What’s Going on with Hudson Tunnel Cost Overruns?

Twenty-five billion dollars. The New York region’s political heavyweights – Andrew Cuomo, Chris Christie, Chuck Schumer, Cory Booker, Bill de Blasio – all want new Hudson tunnels, without any state funding for them; Schumer is proposing federal funding and a new interstate agency, parallel to the existing Port Authority, and a total budget of $25 billion. This is the highest figure I have seen so far; Amtrak still says $16 billion and Cuomo says $14 billion, and it’s likely the Gateway tunnels are indeed about $16 billion, while the remainder is for associated projects, such as fully four-tracking the line from Newark to the tunnel portal, a distance of about 11 kilometers. It is not my intention to criticize the cost; I’ve done that before.

Instead, I would like to point out that each time Gateway is the news, there usually seems to be a fresh cost escalation. Is it a $10 billion project? A $14 billion project? A $16 billion project? Or a $25 billion project? And what is included exactly? Amtrak does not make it clear what the various items are and how much they cost; I have not seen a single cost estimate that attempts to establish a baseline for new Hudson tunnels without the Penn Station South component, which would provide a moderate short-term boost to capacity but is not necessary for the project. The articles I’ve seen do not explain the origin of the $25 billion figure, either; it may include the tunnel and full four-tracking of Newark-New York, or it may include additional scope, for example Amtrak’s planned vertical circulation for a future (unnecessary) deep cavern for high-speed rail (see picture here).

The main issue here, the way I see it, is the interaction between public trust and political self-aggrandizement. It is common in all aspects of Israeli governance for new ministers to announce sweeping changes and reorganizations, just to remind the country that they exist and are doing something; this generally makes it harder to implement gradual reforms, and makes it completely impossible to do anything by consensus. Implementing a plan that was developed by consensus over many years makes one a bureaucrat; leaders change everything. In the US, this is the case not everywhere in government, but at least within public transportation infrastructure.

As we see in the case of Schumer’s call for a new interstate authority, the changes a heavyweight politician makes in order to appear as a leader have nothing to do with real problems that the project may have. Solving those problems requires detailed knowledge of the project at hand, which is the domain of bureaucrats and technocrats, and not of heavyweight politicians. Even a heavyweight who understands that there is a problem may not know or care about how to fix it: for example, Christie used the expression “tunnel to Macy’s basement,” invoking the deep cavern, to explain why ARC was wasteful, but chose to cancel the project rather than to remove the cavern and restore a track connection from the tunnel to Penn Station, which was in the official ARC Alt P plan until it was cut to limit the cost overruns. Managing a project is hard, and is, again, the domain of technocrats. The heavyweight will grandstand instead, regardless of whether it means canceling the project, or proposing an entirely new layer of government to build it.

As for trust, let us look at the benefits of new Hudson tunnels. The traditional, and least objectionable, is added capacity: the existing tunnels are currently at capacity during rush hour, and there’s much more demand for rail travel from New Jersey to Manhattan than they can accommodate. We can measure this benefit in terms of the combination of increased ridership from more service from more suburban areas, reduced crowding, and possibly slightly higher speeds. As a crude estimate of this benefit, current New Jersey Transit ridership at Penn Station is 87,000 per weekday in each direction. Doubling capacity means roughly doubling ridership, which would come from a combination of induced demand and diversion of traffic from cars, Port Authority buses, and commuter rail-PATH connections. This means the new tunnel can expect about 175,000 new commuter rail trips per weekday. At $10,000 per weekday trip, which is about average for very large non-US cities’ subway extensions, this justifies $1.75 billion. At $20,000, about the same as the projection for Grand Paris Express, Crossrail, and Second Avenue Subway Phase 1, all of which are justified on grounds of ridership and capacity on parallel lines, this is $3.5 billion. At $40,000, about the same as old projections for Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, which I used to analyze de Blasio’s Utica subway proposal, this is $7 billion. A $25 billion budget corresponds to a cost per rider well into the range of airport connectors.

Now, I’d like to think that informed citizens can look at these costs and benefits. At least, the fact that public transit projects only cost as much per rider as Gateway if they’re airport connectors (thus, of especial interest to the elites) or if something very wrong happened with the ridership projections, suggests that there is, normally, a ceiling to what the political system will fund. Even at $14-16 billion, the two states involved and the federal government groaned at funding Gateway, speaking to the fact that it’s not, in fact, worth this much money. In contrast, a bigger project, with bigger benefits, would be funded enthusiastically if it cost this much – for example, California already has almost this much money for high-speed rail, counting Prop 1A funds that are yet inaccessible due to the requirement of a 50/50 match from other sources.

Against this background, we see scare stories that Gateway must be built for reasons other than capacity and ridership. The old tunnels are falling apart, and Amtrak would like to shut them down one track at the time for long-term repairs. The more mundane reality is that the tunnels have higher maintenance costs than Amtrak would like since each track can only be shut down for short periods, on weekends and at night. This is buried in technical documents that don’t give the full picture, and don’t give differential costs for continuing the present regime of weekend single-tracking versus the recommended long-term closures. The given cost for Sandy-related North River Tunnel repairs is $350 million, assuming long-term closures, and it’s unlikely the present regime is billions of dollars more expensive.

I am reminded of the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement: the existing bridge has high maintenance costs due to its age and poor state, but the net present value of the maintenance cost is $2.5 billion and that of the excess maintenance cost is less, both figures well below the replacement cost. The bridge itself is structurally sound, but in popular media it is portrayed as structurally deficient. This relates to the problem of heavyweight politicians, for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement is Cuomo’s pet project.

