New Yorkers of all types have one thing in common: they’re usually on the move. The city abounds with avenues for transportation, from the numerous historic bridges to the ubiquitous subway system. While intra-city transportation dominates headlines, one important, sometimes neglected cohort are those who travel in and out of the city to conduct their business.
If you’re not a daily commuter braving the 9-mile stretch between New Jersey and Manhattan, you might not be familiar with The Hudson Tunnel Project. While it may not attract as much attention as other infrastructure issues, the project is largely deemed the most desperately needed such effort in the country. It aims to modernize and rehabilitate New York City’s existing North River Tunnel, damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and construct a new Hudson River rail tunnel serving Penn Station. The existing tunnel connects Newark to New York City, transporting 200,000 suburban commuters daily. Running approximately 450 trains every weekday, it is the only passenger rail connection between Manhattan and New Jersey. The tunnel also enables Boston-to-Washington service on the nation’s busiest passenger rail route.
The North River Tunnel, built in 1910, consists of two, single-track, electrified rail tubes. Without the project, the tunnel will become more unreliable, with power lines and signal cables failing so regularly that at least one of the tunnels would need to be closed to undergo long-term repairs. This would force the remaining tube, assuming it could maintain operations, to accommodate two-way traffic, thus severely reducing rail service. That setback would instantly cripple the entire Northeast Corridor, forcing more commuters onto impossibly jammed roadways.
It’s easy to see the benefits of the project to New York and the country as a whole. There is an economic necessity to connect commuters to America’s finance and media capital. While the overall impact is debated between supporters and non-supporters, the tunnel is a necessary entryway into a city that accounts for 10 percent of the country’s GDP, and supporters estimate that losing the railway due to eroding concrete and short-circuiting electric cables would cost the country $100 million per day, possibly triggering a national recession. Of course, we should want to maintain and improve service on the Northeast Corridor, which has a ridership equivalent to one-third of all passengers on US domestic flights. Plus, there are the climate benefits to helping clear roads of emissions from highway traffic.
The first phase of the project includes the new railway tunnel under the Hudson, as well as a new Portal Bridge that’s high enough to accommodate passing boats. The existing swing bridge, also constructed in 1910, fails to close properly one out of every seven times it opens to allow boats to pass, forcing maintenance crews to manually bash it back into place with a sledgehammer. Larger efforts, known as the Gateway project, would repair the existing tunnels and add a second new Portal Bridge, providing the Northeast Corridor with the same four-track capacity as the rest of the line. It also includes an expansion of Penn Station, which handles more travelers than the city’s three major airports combined. The Portal Bridge already has the necessary permits, and the environmental review for the new tunnel has been fast-tracked and is awaiting approval by the Transportation Department. The current delay is the result of the project being caught up in a policy war, with the Trump Administration delaying its grants, loans, and permits, which is problematic because every year of delay for the tunnel alone is expected to add another $500 million to its price tag.
But the existing North River Tunnel is already at capacity. At rush hour there are 24-25 trains entering Manhattan, the maximum number possible. And, according to the Gateway website, a closure could reduce capacity by 75 percent. The implications of the Hudson Tunnel Project go beyond improving a painful commute. It’s about preserving a cornerstone of a thriving economy, within the city and beyond.