NJ Spotlight

From gridlocked highways to slashed home values, a new report from the Regional Plan Association paints an ugly picture of what New Jersey and the rest of the region could look like if a major Hudson River rail-tunnel project remains unfunded.

Mass-transit advocates have long warned that conditions inside the existing, 108-year-old Hudson River tunnel that connects New Jersey with New York are deteriorating, but they’ve largely focused on how emergency repairs would cause disruptions that could significantly impact the lives of some 200,000 commuters.

The new report from the RPA — a think tank that backs plans to build a brand-new rail tunnel — adds to that grim portrait by showing in stark detail how just a partial shutdown of the existing tunnel could impact everyone in the New Jersey-New York region, including those who never get on a train.

For example, closing just one of the tunnel’s two existing tubes would send as many as 12,000 more cars onto the region’s already busy roadways each day for the four years it would take to make emergency repairs. That would increase pollution, create traffic jams and make it more likely that motorists would get in a crash. The more limited access to New York City would also slash home values in New Jersey, with the heaviest losses experienced by those who own homes near train stations, the report said.

Local governments would also take a revenue hit from reduced property taxes, with an estimated $3 billion in losses in Bergen, Essex, Middlesex and Union counties alone over the four-year period. At the same time, the national economy would take a hit of about $16 billion, according to the report.

Delays in DC over federal share

Tom Wright, the RPA’s president, said the report details a “grim new reality” for the region as the Gateway project continues to face funding delays in Washington, D.C. The report also drew strong reactions from others, including members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation and trustees of a group created to spearhead the effort to dig a new tunnel.

“This report is clear and decisive,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ). “New Jersey is sitting on a transportation ticking time bomb."

Spearheaded by Amtrak, Gateway was the nation’s top-priority infrastructure project when former President Barack Obama was in office. It reached that elevated status after then-Gov. Chris Christie abruptly canceled a similar tunnel project known as ARC in 2010, citing concerns about potential cost overruns. Then came 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, which heavily damaged both tubes of the existing tunnel, which carries some 200,000 Amtrak and New Jersey Transit riders into and out of Manhattan each day.

While federal officials say the old tunnel is still safe to use, its condition is deteriorating, and they warn that closing just one of the two tubes for emergency repairs would reduce the number of hourly trips allowed during peak times from 24 to six.

The new tunnel envisioned under the Gateway program would add two trans-Hudson tubes allowing uninterrupted traffic between New Jersey and Penn Station in New York. Once Gateway is completed, the existing tunnel would be repaired and eventually put back in service, allowing capacity to double to keep pace with growing regional demand.

While Gateway is estimated to cost more than $10 billion, transit advocates have long stressed the need for the urgency of getting the new tunnel built before emergency repairs are required to keep the existing tunnel in service. But the administration of President Donald Trump has balked at coming up with the 50-percent share of costs established as the federal responsibility for Gateway under a prior framework hammered out by Obama and regional leaders.

Counting up the sobering costs

If it takes an estimated four years to fix the existing tunnel on an emergency basis, the RPA is projecting nearly 40,000 people who normally take NJ Transit trains to the city would have to find another way to get to work. Buses and the Port Authority’s PATH train service would become more crowded as a result, as would the region’s roadways, which would see up to 12,000 more cars each day, according to the report. The increased traffic would pump up to 2 million additional tons of carbon dioxide into the air and generate an additional 38,000 car accidents over the four-year period.

The RPA also estimates the disrupted train service along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor would increase demand on airlines, particularly those offering flights between Washington, D.C. and the New York region. That is likely to increase airline-ticket prices, on average by 65 percent once the partial shutdown begins, the report said.

Home values would also plummet by a total of $22 billion over the four-year period, the group projects. In New Jersey, where 40 percent of the homes are located within two miles of a train station, the losses would average an estimated $13,000 to $14,000. There would also be revenue losses for local governments and schools — nearly $1 billion in both Essex and Union counties over the four-year period, and $500 million each in Bergen and Middlesex counties.

The RPA estimates lost wages resulting from longer commutes would have the same effect on the region as the shedding of roughly 33,000 full-time jobs in each of the four years needed for the repairs.

The total hit on the national economy would be $4 billion annually during each of the four years of the partial shutdown, and the loss of revenue for the federal government would be an estimated $1.5 billion, the report said.

Warning of ‘dire consequences’

“It is a slow-moving, predictable crisis which we have the capacity to prevent,” said Wright, the RPA leader. The trustees of the Gateway Development Corporation, the ad-hoc group of officials from New Jersey, New York and the federal government that is leading the local effort to establish the new tunnel, said the report highlights the “dire consequences” of inaction.

“Facts matter, and the facts made clear in this report are that this region and this nation will lose billions of dollars, property values will plummet, and congestion and climate damage will get even worse if we allow the status quo of relying on a century old one-track-in, one-track-out system to continue,” the statement said.

U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherill (D-11th) said the RPA’s findings leave “no room for uncertainty.”

“The federal government must come together for the good of our entire country and move forward on the Gateway Project,” she said.

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