More fundamentally, who can trust any claim Amtrak makes about the structural soundness of tunnels? It says a lot that, when I asked on Twitter why transportation authorities do not immediately shut down unsafe pieces of infrastructure, various commenters answered “politics,” and on one (I believe James Sinclair) suggested that Amtrak order an emergency closure of one of the Hudson tunnel tracks just to drive home the point that new tunnels are necessary. I would like to stress that this is not Amtrak or a heavyweight proposing that, but the mere fact that commenters can seriously talk about it is telling. Most of the writers and commenters on the US transit blogosphere are very progressive and hate the Republicans; I have not seen a single comment recommending that the Democrats steal elections, fudge official statistics to make the party look more successful, or arrest Republican politicians on trumped-up charges, because in the US (and other first-world democracies), this is simply not done, and everyone except conspiracy theorists recognizes it. But politicizing the process of deciding which infrastructure projects are necessary for safety purposes and which are simply service expansions is normal enough that people can propose it half-seriously.

This brings me back to the issue of what I want the politicians to do, and what I expect them to do. What I want them to do is to be honest about costs and benefits, mediate between opposing interests (including different agencies that fight turf battles), and make decisions based on the best available information. This would necessarily limit costs, since, from the point of view of a member of Congress, if they get $25 billion for a piece of infrastructure then they cannot get $25 billion for another priority of theirs. They don’t do that, not in the US, and I’ve learned not to expect any better, as have the voters. Instead of working to make $25 billion go a longer way (to put things in perspective, I expect my regional rail tunnel proposal to cost $15-20 billion, at Crossrail 2 costs), Schumer is working to make $25 billion to sound like it’s going to a bigger deal than the new Hudson tunnels actually are.

None of this is a secret. American voters have learned to expect some kind of machine-greasing and politicking, to the point of losing the ability to trust either the politicians or the agencies, even in those cases when they are right. The result is that it’s possible to stretch the truth about how necessary a piece of infrastructure is, since people would believe or disbelieve it based on prior political beliefs anyway, and there is no expectation that the politicians or public authorities making those claims will have to justify them to the public in any detail. Lying to the public becomes trivially easy in this circumstance, and thus, costs can rise indefinitely, since everyone involved can pretend the benefits will rise to match them.


  1. greg

    “Amtrak does not make it clear——–” I say this as on who lives in Philly, rides the rails, believes in the goodness of trains and in the future of trains and train travel, Amtrak seems to go out of its way to be unclear as possible about most issues. Even to a true believer such as myself I come away with the strong sense that Amtrak is always hiding something and/or their culture is really deeply troubled. A very simple example, several years ago, after years of work on the exterior of 30th St. station, Amtrak had scaffolding set up around most of the station. Reason given is the fear of failing stonework that might fall and in turn cause real problems if a person was hit. Sounds reasonable and practical and good safe planning. But as best as I have been able to find out there has no studies done that indicate problems in the walls and nothing has fallen since the scaffolding went up. It appears to me that that is just a way of shouting ‘Wolf’ one more time, with the hope that sooner or later someone will hear and turn on the funding. And in the meantime somebody is paying thousands and thousands in rental fees monthly, with no end in sight.
    Everything Amtrak does just seems to be off some how. I would never trust Amtrak with a major tunneling project. Somehow they would manage to have the two faces of the tunnel not meet and then put the blame on somebody else.

    • michael.r.james

      I’m not American but I do wonder if Amtrak is mostly a victim of its political masters and American political culture? It seems a permanently besieged organization because it has a thankless job on which it is almost impossible to deliver given the budgetary constraints and the other operational issues (like sharing those freight lines on the NYC-Washington route). And given the hostility to public transport, especially rail, and especially by conservatives. And given relatively short time cycles (cf big infrastructure project timescales) of political regime changes.

      It is also a disease that afflicts all Anglophone countries (US, UK, Australia, maybe less so Canada?) and for similar reasons: increasingly hyper-partisan two-party politics. In Europe or Asia, politics is almost bipartisan with respect to public transport and thus their transport authorities (SNCF, RATP, HK-MTR, JR etc) can do their jobs with less worry about politics and with better continuity of management and design teams etc. and more confidence and candour between them and the political decision makers.

      • Alon Levy

        Is British public transportation really this partisan? Both Labour and the Tories support Crossrail, and both support HS2. When Cameron won, he changed Labour’s program of electrification from mainline electrification to commuter rail electrification in various cities, but he did not cancel it, and instead just changed its focus.

        In Canada, on the other hand… Rob Ford exists. In Vancouver, too, there have been politicized route changes to SkyTrain. After the Expo Line was built, there was supposed to be a second route going northeast from the mainline toward Coquitlam; instead, they built the Millennium Line, and then (under Richmond’s influence) the Canada Line, and only now they’re building the Evergreen Line to Coquitlam.

        • michael.r.james

          Correct. I should have noted that the current generation of Tories have finally got over the Thatcherite hatred of public transport and rail in particular. It is something of a miracle (since one wonders if Cameron has ever used PT in his privileged life!) (Of course there are those who think it is merely a mechanism to steer humungous PT funds to their buddies in big business.) But even in her time, Thatcher was a bit of an extreme outlier in her own party. Many gnashed their teeth at her intransigence w.r.t. the channel tunnel (“not a penny of public money”) and then the building of a real HSR line from Dover to London so it could travel at actual high speed. It had to wait for her to leave politics, before the St Pancras line was built, 12 years after Eurostar had begun service.

