A summer of pain for N.J. commuters
New York — The Hudson River is 1,500 yards wide where it flows between Manhattan and Weehawken, New Jersey, but it can feel like 150 miles for the hordes of commuters who make the crossing via a pair of century-old rail tunnels that constitute one of the worst transportation bottlenecks in America.
This year, people aboard the 472 trains that squeeze through the crumbling, single-track tunnels each weekday have been subjected to one maddening delay after another.
Trains have broken down. Electrical cables have failed. There have been signal problems and closings because of ice.
Travelers are fed up.
Victoria Perrin, who commutes to a human resources job from Montclair, New Jersey, had to shell out $45 one day to take cabs when the trains stopped running. Michael Morrison, a Morgan Stanley financial adviser from Locust, New Jersey, said he doesn’t schedule meetings before 10 a.m. anymore because there’s no guarantee he will arrive at work on time.
“Even in the best-case scenario, you’re sitting out in the Meadowlands somewhere, just sitting there waiting for your turn to get into the tunnel,” said Marci McLarty, who works for a publishing company and comes in from West Orange, New Jersey.
The delays have been so bad lately that federal, state and city officials have begun talking with new urgency about long-stalled plans to build a second set of tunnels across the river.
The plan of the moment, a project Amtrak calls Gateway, is the type of megaproject that civil engineers dream of. In addition to two new rail tubes, it would involve replacing a major rail bridge, building 10 miles of new track, and taking over an entire Manhattan block, now filled with skyscrapers, to make way for a new rail hub.
But with a price tag that could hit $20 billion, nobody wants to pay for it.
Top elected officials in New York and New Jersey say they want the federal government to pick up the tab. Congress has offered only loans. Amtrak, which owns the existing tunnels, has tens of billions of dollars in deferred maintenance to take care of elsewhere in the Northeast and will probably never have the money to pay for the project on its own.
Even if the politicians managed the scrape up the money, it could take at least a decade to complete the new tunnels.
Caught in the middle are 87,000 New Jersey Transit rail passengers who use the tunnels on a typical weekday.
“It’s been horrendous. I’m not usually a crying person, but New Jersey Transit has brought me to tears on a number of occasions,” said Trevar Riley-Reid, who commutes from Linden, New Jersey, to her job as a librarian at the City College of New York.
Her trip home from work is supposed to take about an hour and 10 minutes, but it often exceeds two hours, leaving her with little time for her 9-year-old daughter.
On Monday, she couldn’t get to work at all when a train stalled in the tunnel during the morning rush, just as a vehicle fire blocked one of the few routes for buses entering the city.
“We are going to have to move to New York. That means selling my house that I’ve lived in for 15 years. It means uprooting my daughter,” Riley-Reid said. “I’m not ready to leave yet, but the situation is making me think seriously about it.”
In fairness to New Jersey Transit, many of the delays are due to the deteriorating conditions on the Northeast Corridor, a rail line controlled mostly by Amtrak. Of the 1,252 New Jersey Transit trains that were delayed in the 90 days that ended Aug. 17, 1,085 were slowed by problems on the Northeast Corridor line. The most common problems were due to Amtrak’s aging power system.
Mechanical problems happen elsewhere on the aging rail corridors that serve the Northeast, but at the Hudson crossing, every problem is magnified because there are so many passengers and so few alternative routes.
The twin tunnels hold just one track each, and when one has to be taken out of service, the number of trains that can use the tubes per hour drops from 24 to six.
You can get on a bus, but good luck with that. Even when the trains are running, the one bridge and two car tunnels connecting New York City with New Jersey are jammed.
A light-rail system, the PATH, also crosses the Hudson farther downriver, but it has limited capacity, and getting there involves a major detour for many New Jersey commuters.
Transportation planners have been saying for decades that what the region really needs is another set of rail tunnels.
Work had actually begun on a pair of new tubes when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie killed that $8.7 billion project in 2010, saying it was poorly designed and too costly for New Jersey residents. At the time, the decision gave him credibility as a fiscal conservative, but lately it has made him a punching bag in his own state.
Christie has defended the decision, saying there was no way he was going to let New Jersey residents get “shafted by New York,” which hadn’t been contributing major funding to that project.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has taken a similar tone about the Gateway plan.
“It’s not my tunnel! Why don’t you pay for it?” he said at a news conference.
The existing tunnels may be operating on borrowed time. Three years ago, Hurricane Sandy pushed the salty Hudson up over its banks and into the tubes, causing corrosion that continues unchecked.
Amtrak has warned it will eventually have to shut down both tubes, one at a time, for a complete overhaul. Commuters got a taste of what that would look like in July, when an electrical failure dramatically reduced the tunnels’ capacity for nearly a week, causing hours-long delays during the morning and evening rush.