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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

Why 'Summer of Hell' Will Be Followed by 'Fall and Winter of Hell'

Cities, Cities Infrastructure & Transportation, New York City

Welcome to the summer of hell. That’s the branding for Amtrak’s track work at Penn Station, which will upset commutes for 210,000 daily riders until September. But it will end up being far more than a summer.

“New York and New Jersey need a tunnel. But they won’t get one for a while — at least a decade, maybe more.”

Track work is disruptive enough. But last week, New Jersey Transit and the federal agency that oversees Amtrak’s finances dropped a 27-chapter tome (plus seven appendixes) on how they’ll build an entire new rail tunnel leading to Penn.

The cost to build the tunnel and fix the old one is now $12.9 billion, up from an original $7.7 billion 2015 estimate. And since the project is only 10 percent designed, the cost will change.

What happens if we don’t do this? The future is grim for New Jersey commuters. (Long Island Rail Road commuters will soon-ish have an alternative, when a station on Manhattan’s East Side with its own tunnel opens in the next decade.)

The existing tunnel, opened in 1910, is overdue for a complete rebuilding. It’s also rotting from Superstorm Sandy damage.

Dried-out salt from the flood is still damaging the tunnel’s liner, walls, steel, track, third rail, signals and electrical parts (that’s about everything). Last week’s report notes that inside walls that protect wiring and cables are cracked, and the steel inside is corroded. (It’s safe, though.)

Workers can’t take it all apart and replace it while maintaining service. They already severely curtail service during weekends, but it’s not enough. “Service disruptions will continue to occur” and “will happen more frequently as the deterioration . . . continues and components fail in an unpredictable manner,” the report warns.

The fastest we’ll get a new tunnel is 2026. But there are clues in the report that it’ll take longer: The tunnel project is a massive construction project in a part of Manhattan that is already a massive construction site.

The region’s planning failures are obvious. The city, dating back to the Bloomberg era, has been building an entire new high-rise neighborhood just southwest of Penn Station.

Amtrak did spend $235 million a few years ago to preserve an underground passageway amid Hudson Yards construction, likely saving us multiple times that amount if they had waited. But that was a small part of the project.

No one ever considered that maybe it was better, faster and cheaper to build the rest of the major infrastructure underneath the area before building a city above it.

So Amtrak has to do “cut and cover” construction smack in the middle of Tenth Avenue just below 34th Street, a far more crowded area than it once was, for a year and a half.

“Cut and cover” is what it sounds like — you cut a hole in the ground, put stuff in it and cover it up.

Planners say Tenth Avenue would stay open, “although temporary lane closures would occur.” Trying to keep it open will inevitably add cost and time.

New Jersey Transit and the feds also want to use 29th Street between 11th Avenue and the West Side Highway as a staging and construction area for seven years — adding 42 trucks and 74 smaller vehicles to the West Side’s peak-hour afternoon traffic.

And they’ll be doing much of their work near the High Line, near high-rise “luxury” apartment buildings, both built and planned, and near a new office tower.

The household income in the area, the report notes, is $167,634 — people who haven’t signed up to live near a permanent construction site. If NJ Transit and Amtrak had built this tunnel 15 years ago — and if the states and New York City actually worked well together — they could’ve worked almost around the clock, saving years and billions.

Now, they’ll be working in just another dense part of Manhattan, with all the added expense and time that comes with it.

Then there’s the problem of getting started. To award construction contracts, the government needs money. Before President Trump took office, New York, New Jersey and the feds roughly agreed that the feds would pay half the cost, and the two states would split the other half.

Trump, though, has revoked the early budget for the project. And the states haven’t ironed out critical issues, like who’ll be responsible for cost overruns.

New York and New Jersey need a tunnel. But they won’t get one for a while — at least a decade, maybe more. Suburban commutes into Manhattan will stay less than heavenly, even as summer turns to winter.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Post


Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. Follow her on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post