          In Australia our current idiot PM, Tony Abbott (a common pejorative applied to him is “Village”) loves coal and his infrastructure program is 100% roads. On assuming power he withdrew all commonwealth funds from pubic transport, especially rail, and favoured two big controversial road tunnel projects, Melbourne’s East-West Link (EWL) and Sydney’s WestConnex. (Each of these could eventually reach almost $15 to $20bn. The states run most transport projects but usually need federal funds to get them off the drawing board.) In late 2014 the conservative Victorian government controversially signed contracts for the EWL even though it was just 6 weeks before the state election (and only 2 weeks from the mandatory “caretaker mode” in which such contracts cannot be signed) and the Labor opposition stating, if elected, they would not honour the contracts if they were signed so late. The election effectively became a referendum on this issue: EWL versus Melbourne Metro. Labor won the election and reneged on the contracts (still costing about $500m which had been released by the conservatives). Abbott refused to allow the $1.5bn the feds had allocated to the project to be reassigned to the Metro project Labor had campaigned on. In fact Abbott had tried to divert $3.5bn of money intended to fund our much-neglected scientific research infrastructure to fund his roads; but that required a law to be passed in parliament and he was blocked by the Senate.
          Abbott was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford 1981-82 and had met Thatcher there (it being her alma mater) during her glory days (Falklands war, defeating the coal unions, cancelling the BR Tilt-train research project) and this is where some of his “ideas” originate. But he is probably the last of the breed as he has become such an embarassment to his own party. The irony is that Abbott has probably helped turn the tide of many Australians to the side of rail as the two biggest cities exceed the size they can operate efficiently solely with roads (in their vast exurbs).

          • Nathanael

            Abbott, because he is owned by coal, made the mistake of picking a fight with the growing solar industry in Australia, which is becoming big money, and which is extremely popular, and which already produces cheaper electricity than coal does in Australia.

            He went all in for coal in the context of the coal export market collapsing.

            Abbott is an idiot. It’s actually impressive how stupid he is. You can’t get rid of him fast enough.

      • Nathanael

        For what it’s worth, describing the US situation as “two party politics” is not really accurate. We have one party, the Democratic Party, which contains people with all possible reasonable views, including totally diametrically opposed views. And we have one insane delusional death cult, the Republican Party.

        The sheer level of power of a reality-denying religious death cult in the US is quite disturbing. But it bears no resemblance to a two-party system.

        Australia, under Abbot, is starting to degenerate to the same level. Even Canada under Harper hasn’t gotten that bad. And the UK *never* got that bad, not even under Thatcher.

        • Adirondacker12800

          It wasn’t this bad when Saint Ronnie was around. The ones who aren’t zealots have wandered off to spend more time with their families. If they do stick around they eventually get denounced and excommunicated. They were going the way of the Whigs. They’ve shifted to going the way of the No Nothings.

          • Stop the Insanity!

            One comment (one comment containing any content) per day limit. Please!

        • michael.r.james

          (Nathanael at 18.00)
          I don’t think we fundamentally disagree, however I would continue to argue that the USA does have two-party politics regardless of their internal differences etc and increasing dysfunction–indeed it is the cause of that dysfunction. The fact that you will probably end up with Bush (#3) vs Clinton (#2) despite neither being the first choice of any given majority, proves it. The (transient) rise of Trump proves it. The fact is that the current system (and in UK, Australia, probably Canada?) proves it: a third party or independent candidate has very close to zero chance of election and only determines which candidate from the two major parties is damaged. My point is that our (Anglophone) two-party systems force an extremely unsatisfactory and artificial binary choice on the voters.
          I have written on this issue:
          The crisis in governance in two-party systems
          by Michael R James Friday, 3 September 2010

          • Nathanael

            I don’t think the rise of Trump is transitory. Clinton is coasting right now, but frankly Sanders has a decent chance.

            First-past-the-post systems suck badly for any number of reasons; I’ve spent a while studing voting theory and practice. Due to Duverger’s Law, they do tend to lead to two-party systems. However, those two-party systems eventually collapse, quite disruptively, and are replaced with other two-party systems. That’s what’s happening right now: we’re in the collapse-of-the-old-two-party-system phase.

            The process is going quickly and smoothly in Canada, where a third party (the New Democratic Party) is likely to cruise to victory in the upcoming elections.

            The process was slowed in the UK by the idiotic decisions made by Nick Clegg; the LibDems were lined up to replace Labour, but made the really dumb decision to work with the Tories. In Scotland, the process moved right along and the SNP wiped out everyone else.

            Australia’s two-party system isn’t quite to the same collapse stage yet, but of course Australia doesn’t have the same election system. I haven’t really studied the New Zealand situation.

            In the US, the collapse of the old two-party system has been slowed down by gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement and other anti-democratic shenanigans performed mostly by the Republicans. The Republican Party is a dead party walking now that it’s purging everyone sane, but because of Duverger’s Law, the party which replaces it can’t get traction until the Republicans finally collapse. This has happened before in US history, more than once — collapse of the Federalists, split of the Democrats into “Jackson” and “anti-Jackson” wings; collapse of the Whigs and rise of the Republicans.

          • michael.r.james

            (reply to Nathanael)
            Interesting. I’m an actual scientist (biochemist/molecular geneticist) not a political scientist, so in my articles of 2010 (after the British and Australian general elections delivered their mess) I was pretty much synthesizing theories de novo. But I reckon my description of why the two-party system is in such trouble is a fair restatement of Duverger’s Law. Except the forces acting on politics are even more diverse to be contained adequately in only two parties. It’s bad enough in the UK and Australia, but it is incredible beyond belief that a vast country of 50 states, huge diversity (cultures, ethnicity, wealth, gender politics, geography) and 320 million people could possibly be represented by only two parties.
            I understand your concept that the parties are on the point of dissolution, or evolution into something different but the heart of the problem is that your and our electoral systems are the root cause (ie. exactly as Duverger observed). The really serious downside is that if/when a two-party system collapses it can be enormously destabilizing. Duverger’s Law brings about a resistance to change and thus unfulfilled political forces build up like a dormant volcano. Whereas a PR-type electoral system supports a multi-party system which can evolve and reconfigure fairly painlessly dissipating those forces in small movements at each election.

