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by Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
Picture this: After a long day at the office, you hurry to the nearby train station, joining the crowd of other commuters rushing to their respective platforms. Keeping up with the frantic pace of other passengers, you speed-walk through the concourse area elbow-to-elbow; a step separates you from the people in front of and behind you. After funneling two-by-two down an escalator, you finally reach the platform. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a seat on the train.
For hundreds of thousands of New York City-area commuters, this chaotic scene is part of daily life. Welcome to Penn Station New York, where you know the peak period is under way when you can no longer see the tiles on the floor.
The good news is that, at least in the New Jersey Transit concourse, Penn Station can’t get much more crowded — the agency is operating the most trains possible into Mahnattan. The bad news is, well, NJ Transit can’t run any more trains into Penn Station.
The only available passenger-train route from New Jersey into Manhattan is through the Amtrak-owned Hudson River Tunnels. One single-track tunnel is reserved for trains heading into Manhattan and the other, for trains heading out. It’s through those 100-year-old tunnels that NJ Transit operates peak-period trains every two minutes, carrying 150,000 passengers daily into and out of Penn Station on 315 revenue trains. With annual ridership growth hovering around 6 percent, NJ Transit officials are constantly seeking ways to squeeze a little bit more capacity out of the already stretched system.
But they can’t keep doing that forever. A longer-term solution is needed — and sooner rather than later. During the next 25 years, housing growth west of the Hudson River is expected to soar, with regional planners projecting more than 1.5 million additional residents. During that same time frame, the midtown Manhattan job market is expected to grow by 350,000 jobs. With the region’s road system more than maxed out and the passenger-rail system operating at capacity, it doesn’t take an engineer to figure out the current transportation system can’t accommodate the projected growth.
“We are a region that is competing globally ... and in order for the entire region to retain its competitive edge, business attraction, corporate development and job creation, we need a sound, relevant, reliable, fast and frequent transit network,” says NJ Transit Executive Director George Warrington, who in January announced he will leave the agency at the end of March (see sidebar).
Keeping Rail Relevant
But not without leaving his mark. During the past several years, Warrington & Co. have led an effort to advance work on a years-in-the-making project that will keep NJ Transit’s rail system, as Warrington says, relevant. The Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project calls for building two Trans-Hudson Express (THE) tunnels underneath the Hudson River and a new station beneath 34th Street in Manhattan that connects with Penn Station.
Adjusted for inflation, the project will cost $7.5 billion, and to NJ Transit officials, it’s worth every penny. The project will enable NJ Transit to double service into Manhattan, and while it might not necessarily relieve crowding at Penn Station, it will make room for thousands more passengers to access midtown Manhattan. ARC also will enable NJ Transit to provide more one-seat rides into the Big Apple and expand service into other areas of the state. And an expanded and efficient transportation system is crucial to making the area more attractive to potential residents and businesses.
“If people can’t move in and out of the central business district with ease, they won’t want to live anywhere in the area,” says Mark La Vorgna, spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a partner in the ARC project. “When the New York City Transit strike occurred [in December 2005], there were mob scenes at Penn Station. In 20 years, that will become the reality. If you don’t plan for future growth, you’ll drown in it.”
Warrington, for one, couldn’t agree more. And he knows firsthand how hard it is to transform an inadequate system.
Although he took the top post at NJ Transit in 2002 after serving four years as Amtrak’s chief, he was no stranger to NJ Transit. Having previously served the agency for 10 years shortly after its 1979 creation, Warrington had the historical perspective on (and appreciation for) what it took to get the rail system where it is today. And he wasn’t about to let the system lose ground under his watch.
Sitting in a conference room in the executive suite of NJ Transit’s downtown Newark, N.J., headquarters on a mid-January morning, Warrington reminisces about what he terms “the bad old days.” It was the mid-1970s, when a fresh-out-of-college Warrington was working for the New Jersey DOT. NJ Transit hadn’t yet been formed, and the state’s commuter-rail system was being operated by “several bankrupt freight railroads.”
