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Light at the End of the Rail Tunnel?

When the Port Authority of New York was created some seventy-five years ago, it had among its primary purposes the construction of a rail tunnel under the harbor. Such a tunnel would have linked the now scattered parts of the New York area waterfront. Goods and perhaps people would have avoided congestion by moving beneath the surface. The port itself might have benefited from the interconnectedness. Area road tunnels, bridges and roadways would have been spared much wear and tear. All sectors of the local economy, consumers, producers and shippers would have benefited from price competition between rail and truck. Nationwide, today, 30 percent of goods for urban areas move by rail. In the New York metropolitan area, the figure is three percent.

When Mayor Giuliani formally proposed a new version of this idea, it had a mixed reception. Detractors talked about how nothing big can be built anymore in New York. Proponents noted the importance of his vision. Today, three years into the planning process, it remains to be seen if there will be light at the end of this tunnel.

According to Seth Kaye, Executive Vice President at New York City's Economic Development Corporation, the tunnel makes sense and may well happen. The Draft Final Report, for the Cross Harbor Freight Movement Study, states that there is a market that would amount to forty trains a day (over three thousand railcars). That volume of rail traffic would lead to a reduction of one million trucks a year at crowded Hudson River Bridge crossings. To best develop that market, the city has asked the financial community for an expression of interest regarding innovative mechanisms through which the tunnel could be operated and financed. The report suggests that federal funds be sought for infrastructure improvements to existing rail facilities east and west of the tunnel.

The proposed two-track tunnel is estimated to cost $2.3 billion including a half billion dollars for infrastructural improvements. A one-track tunnel would cost $1.5 billion with improvements. In addition to the federal sources, the proposal assumes some amount of state and local revenue including a toll surcharge on trucks, charges to the rail users and revenues from right-of-way sales.

Jim Tripp, General Counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund sees "significant advantages to a tunnel that operates efficiently". He cites likely reductions in air pollutants such as the particulate matter generated by diesel trucks. Al Appleton, Senior Fellow, at the Regional Plan Association adds, " the rail tunnel is the key to any major shift in travel mode." Rail under the harbor " would offer congestion benefits to New Jersey and it would enhance the value of the port as a whole." Appleton noted that Alameda, California addressed a rail corridor improvement project as a congestion reduction and economic development opportunity.

Chris Ward of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey remains unconvinced. He noted that the Port Authority questions the capacity of local roads near proposed Brooklyn and Queens rail depots to handle the volume of truck traffic. He suggested "that there would be significant land-use issues" to be faced. Ward also noted that the study's support for expanded rail float barge operations was worthy of further review. In particular, he mentioned the expansion of interport barge operations to Baltimore, Albany and New Haven.

Bringing light to this task will ultimately depend on cooperation between the governors of New York and New Jersey. According to Kaye, "the congestion reductions in New Jersey and the overall port improvements speak for themselves". He believes New Jersey will see the light. Of course, the cast of characters will change. Governor Whitman will be out of office in fifteen months. In New York City, Mayor Giuliani will be also be replaced in November 2001. Governor Pataki's fate is uncertain. Seeing the light may well depend on whose eyes are focused on freight down the road.

Peter B. Fleischer, currently writing a book on the New York City waterfront, was formerly a transportation and environment policy advisor to New York City Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani. 

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