A Transit Mess Long in the Making

Last week’s transit meltdown at Penn Station demonstrated how a minor incident on an already-strained system can quickly lead to major disruptions that ripple throughout the economy. As RPA President Tom Wright told the New York Times, “Every property owner, every employee, every resident in New York has an enormous stake in this system working.”

The commuting nightmare highlighted how urgent it is to upgrade and expand our region’s transportation network. The rail tunnels connecting New York’s Penn Station with New Jersey are more than 100 years old and in need of major repairs, work that can’t happen until new tunnels are built alongside them. Penn Station itself is handling more than half a million passengers a day, double the number that it was designed for, to terrible results, as anyone who has had to pass through the facility at rush hour on even a normal day can attest.

As bad as last week’s outages seemed, we could be facing far worse trouble if one of those rail tunnels had to be shut unexpectedly. Running inbound and outbound trains through a single tube safely would cut capacity by at least 75%. (RPA made a short video not long ago to explain why.)

Penn Station and the rail tunnels are the lynchpin of the rail corridor stretching from Washington, D.C., to Boston. When things go wrong in and around New York, the problem cascades up and down the Northeast and disrupts an economy responsible for 20% of the national gross domestic product. The governors of New York and New Jersey have committed to picking up the tab for half the cost of the Gateway project, which would add two tunnels, expand Penn Station and make some other urgent repairs. The Obama administration said the federal government would pick up the other half, but the Trump administration hasn’t been clear about its intentions.

After decades of under-investment, the U.S. has enormous infrastructure needs. New York City, whose subways were once the envy of the world, now lags far behind its global peers in London, Paris, Shanghai and elsewhere in modernizing its system.

While there are many reasons why the U.S. has fallen behind, high costs, especially in the New York region, are persistently cited as a barrier to adding subway lines and stations, upgrading technology and taking other steps to support the nation’s biggest economy. At this year’s RPA Assembly on April 21, a panel of policy makers and other experts will discuss what drives the high cost of capital construction and examine how to make projects more efficient and bring costs down.

After years of seeing major infrastructure projects run behind schedule or over budget, voters are understandably skeptical that things will be done right the next time. The answer, in part, is far greater accountability and transparency. A forthcoming RPA report will explore other ways costs can be managed. What became painfully clear again last week is the high cost of doing nothing.


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