            I think Trump is a transitory thing because he can’t be contained in any two-party system; he’ll have to dominate it or be purged. (And I’m sure you’ll agree that getting max 25% of the vote at this stage is far from dominant.) Before too long he will flame out as it becomes clearer he cannot get the GOP nomination. Curiously if he were to run as an independent, it could free the GOP of some of the crazy element; in fact that is the advantage of multiparty politics. Of course it will ensure a Democrat president.
            What I can’t see is any mechanism to evolve the electoral system from the inadequate and dangerous system we (the Anglophone world) have, to one that better serves us. To stretch the evolutionary/genetic analogy, I’d say two-party systems are not fit-for-purpose and are in an evolutionary cul-de-sac. Their demise could be catastrophic.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The people who think republican democracy is a bad idea team up with xenophobes and the puritans and they burn out. Rinse repeat. There’s almost always an undercurrent of rich people are better, their wealth being evidence of God’s love for them.

          • Nathanael

            Michael, I agree with you in every regard. The big problem is, indeed, that unfulfilled political forces build up like a dormant volcano — so when the old system finally collapses it is really really really messy. The most extreme example was the collapse of the Whig/Democrat system in the 1850s — as soon as the third-party candidate Abe Lincoln was elected President, the Confederates *started the Civil War*. But even less extreme collapses are deeply disruptive.

            I don’t see how we’re going to avoid this round of disruption. The only way to avoid it is something like proportional representation which allows for a smoother transition, but we need to have the old system collapse in order to get proportional representation implemented….

            Trump absolutely intends to dominate the Republican Party, and I think he has a decent chance of doing it. That may doom him and the Republicans to permanent minority status… but it’s quite possible in a two-party system for one party to essentially never be in power (see Japan, or New York State).

          • Adirondacker12800

            If having a Republican Governor and Senate and Democratic Assembly can be considered one party.

  2. Aaron M. Renn

    I read someplace that they bundled the Portal Bridge replacement into the $25B cost, probably other things too.

    • Alon Levy

      I presume so. To my mind, this is part of four-tracking the whole segment from the tunnel portal to Newark. It includes a significant bridge replacement component, but when you’re going from two tracks to four, it’s an expansion rather than a replacement. My guess is that the $25 billion includes everything in this picture, which boils down to full four-tracking plus the Secaucus Loop.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Portalbridgenec.com seems to be down. It’s phased. No point in building four tracks until they are digging tunnels because they don’t need four tracks until there’s more tunnel. A duckunder for the Morris and Essex lines, in normal service they don’t get on the existing NEC. That should cut ten minutes off the travel time between Newark Broad Street and Manhattan. Maybe more because the trains ran faster between Newark and New York when Portal Bridge had a 90 mph speed limit. If that’s the case it cuts minutes off the travel time to Elizabeth. And Philadelphia. Washington DC.. Richmond and Harrisburg. Someday Cleveland. Though by the time trains are going to Cleveland twice an hour there’s so much traffic we need a tunnel from Rahway to North White Plains. Or a causeway from Shoreham to New Haven.

        There’s much speculation on railroad.net over how Secaucus has been designed. The most rational is that the upper level side platforms are setup to become island platforms.

    • Benjamin Kabak

      Apparently, they have bundled a few elements of their $125 billion NEC high speed rail proposal into this effort, but I think Alon’s main point still stands in that Amtrak hasn’t been transparent as to the costs of the individual components (or what they are).

  3. orulz

    I’ve said it before but if they can’t get the costs under control and get the whole shebang done for $10 billion then they should cancel it (Again.) I’m talking Portal Bridge(s), building the new tunnels, fixing the old ones, a two-track Empire connection to the LIRR, all the other upgrades necessary to enable through-running, and a complete rebuild of Penn Station.

    These costs will never get under control as long as we keep paying them. The easy availability of student loans has done pretty much the same thing to the costs of college – as long as we keep showing that we’re willing to pay, the engineering conglomorates who profit from designing exceedingly complex projects, politicians who want a gold-plated grandiose project named after them, federal bureaucrats who bog down every project with often-unnecessary and expensive environmental review, and unions who haven’t allowed their contracts to match the increased productivity enabled by new technology, will continue to conspire to make the costs go up.

    It is unfortunate that this is such a necessary project, but $25 billion? Holy crap that’s an unimaginably huge amount of money.

  4. Patrice

    As an American who has lived in Europe, it is frustrating to watch essential rail projects get ever deeper stuck in politics. Amtrak is in a no-win position.
    I see no way that Congress will pay for 10 billion let alone 25 billion, even if these failed tunnels sever the most important artery between the richest city and the capital of the world’s richest country.
    My advice is that the region realize that federal money is just not coming and therefore setup a regional body to collect revenue and spend it on rail infrastructure. Eg a super Port Authority or a CA style clean air fund. My backup plan is to have Amtrak (if it has competent in house engineers) just start construction on the tunnels, constant tension catenary, movable bridges and those new Acela train set replacements! Amtrak has cut its debt by more than half over the last decade and while it is continually starved of funds, I don’t think Congress would be able to kill/stop it if it racked up some major debt as it is implicitly backed by the govt. It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

  5. rdrucker

    This article was slightly over my head, but I just want to chime in with one thing, as a 28-year old commuter.

    I ride these tunnels every day, and grew up in Northern New Jersey, and my mother rode the train to work as well as countless other people from my hometown. So much of the state of New Jersey commutes to New York. And if any one means to do so were disrupted, you’d have apocalyptic conditions on the other means of transportation. Shut down buses, watch train ridership swell. Shutdown direct train lines, and watch the Path swell.

    New Jersey just does not have the jobs or the career opportunities NYC does. Perhaps I should care more, but I say build the tunnels and damn the cost. These tunnels are absolutely necessary, and the delays seem so positively overcome-able.

