Tunnel trouble under the Hudson River is an immanent threat to the New York region’s transit system

City Terrain East Transportation
The NY-NJ region would see more traffic if a Hudson River rail tunnel closed for repairs (Sumith R / Flickr)

The NY-NJ region would see more traffic if a Hudson River rail tunnel closed for repairs (Sumith R / Flickr)

Two rail tunnels connecting New Jersey to New York are the main arteries of the regional transit system. Riders usually don’t need to focus on the infrastructure that carries them to their destinations—unless something goes wrong. Each day, 500,000 commuters use mass transit—Amtrak, PATH, and NJ Transit—to travel from New Jersey to New York and back.

After more than one hundred years in service, the rail tunnels are rapidly deteriorating. “Tunnel Trouble,” a new video released by the Regional Plan Association (RPA), warns of the dire consequences for transit on the Eastern seaboard if one of the tunnels were shut down for extensive repairs.

The daily ridership on Amtrak and NJ Transit has more than doubled, from 35,533 passengers in 1990 to 85,869 in 2013. Over the next 25 years, ridership on these lines is expected to grow more than 40 percent. Each tunnel handles inbound and outbound traffic. Typically, 24 trains pass through each tunnel each hour. The RPA states that, if one tunnel closed, only six trains per hour could pass, reducing service by 75 percent. Those with cars may chose to drive, straining an already overburdened road network.

If one tunnel closed, New Jersey Transit service would be reduced by three-quarters (Marcin Bajer / Flickr)

If one tunnel closed, New Jersey Transit service would be reduced by three-quarters (Marcin Bajer / Flickr)

Hurricane Sandy inundated the tunnels three years ago. Saline river water corroded the concrete lining and damaged the Depression-era wiring. Today, mechanical problems in the tunnels create a chokepoint for local train traffic and delay regional Amtrak trains coming in and out of New York.

The RPA makes a strong case for building two new tunnels, while the current tunnels are still operable, to forestall an immanent transportation disaster.  It appears, however, that the political will is lacking. In 2010, AN covered the defeat of the ARC project, an $8.7 billion transit upgrade between the New Jersey Meadowlands and Penn Station. The ARC proposed building two new single-track tunnels to alleviate the bottleneck under the Hudson. Today, and especially after the devastation of Sandy, investing in new tunnels is key to maintaining the economic health of the region.

Related Stories