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The Rail Freight Tunnel

by Bruce Schaller, Jun 14, 2004
 
 

Another big transportation project moved a step forward in May with release of a draft environment impact report on a rail freight tunnel between Brooklyn and New Jersey. The $20 million study, commissioned by the New York City Economic Development Corporation during the Giuliani Administration, found that a 5.5 mile cross harbor tunnel from Sunset Park in Brooklyn to Greenville Yard in Jersey City would improve the movement of goods in the region, spur economic growth and reduce both air pollution and traffic congestion.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler of Manhattan, who has pushed the project for years, supported by Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, are seeking $1.4 billion in federal funding from the federal transportation bill now under consideration by a Congressional conference committee. If approved and funded, construction would start in 2008 at the earliest.

Freight transportation is a major issue in the New York region, although it receives much less public attention than auto travel and transit issues. The region is highly dependent on trucks for the movement of goods, and those trucks obviously encounter the same traffic congestion and unpredictable travel times as every other vehicle encounters on the highways and streets of the region.

This congestion drives up the costs of living and doing business in New York, and is thus an important impediment to the economic development of New York City and its suburbs. These costs are typically bundled into the costs of products and services, however, and thus hidden from the consumer. Occasionally the higher goods transport costs become apparent. As a personal example, I once found that it cost twice as much to ship a large skylight from California to Brooklyn than to the New Jersey suburbs - illustrating that goods shipment across the Hudson is particularly affected.

These problems are only going to worsen over the next several decades. The cross harbor freight tunnel study projects that overall traffic volumes will increase 47 percent for Hudson River bridge and tunnel crossings between 2000 and 2025 and by 25 percent for East River crossings.

Although the New York region developed in the heyday of railroads, remarkably little freight uses the rails. While 79 percent of regional freight movement (measured by weight) is by truck and 15 percent is waterborne, only 5.6 percent moves by rail. Furthermore, rail transportation accounts for only 1.6 percent of freight tonnage east of the Hudson River.

A major impediment to increasing the share of freight using rail transportation is the lack of direct connections across the Hudson. The closest rail bridge is in Selkirk, New York, 140 miles north of the city. A new rail tunnel connecting Brooklyn with either New Jersey or Staten Island could use the substantial capacity of existing rail lines in Brooklyn and Queens.

The environmental study favored building the tunnel to New Jersey instead of Staten Island due to lower cost, less environmental impact and offering better rail connections. The Staten Island tunnel alignment would require more circuitous routing for some trains to reach the Staten Island portal, and would thus attract less cargo than a New Jersey connection.

The study recommended further consideration between a single-track tunnel versus double-track tunnel to New Jersey. The single tunnel would cost $4 billion versus $7 billion for a double tunnel and would have lesser adverse environmental and neighborhood impacts. But a single tunnel would also divert less truck traffic from congested roads and bridges and thus produce lower benefits than a double tunnel. The single tunnel would divert 5.4 percent of all truck cargo, compared with 8.5 percent for a double tunnel.

Diversion of freight from truck to rail would obviously reduce traffic volumes and traffic congestion throughout the New York region. A single tunnel would reduce truck travel by three percent in the region while a double tunnel would produce a 4.5 percent reduction.

A cross harbor tunnel would have the most impact on commodity trucks - think of the big tractor trailers - using Hudson River crossings. Commodity truck traffic would decline by up to 11 percent on Hudson River crossings overall, and by up to 18 percent on the Verrazano Bridge.

While this is good news for New Jersey, Staten Island and Westchester, the effects are a bit different for Queens. Since rail freight would be transferred to trucks in Queens, truck traffic would increase on Queens roads and bridges. Commodity truck volumes would increase as much as 41 percentin the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, for example, as well as on major highways.

While a cross harbor tunnel would have major impacts on the volume of commodity truck trips, overall effects on traffic congestion would be extremely modest. Commodity trucks represent only 1.9 percent of all vehicles using the Hudson River crossings and 0.7 percent using East River crossings. Thus, total traffic volumes would fall by only as little as 0.1 percent on Hudson River crossings, while increasing by the same range on East River crossings.

The major benefits from a tunnel are economic rather than traffic or air quality. Based on complex economic models that are typically used to assess major construction projects, the study estimates that a double tunnel would produce $10.28 billion in total benefits over its lifetime. Most of this figure comes in economic benefits measured as growth in personal income as the tunnel's improvement to freight movement results in costs savings for businesses, spurs growth of existing businesses and attracts new companies to the region. The study projects $7.5 billion in growth in personal income over the life of the project, measured in constant 2002 dollars. Some of this is in the form of direct benefits (e.g., the incomes generated by new jobs). Also included in the $7.5 billion are so-called multiplier effects, attained as the money further circulates within the region. For example, if a new employee hires a babysitter, the babysitter's income is counted in the multiplier.

The study estimates that a double tunnel would produce $10.3 billion in benefits and $4.7 billion in costs, using 2002 dollars, for a 2.2-to-1 benefit/cost ratio. The ratio for a single tunnel is 1.9-to-1. Congressman Nadler points out that these ratios are unusually high for transportation projects.

While receiving scant attention from major New York media outlets, release of the tunnel study generated a lively debate in Queens and New Jersey. Queens newspapers focused on the loss of 44 to 52 businesses due to expansion of the West Maspeth rail yards, with possible loss of 1,200 to 1,400 jobs.. The tunnel would also attract additional trucks to the neighborhood. The Queens Chronicle quoted Gary Giordano, district manager of Community Board 5, saying that, "There are concerns with regard to increased truck traffic in that Maspeth industrial area. That's a big concern, as well as the pollution associated with that."

Although the study did not include solid waste as potential tunnel cargo, Jersey City officials assailed the project as a "trash tunnel." The Jersey Journal quoted Jersey City Mayor Glenn D. Cunningham saying that, "We do not need to be a garbage transfer locality for the city of New York."

The next step in the project is public hearings on the draft environmental impact statement in June. As with many other major projects -- including the Second Avenue subway, extension of the #7 train and linking the Long Island Rail Road to lower Manhattan -- the biggest stumbling block is funding.. It remains to be seen whether Nadler can secure partial funding from Congress.

Bruce Schaller is head of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis about transportation, and is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.


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