Eric Davis: Don’t play politics with critical infrastructure
Pennsylvania Station in New York City, opened in 1910, was one of the great civil engineering accomplishments of the early 20th century. Covering three square blocks in midtown Manhattan, Penn Station sits above a complex of 21 tracks, with tunnels extending eastward to Long Island under the East River and westward to New Jersey under the Hudson River.
The original Penn Station, designed by the noted architects McKim, Mead and White, was a Beaux-Arts masterpiece of marble and granite. Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania Railroad tore down this station in the 1960s to make way for an office building and Madison Square Garden. Today’s Penn Station, a crowded underground complex, is the busiest transportation hub in the Western Hemisphere, serving Amtrak, the Long Island Railroad, New Jersey Transit, and the New York City Subway.
The two railroad tunnels under the Hudson River, connecting Penn Station and New Jersey, were built between 1904 and 1908. At the time of their construction they were the longest underwater tunnels in the world. These tunnels are one of the most critical pieces of infrastructure in the United States, serving trains carrying over 300,000 passengers a day to and from New York City. During rush hours, trains are scheduled through the tunnels every 150 seconds.
In 2012, the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy flooded the tunnels, damaging overhead wires, electrical systems and concrete walls. In 2014, an engineering study concluded that the Hudson River tunnels had less than 20 years of useful life remaining. In recent years, failures of power, signal and switching systems in the tunnels have frequently led to massive congestion and delays in Penn Station.
In 2011, New York and New Jersey began planning for the Gateway Project, a massive upgrade of Penn Station and its infrastructure. Most visible to passengers would be a relocation of the Penn Station waiting rooms, ticket office and retail operations from the crowded underground areas they now occupy to new facilities in the old Post Office building just across Eighth Avenue from Penn Station. The new space would be named Moynihan Train Hall, in memory of New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
More important in terms of infrastructure, however, would be boring two additional railroad tunnels under the Hudson River. Once the new tunnels were completed, the two existing tunnels would be renovated. At the end of the project, rail capacity under the Hudson River would be doubled, allowing Amtrak and New Jersey Transit to substantially increase their service into New York City. This project would also have significant environmental benefits, potentially removing several hundred thousand automobile trips a day from congested roads.
The estimated cost of the Gateway Project is $30 billion. Late in 2016, state and federal officials negotiated an agreement to split the cost evenly between the federal government, on the one hand, and New York and New Jersey, on the other. In accordance with this agreement, congressional committees have included $950 million in federal funds for the Gateway Project in the omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal 2018 that must be approved by March 23.
Last week, President Trump reportedly insisted to House Speaker Paul Ryan — at a memorial service for Billy Graham, no less — that Congress include no funds for the Gateway Project in the upcoming appropriations bill. Trump supposedly believes the project is a boondoggle that should be paid for primarily by New York and New Jersey taxpayers. Has Trump already forgotten that as a real estate developer, he was often the beneficiary of substantial taxpayer assistance?
One reason for Trump’s pique is apparently that one of the principal supporters of Gateway is Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate Minority Leader with whom the president has an on-again, off-again relationship. In any case, one hopes that cooler heads prevail, the 2016 agreement is adhered to, and work on this nationally important infrastructure project continues.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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