Anyone who commutes using NJ Transit is probably more than familiar with the delays and problems that plague the system. The last workday before Labor Day this year saw 15 trains cancelled during the Friday morning rush, approaching the record of 20 train cancellations in one day. The Northeast Corridor alone had five cancellations due to a lack of engineers to run the trains, according to reporting by nj.com. Breakdowns and problems with a new safety system called Positive Train Control caused other delays.
Governor Phil Murphy has pledged to fix these issues but has warned that things might not get better for some time. And there’s the distinct possibility that they could get worse: catastrophically worse, in fact.
A coalition of nonprofit, business, and labor groups called the Build Gateway Now coalition has formed to say that disaster can only be averted by upgrading New Jersey’s passenger rail link to New York, which runs through a pair of ancient and decaying tunnels.
These tunnels carry 200,000 people to work in New York every day. It doesn’t take a transportation expert to realize that if just one of them shuts down for whatever reason, the daily commuting nightmare goes into Freddy Krueger territory.
The political leaders of New York and New Jersey are on board with the $30 billion Gateway project, which would build a pair of new tunnels along with some other infrastructure upgrades. However, the project is currently being held up by national politics, as the Trump administration has reneged on an Obama pledge to pay for half the project, with New York and New Jersey each kicking in 25 percent.
One of the key players in this advocacy push is the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit group that has proven remarkably influential over its 96-year history. It has released only four regional plans over that span of time, but all have had an impact on the way the area around New York has developed. The RPA is credited with proposing the current site of the George Washington Bridge, getting the Palisades Parkway built, and launching revitalization plans in Brooklyn, Newark, and Stamford, Connecticut.
The RPA’s fourth plan came out in 2017, and it heavily emphasizes the need to improve transit, especially in New Jersey. The latest plan encompassed not just transit, but addressed economic inequality, affordable housing, and global warming, among other topics. “We still have too few opportunities for many people,” said RPA CEO Tom Wright. “We have an affordability crisis that is terrible and getting worse. We are more vulnerable to natural disasters … and our government institutions … the agencies that are supposed to be doing the investing and planning and thinking for us are really not able to do that today.”
Wright, whose father was a lawyer and vice president at Princeton University, grew up on the Upper West Side in Manhattan and moved to Princeton, where he currently lives, at a young age. He has a bachelor’s degree from Princeton and a master’s from Columbia. He has been with the RPA since 2001 and before that was deputy executive director for the New Jersey Office of State Planning.
Wright is familiar with the aggravation faced daily by commuters who depend on the overburdened and under-invested NJ Transit system, as he is one. The RPA has offices in New York and at 179 Nassau Street in Princeton.
“The fastest-growing industry in the state is called ‘commuting to Manhattan,’” he said. (This is partly the doing of the RPA, which throughout its history has advocated building up the urban core of New York into an economic powerhouse.)
A key part of this industry is the Northeast Corridor rail line, which crosses from Weehawken, New Jersey, to Penn Station in Manhattan via the North River Tunnels. The tunnels, which are also used by Amtrak trains, were built between 1904 and 1908 and carried their first passengers in 1910.
The tunnels, situated in the mud of the Hudson, are a fragile link in the region’s transportation system. They literally move back and forth each day with the tides. In 2012 their vulnerability to disaster was vividly illustrated when Superstorm Sandy’s surge sent seawater flowing through the streets of New York and down through ventilation shafts into the tunnels. The water was pumped out easily enough, but the corrosive salt water had already done its damage. The “bench walls” within the tunnels are now cracked, leaving wiring, cables, and equipment vulnerable to further corrosion.
Wright notes that if one of the two tunnels has to be closed for repairs, it will not cut the capacity in half, as one might assume, but instead reduce it to one-fourth, since one tunnel would have to accommodate trains going both directions.
“In less than 20 years we are going to have to shut them down for years to rebuild the infrastructure … we’re living on borrowed time,” Wright said. “That would be an economic death blow to our state. Just think of the crisis that this would produce. I think it would be a mini recession for our state.”
Another aspect of the Gateway project is building a new Portal Bridge to replace a drawbridge that frequently delays trains when it opens for shipping in the Hackensack River. Wright called the delay in the Gateway Project scandalous. “Getting Gateway built and funded has got to be one of our highest priorities,” he said.
As a commuter Wright knows firsthand the cost of unreliable mass transit, and it extends beyond missing an hour of work in the morning, or coming home to a cold supper at night. At Saturday morning meeting of Princeton Future — a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to improving quality of life in the region — he asked the audience how many people had been stuck in Penn Station for two hours on the previous Thursday evening. A dozen hands went up. Wright described a mass of people clogged in the station. On a similar occasion someone thought they heard a gunshot — a panic ensured. Just waiting for the train, in effect, could become a security issue.
