As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, negotiations in New Jersey between Governor Chris Christie and the state legislature have resulted in a significant increase in the state fuel tax. The money will raise $16 billion for funding the eight-year Transportation Trust Fund plan, and be matched with federal funds to bring the amount up to $32 billion. Unfortunately, the money is being wasted. Details of most of the plan remain vague, but it appears most of the money will go to road repair; for all I know, $4 billion a year is a reasonable amount for this. But one component of the plan is extension of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system north into Bergen County, along the Northern Branch. This is at best a marginal project, and in the long run would make regional rail modernization in Northern New Jersey more difficult.
Despite its name, the HBLR only operates in Hudson County. Plans for extension into Bergen County along the Northern Branch still play an outsized political role due to the name of the line, but have not been realized yet. Right now, the line is partly the light rail system of Jersey City, and partly a circumferential line linking dense areas west of the Hudson, as somewhat of a circumferential. As such, it is a combination of a radial and circumferential. The Northern Branch would send it 13 km farther north into suburbia, terminating in Englewood, a town center with a fraction of the job density of the Jersey City CBD. Projected weekday ridership is 21,000, a little more than 1,500 per km, weak for an urban light rail line. (The HBLR’s existing ridership is 54,000 per weekday on 55 km of route.)
The original cost estimate of the Northern Branch extension was $150 million, low for the length of the line. While reactivating a closed commuter rail like the Northern Branch should be cheaper, the line is single-track still hosts some freight service, so light rail would have to build new tracks in the same right-of-way, raising the cost range to that of urban light rail. Unfortunately, the cost rapidly escalated: by 2009 it was up to $800-900 million, and in 2015, after the proposal was shortened to its current length from an 18 km proposal going deeper into the Bergen County suburbs, the cost was up to $1 billion. The cost per rider is still much better than that of the Gateway Tunnel, but it makes the project marginal at best.
While the high cost may be surprising, at least to the reader who is unused to the expense of building in or near New York, the limited ridership is not. The original plan, going beyond Englewood, would have terminated the line in Tenafly, a wealthy suburb where my advisor at Columbia used to live. Many people in Tenafly objected to that plan, not so much on the usual NIMBY grounds of traffic and noise as on the grounds that the line would not be of much use to them. They were interested in taking public transit to go to Manhattan, and the HBLR system would not be of any use. Of course, Columbia professors would not be using a rail network that went directly to Midtown or Lower Manhattan, but most of the suburb’s Manhattan-bound residents work in the CBD and not at Columbia.
I would probably not be this adamantly against the Northern Branch project if it were just one more over-budget light rail line at $45,000 per projected rider. The US has no shortage of these. Rather, it’s the long-term effect on regional rail.
The Northern Branch would make a good commuter rail line, going from Pavonia (or possibly Hoboken) north to Nyack, connecting to the HBLR at its present-day northern terminus, with about the same stop spacing as the proposed HBLR extension. Potentially it could even get a loop similar to the proposed Secaucus loop of the Gateway project allowing it to enter Penn Station directly. An even better connection would involve a second tunnel between Pavonia, Lower Manhattan, and Atlantic Terminal on the LIRR, with a new transfer station at the junction of the Northern Branch and the Northeast Corridor. Consult this map, depicting the inner segments of various potential commuter lines: the Northern Branch is the easternmost yellow line, the Northeast Corridor is in red and green.
The importance of the Northern Branch for regional rail is threefold. First, the easternmost line in North Jersey today, the Pascack Valley Line, misses a large swath of territory farther east, which is covered by the Northern Branch and by the West Shore Line. The West Shore Line actually passes through somewhat denser suburbs, with more Manhattan-bound commuters, but is a major freight route, whereas the Northern Branch has little freight traffic, which can be scheduled around passenger trains or even kicked out. Second, again shared with the West Shore Line, the Northern Branch provides a north-south line in Hudson County west of Bergen Hill, where there is suitable land for transit-oriented development. And third, the terminus, Nyack, is a town center with a walkable core.
I wouldn’t really object to making the Northern Branch light rail if it were cheap. At the original cost estimate of $150 million, I would be mildly annoyed by the lack of long-term thinking, but I’d also recognize that the cost per rider was low, and at worst the state would have to redo a $150 million project. At $1 billion, the calculus changes considerably; it’s a significant fraction of what a tunnel under the Hudson should cost (though not what it does cost given the extreme amount of scope creep).
High costs, as I said in 2011, should not be an excuse to downgrade transit projects to a cheaper, less useful category (such as from a subway to light rail). In this case we see the opposite happen: high costs are a reason to reject a downgraded project, since the cost per rider is no longer low enough to justify shrugging off the long-term effect on regional rail restoration.