to put his doomed presidential ambitions over the needs of the constituents he was elected to serve in order to be able to tell a fringe wing of the Republican party that he didn't raise taxes.   

In a statement last week, Christie even had the gall to try and pass blame for the train delays onto President Obama and the obstructionist do-nothing Republican-led Congress that has blocked the President's requests for a comprehensive infrastructure spending bill for the past seven years.

In an effort to deflect anger at his own refusal to use his political clout to address the rail infrastructure issue, Christie said: “We have tried again and again to work cooperatively with Amtrak to resolve these issues, but in the face of this repeated and unacceptable failure, I am calling on the Obama Administration and Congress to step up to their responsibility to the people of New Jersey and to the largest and most important regional infrastructure system in the nation.”

It's absurd.

Not because of Christie's politics, he's simply not a visionary leader capable of inspiring hope.

It's absurd because the train delays inconveniencing thousands of commuters are not a complex problem that just popped up out of nowhere, it's a fixable one. Let's go back to the rail tunnel project.

Construction of the North Tunnel 1905
As anyone who has taken an Amtrak or NJ Transit train between New Jersey and New York knows, commuter trains that travel back and forth between New York's Penn Station and the state of New Jersey pass through a pair of massive underground tunnels known as the North River Tunnels.

The tunnels sit side by side about 37 feet apart, they start on the west side of Manhattan near 11th avenue, pass underneath the Hudson River and end at an entry-exit point in Weehawken, New Jersey.

They were built by the Pennsylvania Railroad and construction to dig the two shafts for the tunnels started in 1904.

They were first used to carry train traffic in 1910, so the current tunnels have been in use continually for 115 years in a regional rail network that's one of the heaviest traveled in the world.

During peak hours on weekdays at least 24 different trains per hour pass through the inbound tunnel in the morning, or the outbound New Jersey-bound tunnel in the afternoon-evenings.

The recent travel delays that affected so many commuters last week, stem from two basic facts, both of which are related to the age of the tunnels.

Pantograph on the top of an Amtrak train car
Most NJ Transit and Amtrak trains are powered by electricity which passes from the overhead catenary wires that run directly over the tracks through a series of those folding hinge mechanisms you see attached to the top of train cars called pantographs (pictured left).

During super storm Sandy, one of the two tunnels was flooded for the first time causing damage to the tunnel's structure, the drainage systems designed to prevent flooding and the overhead catenary wires that power the trains.

The overhead wires are over 80 years old.

The corrosion of the overhead catenary wires from the flood damage, combined with the strain on the system from overuse and extreme temperatures in summer and winter are what led to the disabled passenger train that got stuck in the tunnel last Monday when the temperatures were at least 100 degrees outside with the humidity.

It isn't just something that can be "fixed" by sending some workers into the tunnel and doing repairs.

Passenger rail traffic on the NEC line has increased exponentially over the years and the 115 year-old tunnels with their 80 year-old overhead wires simply weren't built to handle that kind of volume; not without major renovations and certainly not with the flood damage from Sandy.

And the clock is ticking. In 2014, Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman went on record as saying that within 20 years, at least one of the tunnels would have to be shut down for an extended time period to conduct major repairs.

The only real "fix" is to begin construction on a new set of tunnels under the Hudson River as soon as possible so that rail service is ready to be switched over to the new tunnels before the current tunnel is forced to be shut down.

It's the kind of large-scale project that needs active broad-based support from a coalition of public and private interests, and co-financed by a combination of federal and state spending; including the sale of bonds.

The federal government has already committed billions in funds to the project but cost over runs would be the responsibility of the state of New Jersey and that means raising taxes and Chris Christie won't violate his pledge to Grover Norquist.

Sound absurd given the scope of the problem and how many people are affected? It is.

Construction should have started years ago but unfortunately we're stuck with the most unproductive and politically polarized Republican Congress in American history and a Republican Governor in New Jersey who lacks the vision, guts and political will to get the project started.

The costs? An estimated $20 billion. Amtrak already has engineering, planning and environmental impact studies underway for what's currently being called the "Gateway Project".

But what's sad is the reality that the federal government was willing to squander over $1 trillion on a failed, decade-long war in Iraq that killed thousands of people but didn't make us any safer.

$20 billion is a drop in the bucket compared to the tax dollars spent in Iraq on George W. Bush's un-financed war; remember, he flatly refused to raise taxes for the war.
In the meantime it's taxpayers who use Amtrak and NJ Transit to get in and out of New York who are paying the price for politicians who just keep passing the buck and burying their heads in the sand from the inevitable truth.

The commuter delays we saw last week will seem like nothing compared to what happens if one of the current rail tunnels is forced to close in the next ten to fifteen years.

If one of those tunnels is closed, the resulting increase in vehicular traffic in and out of New York City will have an equally nightmarish effect on commuters and could have totally unforeseen effects on the economy.

What if the commute becomes such a nightmare that some large employers decide to pack up and relocate from New York because it's already too expensive for their employees to raise families there and getting to and from work would become next to impossible?

What if one of the tunnels is forced to close ten years before construction starts on the new tunnel?

What if Chris Christie put as much energy into forging a lasting political legacy built on being the governor who got the high-speed tunnel project started?

What if he put the same energy into improving the lives of commuters and improving New Jersey's infrastructure as he does enacting revenge on politicians who oppose him, or lambasting teachers and union members who question his policies on pension reform?

What if Christie had just gone ahead and approved the start of the project back in 2010? The shafts for the new tunnel might have been half-way to New York by now and Christie might have been viewed as a presidential candidate unafraid to tackle the kinds of large-scale challenges other politicians shirk from.

But as it is, yesterday my niece turned fourteen years-old and she may very well be thirty four by the time the new Hudson rail tunnels are completed.

Maybe starting construction on the new tunnels is kind of like turning fourteen; once you do there's no turning back. And though that comes with a whole new set of challenges and obstacles, ultimately it's a good thing.

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