Long-range, Wright says, other improvements are planned. There is talk of moving Madison Square Garden to allow more capacity for Penn Station. Newark Airport needs an overhaul, he said, including the addition of a fourth runway. There is also a plan for moving the main terminal to the Northeast Corridor rail line. Passengers would check their bags, process their tickets, and then take a train to the plane.
Wright is reminded of some of the planning challenges every time he arrives at the Princeton Junction train station to catch a train to New York. “I consider the Princeton Junction train station to be a daily affront to everything I have done in my career. It’s a waste of public space, a missed opportunity.” There is vast potential at and near the existing train stations in the Regional Plan Association coverage area. “If we took three-fourths of the parking lots at the stations we could create another 250,000 homes, and they would all be within walking distance of the train,” he said.
Zoning changes could help with the housing shortage. “If we simply made it easy for ‘granny flats’ to be created [spaces carved out of garages, guest rooms, etc. in what are now single family homes], we could produce more than 500,000 new homes with no new construction,” Wright said.
As expensive as the construction of a new train tunnel will be, Wright said, it will be an investment that will pay for itself. The rule of thumb, he said, is that you can add $3,000 to the value of a house for every minute you knock off the commute time from the home to a major metropolitan area. If you cut a town’s commuting time to New York by 15 minutes you can add $45,000 to each house. The Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project that then-Gov. Chris Christie cancelled in 2010 would have cost about $12 billion. It would have created $18 billion in increased home values through the region.
“Part of the beauty of Princeton Future is its local focus,” Wright told group at the Princeton Future meeting. “But it is also part of the metropolitan region and its issues. If we aren’t careful, we could be overrun by them.”
The recent suspension of the Dinky shuttle train between downtown Princeton and the main line at Princeton Junction is a case in point. The line remains suspended until at least mid-January, not because of any problems with the line itself but because NJ Transit is diverting the resources used for the Dinky to other priorities.
“NJ Transit is in crisis mode,” Wright said. Metro North pays conductors more than NJ Transit, so it has a shortage of people to run the Dinky. In addition it has to divert people to address the implementation of positive train control, the collision avoidance system that was supposed to be implemented over a six-year period but after five years was only 10 percent done.
“The Dinky doesn’t make sense for them,” said Wright. “If we aren’t thinking about how to address it, then it could fall off the table.” His suggestion for the Dinky: Modernize it and convert it to light rail and extend it farther into Princeton’s downtown area.
In October, Princeton’s council passed a symbolic resolution protesting the Dinky closure.
Positive Train Control is just one example of dysfunction in NJ Transit that has grown worse for years. PTC is an automated system that uses computers and GPS signals to control the speed of trains. The system prevents trains from exceeding speed limits and automatically stops trains if the engineer does not slow it down enough before reaching the station.
The system is designed to prevent exactly the kind of accident that occurred in 2016 when an engineer failed to brake a train coming into Hoboken station and crashed into the platform at about 21 mph. One person died and another 114 were injured.
The accident came eight years after Congress had already mandated PTC for all commuter trains in the country to be completed by the end of 2018. That mandate came in the wake of a deadly commuter train crash in California, but NJ Transit has been slow to install the system and has been granted an extension of the deadline to 2020 to install and test the equipment (thought it still must install the hardware by the original deadline).
Under Murphy, NJ Transit is rushing to play catch up with PTC and the agency is blaming the upgrade effort for many recent disruptions.
In RPA’s report, transit is tied to every other issue.
The economic future of New York and the smaller cities in the area depends on transit. Access to transit is crucial for lower-income people to access jobs and education opportunities. And on the environmental front, experts agree that reducing the use of cars, and having transit as an alternative, appears to be necessary to lower carbon emissions enough that human civilization can continue into the next century. (A carbon tax is another one of the big ideas proposed in the RPA’s most recent report.)
“All these issues are very interconnected,” Wright says. “In order to have the funding to support building mass transit, you need to have people to generate the tax base. Building it creates a virtuous cycle that allows housing and jobs to the region. It becomes a self-reinforcing thing.”
Given its New York focus, most of RPA’s work focuses on the metropolis. But parts of it are relevant to the Route 1 corridor.
“The Route 1 Corridor has always been kind of an interesting area,” Wright says. “It’s straddling two metropolitan regions, one of which is larger and faster growing than the other. From Trenton, you’ve got a one-seat ride to both Philadelphia and New York.” (A one-seat ride is transit jargon for being able to travel somewhere without changing vehicles.)
But the Route 1 corridor is not just a suburb, but a mini economic center of its own, with a pharmaceutical industry that, while diminished from its glory days, remains an engine of economic activity. It’s also in the midst of a transition in workplace environments. “The Route 1 corridor is kind of built up around these suburban office campuses. But now there’s so little demand for them, it’s reinventing itself with a new batch of industries and things. The future is embodied in downtowns: places like Princeton and Hopewell Borough and other small communities.”