“Ridership had been moving south for the better part of the decade. The average age of the fleet was 40 or 50 years, the infrastructure hadn’t been invested in for decades, dozens and dozens of daily slow orders across the railroad were not uncommon, and the system was both unreliable and irrelevant,” he says in a deflated tone that reflects just how bad the bad old days were.
But when NJ Transit took over commuter-rail operations in 1983, things slowly turned around. With assistance from the state, the agency spent several years redesigning the rail system to better meet demand. NJ Transit completed track connections and implemented service modifications designed to add capacity from New Jersey into Manhattan, upgraded the fleet and extended several lines.
“That made the system, for the first time in decades, relevant in the business, political and economic fabric of the state and region,” says Warrington.
So when he rejoined NJ Transit as executive director five years ago and realized the system’s relevance was again at risk, Warrington knew that building THE Tunnel and new midtown Manhattan station — and soon — was a must.
“We’re going to lose ground competitively and we’re going to lose the luster and attractiveness and relevance of this system if we don’t jump-start this project,” he says.
NJ Transit execs and state officials, such as then-Sen. Jon Corzine (now New Jersey’s governor) already were on board. So was the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, where Chairman Anthony Coscia has been one of the project’s biggest supporters since taking over the chairmanship in 2003.
“Our mission is to promote cross-Hudson transportation. This is the type of project that our agency was made to do,” says authority spokesman Mark
La Vorgna. “This project by far makes the most sense to carry more passengers across the Hudson and alleviate congestion.”
But that had to be proven to political leaders east of the Hudson. Even though the ARC project had been on the drawing board almost 20 years, it hadn’t been advocated much in New York. So, in conjunction with the port authority, NJ Transit conducted a regional economic study that detailed the ARC project’s benefits to New Jersey, and New York City and state.
Among them: The ARC project will eliminate 35,000 daily trans-Hudson automobile trips and 968,000 daily vehicle miles traveled, and create 6,000 new construction jobs. And the increased regional competitiveness ARC will help create will add $10 billion in gross regional product and $4 billion in real personal income, and create 44,000 permanent new jobs, according to the study.
Presenting a Case
Warrington and other NJ Transit execs presented those benefits to various groups that had political, economic, labor, environmental, real estate and/or commercial interests in the project, such as the Association for a Better New York, Manhattan’s Real Estate Board, and the mayor of New York City and his economic development staff. Execs also pointed out that the trans-Hudson road network — comprising the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, and George Washington Bridge — had routine delays of 30 minutes or more. Not to mention having only one set of passenger-rail tunnels connecting the NJ Transit system to New York is risky in this post-9/11 world.
“There was a clear realization that there’s too much at stake here to not pull the trigger on this,” says Warrington. “Public investments such as this materially strengthen competitiveness, and once they see the facts, public policy makers, business interests and the like connect those dots very, very quickly.”
Those who’ve connected them include New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Their support has helped the project move from the drawing board to a top regional priority.
“Part of this support came from New Jersey Transit’s concerted effort to go into New York and explain the project and benefit to the region,” says NJ Transit Assistant Executive Director of Capital Projects and Programs Richard Sarles. “The other part was having the right leadership in place in New York City and New York state — people who were receptive and thought along regional lines.”
While Warrington built support for the project, agency planners moved ahead with planning and draft environmental work to hopefully get the project on track for a 2016 completion.
The ARC project’s biggest component is THE Tunnel, which includes building two single-track tunnels under the Hudson River into Manhattan. Trains will travel through the tunnels and terminate at a new station deep beneath 34th Street that will feature six to eight tracks extending from 8th Avenue almost to Broadway.
The new station will include connections to the existing Penn Station, as well as connections to MTA New York City Transit’s 6th Avenue, 7th Avenue and 8th Avenue subways, and the Port Authority Trans-Hudson subway system.
“There will be a lot of interconnectivity underground and off the streets, so this in itself is a major project,” says Sarles, referring to a rendering that shows the station plans.
