The Crumbling Hudson River Tunnels

When I first heard that our region was connected by the Hudson River tunnels, infrastructure that is over 100 years old and badly damaged during Superstorm Sandy, my thoughts went to the bridge collapse in Minneapolis back in 2007, or more recently the bridge collapse in Genoa, Italy. Immediately in the wake of tragedies like these, people always seem to ask, “How could it happen?”. The bridge was standing one moment, and then in the next, a solid piece of infrastructure we had taken for granted was gone.

It turns out the trouble in the Hudson River tunnels is different. While experts tell us that they are not at risk of collapsing like a bridge, they are slowly deteriorating, especially their electrical systems, which were hit hard by an influx of saline water during Sandy. Salt water + metal wires + electrical currents = bad times, as passengers on NJ Transit learned late Friday evening when one train was hit by a metal bracket and another by “unknown metal objects” after the overhead wires in the tunnel dislodged. It took over an hour and a half for rescue trains to arrive to evacuate passengers. For over five hours, train traffic was halted in and out of Penn Station New York. 

If this “event” had happened during rush hour, passengers on overcrowded trains might have been injured or worse. Employees would have been left stranded, scrambling for an alternative route to work, and many employers would have lost an entire day of productivity from their workers.

This is just the latest in a series of similar events, including the over 100-year old Portal Bridge that leads into the tunnels getting stuck open during rush hour, and scores of lesser Amtrak “signal problems” in the tunnels that cause more minor but more frequent delays.

The Hudson River tunnels are failing, even if they aren’t doing so in a way that’s as telegenic as a bridge collapse. Instead they are slowly falling apart, one “event” at a time, delaying commuters, destroying productivity, eroding the confidence of commuters.

Fortunately, there is a clear solution. The Gateway Program, which would build new tunnels under the Hudson River, is ready to go. Portions of it have already received local funding, including replacing the Portal Bridge, a critical connection into the tunnels and another piece of increasingly unreliable century-old infrastructure. Now we need all of the stakeholders, Amtrak, New York, New Jersey and the Federal Government to come together and get this project done.

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