Wright believes Mercer County depends on its connection to New York more than any other area, and more vulnerable to tunnel problems, since it represents a single point of failure in its connection to the metro area. Princeton Junction, with 7,000 daily riders, is among the top five most heavily used station in the entire NJ Transit system, with Hamilton just behind, most of these riders destined for New York. Wright believes Mercer County would be the “epicenter” of any economic downturn caused by transit failures.
Wright and his colleague, Nat Bottigheimer, RPA’s New Jersey director, were blunt in their assessment of Chris Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC project, a predecessor to the Gateway project. “Christie stupidly cancelled it,” Bottigheimer said. The project has grown more expensive during its long delay, and New Jersey has missed out on economic growth that would have occurred had it been built.
Like Wright, Bottigheimer is all too familiar with the perils of commuting to New York on NJ Transit. He grew up in Stonybrook, New York, with a historian father. He has a bachelor’s from Harvard, a master’s from Berkeley, and an extensive background in transit. Before joining the RPA in July, Bottigheimer worked for transportation planning firm Fehr & Peers, where he led the opening of its Washington, D.C., office. Before that he was a planner for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and with the Maryland Department of Transportation.
The RPA has its eye on several major infrastructure projects in Mercer County. Its report recommends “boulevardizing” Route 29 through Trenton, turning the limited-access highway into a typical city boulevard with traffic lights. This would make the river more accessible to the rest of the city and open the way for riverfront development.
This would be a step towards the larger goal of revitalizing Trenton (which the Gateway project would also help by making NJ Transit more reliable.) In particular, transit would help make Trenton more appealing to middle-class workers. Wright says studies show that young families moving to the suburbs are looking for places to live that are not car-dependent, and that they stay away from places like Trenton because of NJ Transit horror stories.
Wright suspects that the transit woes may be affecting housing at the high end also, noting that Princeton currently has an unsold inventory of multimillion dollar homes.
Wright says towns in Mercer County should be encouraging development and homebuilding close to existing train stations. For example, he says the Princeton Junction train station should build housing and retail where there currently is parking. While it may seem crazy to do this when “park and ride” remains a popular option, Wright notes that car services like Uber and Lyft offer a potential alternative model for the way these stations could work.
“Mobility as a service” is an increasingly viable alternative to car ownership,” he says, especially for those who live within a mile or two of the train station. He says NJ Transit could even partner with these services to offer rides for commuters. Other short trips could be made by bikes and electric scooters. Local roadways could be redesigned to be made safer for these smaller vehicles.
Self-driving cars might also one day cut down on the amount of land that is currently given over to parking, making room for homes, schools, shops, and other more valuable uses.
The sale of the land to developers would also provide a way for NJ Transit to finance its projects. In Hong Kong, the transit system there has funded infrastructure improvements from selling real estate.
Bottigheimer said there is a “crisis of imagination” that prevents redevelopment like this from taking place.
Wright and Bottigheimer said another idea that could work in Central New Jersey is Bus Rapid Transit. This form of mass transit splits the difference between a bus and a train. A BRT system uses buses, but unlike traditional buses, which use public streets, BRT lines have dedicated rights-of-way for the buses so they can move unimpeded by traffic. Such a system was proposed for Route 1 in 2007 and quietly shelved due to cost.
But according to Matthew Lawson, principal transportation planner for Mercer County, the idea is getting a second look. Lawson says Bus Rapid Transit is being discussed by a group called the Central New Jersey Transportation Forum, which is made up of several local planning agencies.
Lawson says the original BRT proposal came out of a half-century old planning effort. When it was brought up in 2007, it didn’t get any traction due to cost — a line going north-south along Route 1, in an express lane separated from traffic, would have cost $100 to $200 million. But, Lawson says, “our ideas about appropriate planning have changed. We’re much more multi-modal now.” He says continuing the old strategies of building more roads to relieve congestion risks leading to “more of the same but worse.”
Lawson says the most significant project currently moving forward is a decades-old plan to widen Route 1. Soon NJDOT will add a lane between Alexander Road and Mapleton Road. Longer-range plans include building an overpass at Washington Road, eliminating the traffic light there.
But will all this planning amount to anything? It’s hard to say, but the powers-that-be are paying attention. At the RPA in April Governor Phil Murphy gave a speech on his plans to invest heavily in mass transit, infrastructure, and education. Hillary Clinton spoke at the same event.
Murphy was supportive of the RPA’s plan. “Our administration has no interest in doing things the same old way. This is a transformative time for our state. In a way, we’re lucky that we started where we did — at the bottom — because it allows us to think outside of the box, to dream big and to act bold,” Murphy said.