NJ Transit also will build a new yard to provide mid-day and overnight rail-car storage to supplement existing storage yards. In mid-January, the Federal Transit Administration gave the agency approval to release the draft environmental impact statement to the public and begin holding public hearings. Once NJ Transit completes final environmental work during the next year, it will apply for a Full Funding Grant Agreement, says Sarles.
Local funding’s already been secured. Gov. Corzine earmarked $500 million in the state’s Transportation Trust Fund for the project and in July 2006, the port authority committed $2 billion.
“Since the original World Trade Center site was built in the 1970s, this agency hasn’t partaken in a mega project that benefits the entire region,” says La Vorgna. “We’re refocusing on our mission and this is the flagship project.”
But the port authority’s not just handing over a check. It’s also helping NJ Transit acquire property in New York, and the authority’s role will expand as the project advances, La Vorgna says.
Once the project is complete, NJ Transit will be able to double the number of peak-period trains into Manhattan from 23 per hour to 46 or 48. Officials estimate daily peak-period demand will grow from 45,000 to 100,000 and daily trips will increase from 150,000 to 250,000.
The ARC project also will make commuting into the Big Apple more convenient for NJ Transit commuters.
“Today’s system will become a lot easier to take a trip on because we’re eliminating a number of transfers on several lines, and we’re going to be building out the service and extending the reach of the current system,” says Warrington.
For example, passengers who use NJ Transit’s Raritan Valley Line will be able to shave 10 minutes off their commute times. The line currently terminates at Newark Penn Station, where passengers heading to Penn Station New York have to transfer to other trains. The ARC project will provide those commuters a one-seat ride into Manhattan.
A Platform for Expansion
The additional capacity also will provide NJ Transit the opportunity to expand service on existing rail lines.
“By doubling capacity, you then have more slots to apportion to the existing rail lines,” says Sarles.
NJ Transit will have capacity to add new service, too. The agency plans soon to begin draft environmental work for the Northern Branch rail line, currently a freight line in eastern Bergen County on which NJ Transit is seeking to operate commuter-rail service. The line would offer passengers a one-seat ride into Penn Station.
NJ Transit has already started draft environmental work to extend commuter-rail service in Monmouth, Ocean and Middlesex counties — a plan that’s been on the drawing board for years, but becomes more feasible once the ARC project is complete.
“Once you have more capacity at Penn Station, you have greater potential to add service [in those counties],” says Sarles. “It’s much more attractive to those residents because they’ll have a one-seat ride into Manhattan. Otherwise, their trains would have terminated in Newark.”
The additional capacity the ARC project will create will benefit passengers system-wide. But that capacity won’t be available for another decade, so planners are taking more immediate actions to accommodate growth today.
Late last year, NJ Transit began taking delivery of 234 multi-level vehicles from Bombardier Transportation. The cars will provide up to 20 percent more capacity than the agency’s single-level cars, and feature an upper and lower seating level, as well as a “mezzanine” level at each end for standing passengers.
The initial round of cars will go into service on NJ Transit’s Newark Division, which comprises the agency’s southern New Jersey lines that travel into Penn Station New York.
But immediate relief will be felt throughout the system. The new cars will free up single-level vehicles that can be used to extend trains in other areas of the system until more multi-level vehicles are available, says Joe Meade, general superintendent of transportation for NJ Transit’s Hoboken Division, which comprises the agency’s northern lines. NJ Transit has an option to purchase an additional 195 multi-level vehicles.
More penn station plans
The agency also has a plan in the works to make more room and improve passenger flow at Penn Station before the ARC project is complete.
NJ Transit will extend platforms at Penn Station to accommodate 10- to 12-car trains. Platforms currently accommodate eight- to 10-car trains.
The agency’s also signed on as the anchor tenant of the new Moynihan Station, which will be located in the James Farley Post Office building, across from Penn Station on 8th Avenue.