    Am I missing a big point? Is the article just talking about the bullshitting of the actual cost of the project? Because though that may be the case, doesn’t it obscure the point about how these trains enable quality of life, career, and greater incomes for those who use it?

    • Alon Levy

      The point here is that the tunnels aren’t likely to be disrupted, given adequate maintenance. (There’s a tendency in the US to justify overbuilding on grounds of redundancy and resiliency, never mind that non-redundant networks run reliably when they need to.)

      What this means is that new tunnels are justified if the extra connections and capacity they enable are worth the cost. I think those benefits are valuable, but not so valuable as to be worth $25 billion.

      • Nathanael

        From what I’ve read, the concrete damage is bad and it’s going to slowly deteriorate until it starts falling off. “Adequate maintenance” means removing nearly all the concrete lining and replacing it. I doubt that it’s viable to fix it all on nights and weekends before concrete starts falling on the tracks. I suppose cowcatchers could be installed.

        • michael.r.james

          Funny, that yesterday (Monday) even in Australia we heard, via a NPR rebroadcast on our national radio, a ten minute segment on the state of those tunnels. They were certainly painting a picture of decay with big chunks of cement falling off and revealing the brick structure behind.

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  7. larrylittlefield

    I’ve got your cost estimate right here. Transportation infrastructure: $5 billion.

    Union/mafia featherbedding and abuse $5 billion.
    Consultant and legal costs and associated litigation and payoffs: $5 billion.
    Money for the multi-employer pension funds, which are in the hole due to underfunding by executives and retroactive pension increases for workers who have cashed in and gone to Florida: $10 billion.

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  9. AlexB

    There are many things that should be done all at once to be more efficient and save money, such as the 2nd Ave subway. Why pay for one launch box and one tunnel boring machine when you can buy 4 plus construction inflation…? The Gateway Project is the opposite. Each of the pieces is separate and different. Mobilizing all at once yields little except faster completion. Four-tracking the northeast corridor at the same time you’re building Penn South doesn’t make the project better. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be prioritizing each piece and building as soon as the funding appears. 1st: New two track Hudson tunnel(s); 2nd: Portal Bridge replacement; 3rd: Expanded Secaucus + Secaucus loop; 4th: Four-track the NEC from Newark Penn to Secaucus; 5th: Penn South; etc., etc. You wouldn’t have to complete such a massive (and litigation inducing) environment impact statement and could have the tunnels up and running in probably 3 years for about $3-4 billion.

    • Alon Levy

      Well, there’s a good argument for building the tunnel at the same time as four-tracking everything: there’s no point in having four tracks across the Hudson if there’s then a two-track bottleneck farther south. But yes, the Secaucus loop can be delayed (or never built – to be honest, Secaucus can be improved as a transfer point, and the Erie lines probably need a dedicated tunnel of their own). And Penn South is completely unnecessary.

      The problem is, in part, that the four-tracking is astoundingly expensive. At California HSR costs, adding two underground tracks from the portal to Newark Penn would be about $1.7 billion. There is zero reason for the Portal Bridge package and the remainder of four-tracking to cost this much, since it’s all above-ground, let alone a multiple of that amount.

      • Adirondacker12800

        You have looked at the cost estimates for the Peninsula? How much are they proposing for 100 track miles of electrification between San Jose and San Francisco versus the 450 million Amtrak is spending for the 100 track miles between Trenton and New Brunswick? How about the tunnel to Transbay? Or the 300 miles Amtrak spent for New Haven to Boston?

        California isn’t proposing to have a four track mainline flyover a three track mainline. Or interweave them. At least Amtrak has good rail access for all the fill they will need to raise everything above storm tides.

        If the lines north of Secaucus ever get to the point where they need their own tunnel the solution isn’t to send moar trenns to Midtown. The solution is to send more trains from everywhere downtown. The six or eight tracks of tunnel under the East River is gonna be expensive. ( Two for the Harlem line to Tottenville via Brooklyn, two for trains between Jersey City and Brooklyn, two for the Second Avenue subway to Coney Island and two to decongest the rest of the BMT in Brooklyn with Second Ave express trains. ) So will rebuilding the Atlantic Avenue tunnel so pantographs can fit.

        • Alon Levy

          The Peninsula electrification project is incredibly expensive even by US standards. Look at the New Haven-Boston electrification cost for comparison.

          • Adirondacker12800

            They are gonna spend more on signals than Metro North will be spending on much more track.

      • AlexB

        You’re right that the four tracking would complement the tunnel. The issue in my mind is that as soon as the new tunnels are in place, they’ll start work on repairing the existing tunnels. Only when that work is also totally complete would you really get full use out of the 4 track line from Newark. And why wait for the EIS and allow potential for anything else to delay the new tunnels if we need redundancy now?

        I agree Penn South is unnecessary but everyone is blindly that convinced Penn Station and Madison Sq Garden need to be replaced and people think you’re a bit nuts if you disagree. Someone at some point is going to spend a few billion dollars on it whether useful or not.

        Did I read you right that you said two UNDERGROUND tracks from the portal to Newark Penn?? Is that the plan or are you suggesting that? Why can’t they just be elevated or enlarge the existing embankment? Seems like they should be able to build the extra 5 miles of track for about $500 million, and the Portal and Sawtooth bridges for about $100 million each. The Hackensack River is not that wide…

        • Alon Levy

          The issue in my mind is that as soon as the new tunnels are in place, they’ll start work on repairing the existing tunnels. Only when that work is also totally complete would you really get full use out of the 4 track line from Newark.

