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Another 30-year wait on Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel?

By Larry Penner

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey will spend up to $70 million on advancing an environmental study, as well as design and engineering for the Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel, still leaves a $9.930 billion shortfall to complete this project.

Last year, Manhattan-Brooklyn Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-10th District) claimed that there is real progress for his favorite Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel project. This doesn’t add up if you look at past history.

This project has been championed by Nadler as his No. 1 transportation priority for almost 30 years. After all that time, it has yet to progress beyond the federal NEPA environmental review process.

In theory, it might move thousands of trucks on a daily basis off the roads and on to railroad tracks for significant portions of the journey between New Jersey and Long Island. It reminds me of the long-forgotten proposed tunnel between 69th Street in Bay Ridge and St. George. The concept was to extend subway service from Brooklyn to Staten Island. Ground was broken with entrances at both ends in the 1920’s, but the project quickly ran out of money and was abandoned to history.

When living on Shore Road in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, friends and I would look to no avail in attempting to find the abandoned site filled in decades earlier. Flash forward 90 years later and we have the proposed “Cross Harbor” rail freight tunnel project.

Construction of any new freight, public transportation tunnel or bridge project can take years, if not decades, by the time all feasibility studies, environmental reviews, planning, design, engineering, real estate acquisition, permits, procurements, construction, budgeting, identifying and securing funding is completed. This is before the project reaches beneficial use.

Construction for the 2nd Avenue subway began in the 1960’s (bond money intended for this project in the 1950’s was spent elsewhere). The first segment of three stations between 63rd and 96th Streets on the upper east side of Manhattan was finally opened to the public on Jan. 1, 2017, at a cost of $4.5 billion. Construction for the original tunnel to support bringing the Long Island Rail Road from Queens into Grand Central Terminal began in the 1960’s. The latest completion date is now December 2023 with a cost of $10.8 billion. No one can identify all the sources for the estimated $24 billion to build a new tunnel for New Jersey Transit, and Amtrak known as the “Gateway project,” to gain additional access to Penn Station from New Jersey. Ditto for paying back the $3 billion federal loan which covered a majority of the estimated $4 billion for replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge in Westchester.

Any guess who will find $10 billion or more needed for construction of a new Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel? The Port Authority of NY & NJ, Congressmember Nadler nor Governor Cuomo have yet to identify and secure the billions neeed to fund final design and engineering, let alone construction.

The PANYNJ also needs to find $1.8 billion for PATH extension from Newark, New Jersey to Newark Airport, $7 billion toward the $10 billion total cost for a new Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Manhattan, along with billions more for other transportation investments.

There is also a potential serious conflict with the proposed $1 to $2 billion Triboro X — a new subway connecting the Bronx with Queens and Brooklyn. The route would run parallel from Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, terminus on to Queens. This would result in serious operational conflicts between freight and subway trains.

The proposed Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel may be just another in the continuing series of feasibility studies and environmental reviews sponsored by various governmental agencies and public officials over decades. They generate some money for consultants, along with free publicity for elected officials who promise a bright future, but all to often move on to another public office before delivering. Taxpayers are frequently left holding an empty bag with unfilled promises. Some NYC residents who oppose the project based on concerns about significant future increases in the number, length and frequency of freight trains need not worry. At the end of the day, just like the long-abandoned Brooklyn to Staten Island subway project – don’t count on seeing any shovel in the ground any time soon.

It is wishful thinking that the PA NY & NJ can count on billions in future federal funding to make up the difference. Don’t be surprised in waiting another 30 years until future PA NY&NJ ten-year capital plans are approved before a complete $10 billion (or more) funding package is in place. These are necessary to support awarding construction contracts.

Project supporters who are looking for completion of a new Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel may not live long enough to see this in their lifetime.

Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office

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