Friday, October 8, 2010

Over the River

A billion dollars here, a billion dollars there, and pretty soon, you're talking about real money.

The paraphrase of this quote, unofficially attributed to the late Illinois politician Everett Dirksen, certainly applies to most government spending programs, doesn't it? Perhaps, however, it rang loudest in the ears of New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie yesterday when he axed what would have been the costliest mass transit project in United States history.

How expensive? Try upwards of $14 billion, if you factor in the worst-case cost-overrun scenarios.

For a train tunnel under the Hudson River.

Tunnel of Love?

Now, at first glance, most Americans probably shrug their shoulders upon learning of Christie's cancellation of a new rail connection between the Garden State and Manhattan. Sure, that's a lot of money, but what does it have to do with the price of tea in China? Or my own little world of taxes and government waste where we live, west of the Delaware Water Gap (which divides New Jersey from Pennsylvania, and all points westward)?

You might be interested to know that billions of federal dollars already earmarked for the Hudson rail tunnel can now, at least in theory, be distributed across the country for other projects, providing a sudden incentive for transportation construction where you live. Unless you're governed by politicians as skeptical of financial mismanagement of such projects as New Jersey's governor.

And I think Christie is correct in being suspicious that the $8 billion proponents of the rail project optimistically project it to cost really would be spent in the public's best interests. America's Northeast is plagued by unions, teamsters, and systemic fiscal malfeasance which artificially inflate all costs related to any public works project. And boring a tunnel under the very epicenter of the East Coast's union stronghold would provide too great an opportunity for all sorts of sticky fingers to get a piece of the pie. Christie's experts told him they could foresee cost overruns escalating to $5 billion, while defenders of the project scoffed, saying the overruns would top out at $3 billion max. As if a billion here and a billion there really didn't make much difference.

But fortunately for the taxpayers of New Jersey, those billions mean something to Christie. They mean that the cash-strapped state budget needs to be cowed, and that the state's existing infrastructure, which is in bad shape, needs to be fixed before more money is spent on new projects. And perhaps most significantly, that Christie isn't going to play politics as usual in a corner of the country where patronage and profiteering have become a way of life.

Critics of the governor's decision say he's out of touch with the future economic needs of the Garden State, which depends heavily upon New York City for its own financial well-being. Indeed, the project's very name, Access to the Region's Core (ARC), veritably institutionalizes the recognition of Manhattan Island as the epicenter of metropolitan New York's socioeconomic might. At first glance, conventional wisdom would endorse the idea that more rail connections to Manhattan makes perfect sense. Nobody's arguing that the 100-year-old rail tunnels in use now don't need relief, or that trains will keep more cars off of Manhattan's already clogged streets.

Floating an Idea

But are these really problems that will be solved by throwing upwards of $14 BILLION at them? Can cross-river access to Manhattan be secured at less cost? Is rail even the best solution?

And is building another tunnel, which in the New York metropolitan area would be akin to adding yet another terrorism target to their collection, a wise idea in this day and age? Yes, New York City has decided to plow ahead with the long-delayed completion of Manhattan's Second Avenue Subway, but going underwater is a different scenario than a subway line no deeper than some basements. Is there a less provocative method of getting commuters across the Hudson?

I think there is - and it's already being done: boats. Commuter water taxis already run between New Jersey and Manhattan at a fraction of the cost of a tunnel. In addition to being cheaper, boats provide other advantages to rail service, including route flexibility, scheduling flexibility, and the virtual elimination of conventional terrorism. In fact, during 9-11, water taxis instantly converted themselves into makeshift ambulances and evacuation vessels.

We could even go so far as to introduce duck boats to the Hudson commuter equation. They have an unfortunate history in Philadelphia, where a tourism duck boat was destroyed by a barge this past summer, killing two people. Yet Philly's disaster notwithstanding, duck boats have a reliable safety record, and if they're of a larger size to accommodate at least a couple hundred commuters or more, they'd be far more visible to other watercraft.

Ramps could be build along the Hudson waterfront, and platforms like train stations have, so that passengers could just walk on and walk off. And like at the current water taxi piers, expensive infrastructure like escalators, elevators, rest rooms, and other considerations normal for train stations simply wouldn't be necessary.

I can't imagine the cost of running an expanded water taxi transit system would come anywhere close to the billions of dollars a new tunnel would cost. And the Hudson River could become an asset again, instead of a barrier.

Would you rather get stuck in a commuter train under the Hudson River, or enjoy waterside views of New York's magnificent skyline as you dart across one of the world's most historic bodies of water?
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