          That’s kind of stupid, to be honest. The primary use of the new tunnels is the extra capacity. If the old tunnels are shut down afterward, then, first, the tunnels’ cost has to be realized years before they are of any use. As a sanity check, if bare new tunnels cost $6 billion, then each year of delay between construction and opening is worth $240 million, at a 4% discount rate. The proposed cost of Sandy fixes is $350 million assuming expedited closures; suppose ex recto that the present regime of weekend and nighttime closures would cost double, so it’d be an extra $350 million. This means that even in the presence of new tunnels, it’s not worth it to delay the opening by more than a year and a half (350/240).

          By the way, this calculation isn’t too sensitive to the actual cost of the new tunnels. It’s only really sensitive to what the tunnels are worth. The assumption I am making is that they are worth $7 billion, but $1 billion goes to above-ground four-tracking between the portal and Newark, and can be delayed, so that it is timed to open only when all four tracks are available between Jersey and Manhattan; thus, the residual is $6 billion.

          Now, there are two complications, going in opposite directions. The first complication is that the new tunnels are planned to hit the southern tracks of Penn Station, which have less capacity than the rest, because no through-service. The Gateway plan does connect to more of the existing tracks (Amtrak plans to use the new tunnels for through-running intercity trains), but the switches may not be optimally configured, so capacity may go down a bit. Realistically it’s probably going to be the same capacity as today, whereas under through-running it might be possible to squeeze a few extra peak-of-peak tph out of the old tunnels, on the order of making it 30 tph instead of 25.

          The second complication is that the old tunnels aren’t going out of service under your plan (or the NYC Tunnels Assessment recommendation) – only one track goes out of service at a time. This means that there are still two peak-direction tracks available… except that, well, you need full four-tracking west of the portal to take advantage of that. (Three-tracking gets hairy.) And any sort of through-running, including the existing Amtrak through-service, involves an at-grade conflict between opposite-direction trains in the morning peak. Realistically, you’re probably getting the same capacity as today.

          Did I read you right that you said two UNDERGROUND tracks from the portal to Newark Penn?? Is that the plan or are you suggesting that? Why can’t they just be elevated or enlarge the existing embankment?

          Oh, I’m certainly not suggesting that. I’m just saying that the projected per-km cost of the above-ground embankment is comparable to that of Crossrail, which goes under Central London. It should be easy to four-track everything on a billion dollars. Instead, Portal Bridge alone is well above that figure.

          • Adirondacker12800

            RIdership isn’t going to double overnight. It may in ten years ( by 2040 ) but it’s not going to happen overnight. They don’t need four tracks to Newark immediately. Partly because there are two tracks to Broad Street. Number of trains will go up almost immediately because the Raritan Valley trains will be extended to Manhattan and they’ll be adding trains on the NEC, NJCL and M&E. The immediate problem may be having enough cars. ( Like they had in the late 90s when ridership on the M&E exploded )

          • Alon Levy

            Yes, you’re right. But there’s still a two-track bottleneck from the Kearny Connection to the portal, except right around Secaucus. I presume it’s essentially cost-free to four-track everything from the connection to the portal except for Portal Bridge, but then again I also think that it should cost a few hundred million dollars to four-track everything, including Portal Bridge.

          • Adirondacker12800

            laying track on gooey swamp ooze doesn’t work out too well. Especially during high tide.

          • Joey

            Adirondacker: earth fill doesn’t cost that much. Especially compared to the cost of actual underwater tunnels.

          • Fbfree

            Earth fill falls off the side of a truck, literally. Fill is cheap, especially next to a rail line. Even for several millions of tons worth.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Several million tons at 50 dollars a ton, ready for track to be laid on it, adds up.

          • Alon Levy

            Guys, there are itemized cost estimates out there, which include materials. Penn Design has them, for its HSR proposal; I think one of the California HSR documents has them for California. Cut-and-fill really isn’t expensive. I want to say it’s in the single-digit millions per kilometer, but maybe I’m wrong and it’s in the teens.

          • Eric

            “The second complication is that the old tunnels aren’t going out of service under your plan (or the NYC Tunnels Assessment recommendation) – only one track goes out of service at a time. This means that there are still two peak-direction tracks available… except that, well, you need full four-tracking west of the portal to take advantage of that. (Three-tracking gets hairy.)”

            What’s the problem with three-tracking into a dead end CBD station? Isn’t that exactly what Metro North does to an even bigger extent at GCT – three tracks in one direction and one in the other at peak? Three-tracking should indeed double one-way capacity to NYP in the peak, where it’s needed.

          • johndmuller

            In case anyone would like a break from the details of how many tubes, how many tracks, what kind of head houses, and how much this kind of thing would cost in Idealistan, here is my take on the progress of the project in the smoke filled rooms of the area formerly known as New Holland.

            The idea of this project seems to be steadily attracting more and more attention from generally increasingly higher prestige politicians. Big money has been associated with the project at virtually every mention and everyone seems to pay lip service to the need for the tunnels; apparently the pot has gotten up to $25 billion. To my knowledge, none of the politicians has yet cried “BS – this is way too expensive”, even though notable pro-transit blog personages may have done so. The closest that any of the interested parties have been to going negative is to assert that their particular constituency cannot afford this kind of money without substantial help (from Uncle Sam).

            My reading of the political tea leaves is that the political personages are circling each other suspiciously, sniffing the air and analyzing the various scents to see who has committed what degree of interest. Whenever one of them speaks, they add to the underlying consensus, try to frame the discussion in ways that appeal particularly to their own constituents, and hope to position themselves incrementally in the direction the feel the consensus is moving. To the extent that they have good noses and good political instincts, this process will eventually arrive at something of an agreed upon ballpark of dollars and some vague notion of what we’ll get for that. This will represent a tacit agreement by all parties.

            At that point, someone like Vice President Biden, who would seem to be uniquely qualified to play this role, steps in with a proposed framework to make this happen. The interested parties then see if they can arrange the details (particularly of the financing) in a way everyone can live with. I would think that this stuff should happen as soon as possible, before next years election gets much closer, especially as Biden’s mojo as a possible candidate could be an asset now, but not at all in 6 months.

