As the Bush administration ends and area governments confront daunting budget gaps, what’s being called the nation’s most important public transportation project, a massive New Jersey Transit tunnel planned under the Hudson River, faces significant hurdles to funding and construction. Delays could send its already $7.6 billion price tag soaring.
Known as Access to the Region’s Core (ARC), it is the largest individual transportation project in the New York area by dollars, and would double the railroad’s capacity, allowing for 80,000 more riders daily, with a new river crossing and a fresh set of platforms by Pennsylvania Station.
But given the enormous scale of the project—the $7.6 billion currently estimated is over $3 billion more costly than the first segment of the Second Avenue Subway—any lengthy delays, ultimately leading to overruns, could mean hundreds of millions or perhaps billions more in public dollars should the estimates prove inadequate.
A preliminary analysis by the Federal Transit Administration found the cost of the project was estimated to span from the $7.6 billion to more than $10 billion depending on a variety of potential roadblocks during planning and construction, according to a government official familiar with the analysis.
With the project slated to start in 2009, any delays would be certain to push those figures upward given the constant escalation in construction costs. Officials are worried about potential delays in Washington, as the F.T.A. does not currently have enough money to fund the project.
New Jersey Transit spokesman Dan Stessel said the agency will work with the F.T.A. to monitor costs as the project moves forward, but there are concerns about securing funding in coming months.
“We are concerned and have been communicating with the F.T.A. about the importance of meeting the project schedule to avoid costly and unnecessary delays,” he said. “We will work with them and talk to them about all the things that we will do to ensure that the numbers that we are projecting stay as consistent as possible.”
Still, any delays in the project mean almost automatic cost overruns given inflation, not to mention that every other large transportation infrastructure project in the area has seen major overruns. Earlier this year, the M.T.A. said it needed another $900 million to complete a set of $7 billion new tunnels under the East River; and the $900 million Fulton Street Transit Center project needed at least another $300 million.
ARC is bigger than all of these, and should the price tag top $10 billion, the tunnel would cost more than it took to complete the entire Washington, D.C., subway in the 1970s, in unadjusted dollars.
Still, transportation advocates and officials on both sides of the Hudson—though far more of them on the western—are quick to rally behind the cause, given its potential benefit to both sides of the river. More capacity into Manhattan makes New Jersey a more desirable location, which in turn means a larger workforce for New York.
“The project is probably the most important public transportation project in the country,” James Simpson, the F.T.A.’s administrator, told The Observer. “The benefits accruing to New Yorkers and folks in New Jersey are so great that the project has to happen.”
CONCEIVED DECADES AGO, the project is founded on the notion of dealing with a growing population of suburban New Jersey commuters, as the one set of passenger rail tunnels currently under the Hudson is at capacity during peak hours. Delays on a single train have a cascading effect on the long line of others behind it; seats fill during peak hours; and cranky commuters pack the Penn Station waiting areas during the afternoon rush. The other users of the tracks under Penn Station, Amtrak and the Long Island Rail Road, have similar experiences.