Under an agreement with the Moynihan Station Development Corp., NJ Transit will have operational control of the new station, and integrate the new facilities on 8th Avenue with its existing platform and station operations under Seventh Avenue in Penn Station, as well as the planned multi-level station under 34th Street.
Moynihan Station will be located over existing Penn Station tracks and NJ Transit will install at least two escalators per platform providing access to the station, says James Samuelson, NJ Transit’s general superintendent — Penn Station New York rail operations. The station will provide an additional entrance to improve passenger flow and provide more direct access to the west side of Manhattan. The project is scheduled to be complete in 2010.
NJ Transit’s existing facilities and services play a role in the agency’s growth plans, too.
For example, NJ Transit’s three light-rail lines offer intrastate passengers travel options within cities and serve as feeder systems to the commuter-rail lines. The Newark Light Rail Line has served the city of Newark, N.J., since the 1930s. In July 2006, NJ Transit opened a one-mile extension in the downtown area that connects Newark’s two largest stations: Newark Penn Station and Broad Street Station. The extension serves the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, a baseball stadium, library, museum and several office buildings.
In April 2000, NJ Transit opened the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Line, which runs from Hoboken Terminal along the Hudson River to Jersey City and Bayonne. In February 2006, the agency finished building out the 20-mile system when it opened stations in Union City and Bergen.
Last year, ridership shot up to 38,000 passengers compared with 2005’s 23,000 in part because of the additional station openings, but also because the line continues to spur economic development.
Standing at the line’s Hoboken Terminal terminus, you can see a dozens of residential and office buildings across the river in Jersey City. They’re all new — built shortly after the creation of the light-rail line, says Dave Morgan, assistant general manager of light-rail operations.
“The area around the tracks has become a city within a city,” he says, pointing at buildings located within feet of the line. “This was all vacant land. Ten years ago, you couldn’t give real estate away here. Now, residential units are going for $750,000.”
Light rail also has helped revitalize cities in the southern part of the state, too. In March 2004, NJ Transit opened the 34-mile River LINE, which runs along the Delaware River between Camden and Trenton, the state capital. Built with state economic development grant money, the line was built as an economic development tool to help promote development in former factory towns where plants had shut down after World War II. The plan has worked — in Burlington County alone, the Office of Economic Development has recorded $1 billion in new business investment.
An added convenience
Development also will take place near NJ Transit’s Secaucus Junction station, which opened in late 2003. The $500 million facility is centrally located in Secaucus, N.J., about five miles from Hoboken Terminal, New York City and Newark. The station connects all but one of NJ Transit’s lines; prior to the station’s opening, many of the agency’s lines terminated at Hoboken Terminal, so commuters had to transfer to the Port Authority Trans-Hudson system or ferries to get into New York City. Now, passengers can travel from Hoboken Terminal to Secaucus Junction, then transfer to another NJ Transit train headed for Manhattan.
Developers plan to build a 30-story office tower and about 2,000 homes at or near the station, turning it into a transportation hub, says transportation superintendent Meade.
And in the service department, NJ Transit last fall added several thousand peak-period seats by running new early morning and evening trains on some lines. The agency added two early morning trains on the Northeast Corridor, one early morning train on the Main/Bergen Line and a morning express train and local train on the North Jersey Coast Line. NJ Transit also restored an evening peak-period train on the Morris & Essex Lines.
New leader, same focus
By continuing to expand the existing system and conduct preliminary work on the ARC project, NJ Transit officials believe they’re well positioned to handle future growth and help the New York/New Jersey region remain competitive. But they’ll be doing it under new leadership after Warrington leaves NJ Transit at month’s end. As of press time, he had declined to state publicly say where he was going, but it was obvious that regardless of where he ends up, a piece of him will always be with NJ Transit.
“I feel very good about our ongoing focus,” he says, not yet shaking the “our” from his vocabulary. “It’s important to keep the hand on the throttle and not lose momentum. We have to make sure these projects get executed while continuing to focus on our day-to-day operation.”
If they do, NJ Transit’s rail system will remain attractive — and, as Warrington likes to say, relevant — now and for years to come.