            I think that the exact amount of money involved is that much of an issue to the pols, only that in broad strokes it is a lot, i.e. enough to confer the idea of importance to the project. Unfortunately, whatever (essentially arbitrary) number of dollars ends up being associated with the project will affect exactly which components end up being bundled together, not that the pols really care, just that that the price tag will have become a sacred cow by virtue of the agonizing process that produced it. Since the pols do know how that happens, they try not to lowball the project too much, especially once the ante has been raised a few times without “BS!” having been called, which has been the case so far.

            As this moves on, whatever amount of money that can be acquired, under acceptable terms, will be jumped on and the project will be defined by whatever that number turns out to be. The parties are mostly asking for more than they hope that they need, expecting that amount to be whittled down by politics or overruns.

            As long as Cuomo stops nipping at Christie’s tail, things may move on successfully.

          • Alon Levy

            A not really on-topic comment: I like the term New Holland for the New York metro area. I mean, if the state (plus Jersey) is New Netherlands, and the city is New Amsterdam, then it makes perfect sense for the area around the city to be called New Holland.

          • johndmuller

            Correction, the first sentence of paragraph 5 should have read:

            “I think that the exact amount of money involved is not that much of an issue to the pols, only that in broad strokes it is a lot, . . . “

          • michael.r.james

            New Holland was of course the first (European) name given to the continent of Australia. It persisted for several centuries until Matthew Flinders did the first circumnavigation and gave it the latin version of its present name.

          • AlexB

            I think we’re saying the same thing here. I didn’t mean they had to take both tunnels out of operation, just that they need the new tunnels in place before they could even start that work in earnest (without having to do sisyphean repairs an hour at a time). As you noted, because of track geometry and taking the existing tubes out of service one at a time, they won’t have 4 track capacity anyway. If they do build it to the south side of Penn as currently planned, the only way to really get maximum capacity is to through-run trains from the south tracks to the lower level of Grand Central and through-run from the existing Hudson River Tunnel to Long Island via existing East River Tunnels. The LIRR can continue to terminate many trains at the West Side Yards (unless a two tracks Empire Connection is somehow built). I’d much prefer a south side of Penn to lower level GCT connection over an unnecessary Penn South (for probably the same cost). Split the passengers between GCT and Penn instead and make use of through-running efficiencies…

          • Alon Levy

            Bare Hudson tunnels (to the southern Penn Station tracks), without the GCT connection but also without long-term shutdowns of the existing tunnels, have a decent peak capacity. The RER E, with two tracks and four platform tracks at Saint-Lazare, runs 16 tph at the peak, and has a capacity of 18 tph. In the interest of itemizing costs, it should be clear that this is the initial solution, and the GCT connection should be built later. They should investigate bundling in case it’s easier to do the two projects (Hudson tunnels and Penn-GCT) simultaneously in order to stage the tunneling out of one location, but they should also cost them separately. Through-running to GCT is useful and necessary for the region, but not at any marginal cost.

          • Joey

            Given the existing section of cut-and-cover tunnel box, the trans-hudson tunnels would likely be staged somewhere in the western part of the yards. You could stage the Penn-GCT tunnels from there, but it would be a lot of redundant tunneling under 31st (and come very close to the existing penn station box wall).

          • Joey

            It’s in the second phase though. Given a stremlined tunneling plan with the fat station box trimmed out, a TBM launch box could be built before that starts construction. Failing that, just have to wait another couple of years for the TBMs to hole through all the way from New Jersey.

          • johndmuller

            Sorry, but I thought that my previous post was pretty much on topic (What’s going on with Hudson tunnel cost overruns?); said post, in which I speculated on the political process from somewhat of an anthropology perspective basically says that the current phase of the process is not really about details (because real politicians don’t do details), but is essentially about the players going “Ugh! Ugh!”, beating their chests and stomping around. Occasional intelligible sounds are produced such as “Old Tunnels Bad, New Tunnels Good” (statement of the problem), “Big Money $25 Billion Big, Big, Ugh” (we are important big shots). Eventually, it is hoped that someone will show up with “Big Money Big!”, and will be acclaimed as “Really Big Big Man, Ugh! Stomp Stomp! (Uncle Sam [and —facilitator—] to the rescue, Yea Uncle Sam [and —facilitator—]). Once this point is reached, the (self) important politicians can delegate the rest of the process to lesser and more detail oriented types and the project can be adjusted to fit within whatever budget was Stomped Out, Ugh!

            I know that one might prefer that projects of this scope be designed and nurtured in an intelligent and rational manner, but this one seems to be moving more in the direction of Stone Age decision making.

            Counting votes, as someone elsewhere on the blogosphere has already done, it is quite easy to tally over a dozen states closely involved with the NEC who’s residents and corporations are clearly better off with good rail connections between them and the rest of the NEC, particularly with NYC, but also to DC and the other core NEC destinations. For any of these politicians, it is probably better to spend some of the People’s Money on this project instead of fencing the border with Mexico or Canada or oil pipelines from west central Canada to Wichita or wherever. To a lesser extent, the rest of the Atlantic coast states and some of the Midwestern states have some interest in maintaining these connections as well. This adds up to a block of states with over a quarter of the Senate and probably even more of the House. This is potentially Big (political) Medicine, Ugh!

            Just as it is easy for Tea Party type Governors (yes, I mean people like you Gov. Hogan (MD)), to pull a Christie and cancel big transit projects in (and paid for by) their states, it is just as easy for them to pull a Christie and support Uncle Sam spending the People’s money on something that has at least some benefit to their states (and yes, Gov. Hogan, you’re also gonna need something just like this in Baltimore (and yes, Baltimore really is in your state!)).

            Alon, sorry to persist in this political direction, but I think that right now, while the politicians are doing their dance, that this is the time to “Go Big”, and throw all of the stuff that Amtrak has proposed (including Penn South, the bridges, the Secaucus loop and all the 4 tracking) into the pot so that the largest possible number can be justified (however inflated you might think it is). Then, as will inevitably happen, the number is whittled down and/or the costs are ratcheted up, sufficient money will still be in the kitty to do what is really, really necessary. I wouldn’t even be above adding in some additional tunneling in Manhattan, from Penn South to GCT and/or over to Sunnyside, just to get a foothold in that door of improving the overall utility, taking advantage of the situation that the whole project seems to have some momentum going for it, perhaps on the verge of getting the green light. The time for going small and economizing will come again all too soon.

  10. Nathanael

    “The given cost for Sandy-related North River Tunnel repairs is $350 million, assuming long-term closures, and it’s unlikely the present regime is billions of dollars more expensive.”

    Wrong. You haven’t looked into the differential cost between “night and weekend” track work and long-term closures. It can be factors of 5 or 10.

    The problem is the overhead from setting up the trackwork crews and tearing them down; it turns out that with “night” work, the overhead is a lot more than half of the time. For weekend work it’s still very high. For “close it for a week” work, the setup / teardown overhead is a much smaller percentage of the work.

    • Nathanael

      I realize that even if the added costs for doing it with “night and weekend work” are $3.5 billion (completely plausible), it still doesn’t get you to $16 billion let alone $25 billion.

      The actual worry is that “night and weekend work” will stretch out the schedule to the point where there will simply be unplanned failures.

      On another topic, you wrote:
      “I have not seen a single comment recommending that the Democrats steal elections, fudge official statistics to make the party look more successful, or arrest Republican politicians on trumped-up charges, because in the US (and other first-world democracies), this is simply not done”

      On the contrary. This is done. Republicans have stolen elections (2000 is the most famous, but there was also a clearly proven one done by ballot-box stuffing in Maine recently), fudged official statistics to make the party look more successful (there’s a whole list of federal agencies which were prohibited from *collecting* statistics in order to avoid publishing the statistics which showed how badly the G W B administration was doing), and arrested Democratic politicians on trumped-up charges (Don Siegelman, Alabama).

      The reason we as Democrats don’t recommend these things is because these things are *evil*, not because they’re not done. This sort of criminal activity is done ALL THE TIME by the Republicans. We don’t want to sink to their level. This isn’t “conspiracy theories”, this stuff is proven.

    • Alon Levy

      [Citation needed]

      Hell, I’d say the same thing to the people who wrote the NYC Tunnels Assessment. What’s the cost of not shutting the tunnel down?

      • Adirondacker12800

        Having it fail in the future when ridership has grown and it’s failure is more disruptive?

        Setting everything up, working for a few hours, removing all the setup every day is more expensive than setting everything up and getting a few weeks or months of work in and then removing all the setup. The highly paid workers spend more time doing something productive.

        • Joey

          Well, there’s always a tradeoff. If night maintenance means not having to accept Amtrak’s costs-several-times-as-much-as-it-should tunneling plan, there still might be net cost savings in the long run.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Fix the tunnel up as much as you can it still ran out of capacity in 1998 or so.

      • Nathanael

        Ask London about costs of working on night “blockades” vs. week-long “blockades”. I haven’t seen any hard numbers, but they claimed it was much cheaper and took less than half as much time.

        • Nathanael

          Um, to be clear, they claimed the week-long blockades were cheaper and faster.

          • Nathanael

            This doesn’t change the fact that the price numbers being thrown around are way too high and not itemized, as you say.

  11. R. W. Rynerson

    Running through this valuable thread are issues that are characteristic of engineering projects in the U.S. These are:
    1. Including capacity expansions as part of safety-related replacements.
    2. Waiting for Federal funding, rather than compromising on item 1 with local funds.

    During the Mayor Federico Peña administration in Denver, a guy in an orange vest flagged down our transit heating and air conditioning engineer driving a company car and said “you’d better get your buses off here, ’cause this viaduct is going to collapse!” We hurriedly put together a detour and for 7½ years ran on residential streets around the gap (while auto traffic was allowed to resume on the viaduct). The system rewarded us with a massive, Federally-funded viaduct with about three times the capacity of the old one.

    In my previous work at Edmonton Transit, the elderly Low Level Bridge was prepared for repairs in an orderly manner, bus routes were detoured on a planned and advertised basis, and the renewed bridge had new safety features and a modest capacity increase. The differences were no wait for Federal funds and no inclusion of mega-capacity increases as part of the essential work.

    The best part was that after three or four years of the detour, Mayor Peña wrote to our General Manager demanding that we find a way to provide service to a small group of industrial workers who used the 20-hours a day 7-day a week bus service that had made a stop for them on the viaduct. I loved drafting the reply to that one. [RTD operates under a state law requiring a minimum operating cost recovery, so creating a special route would have triggered cuts somewhere else.] Later, the city’s viaduct designer proposed deleting replacement bus stops for these people from the new viaduct design!

    In the same construction environment and era, RTD built Denver’s original Light Rail line in four (or five counting back for some wasted planning) years, mainly expedited by not using Federal funds.

    And, after trying to block commuter rail and Amtrak access to Denver Union Station, and after his airport planners tried to block transit bus access for the new airport, Federico Peña worked his way on up to being the Federal Secretary of Transportation. The big transportation projects — in size — were mentioned as one of his qualifications.

    “Make no little plans…” … ? The professional engineering fraternity rolls rusting stringers in with self-generated demand forecasts and the media slavishly report dangerously low looking scores. No one is rewarded for thinking of alternatives, either for funding or for construction.

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