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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Don't get on deep tunnel express, governor-elect

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(The following opinion piece by Alfred Doblin appeared in The Record in Northern New Jersey.) Last week, Governor-elect Chris Christie met with The Record's editorial board. During the meeting, he was asked about transportation projects and the possibility of a gas tax to help keep the Transportation Trust Fund solvent.

Christie was pro-mass transit and adamantly against a gas tax at this time. He noted that Democrats could have passed a gas tax at any time during Corzine's term if they wanted a new tax. Instead, they have waited until now. Democratic state Sen. Ray Lesniak of Union County has said he believes the state needs the tax and wants Christie to get on board.

 Christie is smart enough to let that train leave the station without him.

As a mass-transit junkie, I was heartened to hear how important mass transportation projects are to the incoming governor. When asked about the new Hudson River tunnel, he remained committed to the project. Although digging the tunnel while there are federal funds available for digging is a good idea, the project needs a yellow, not green, light from the new administration.

The new tunnel under the river makes sense. Bringing more New Jersey commuters into Manhattan makes sense. Building a deep-tunnel train station a block from Pennsylvania Station and just footsteps from an existing PATH station makes no sense to the commuters who - well, commute.

On paper, this all looks good. The thousands of new jobs the project is supposed to create are appealing. The ability to grow commuter ridership is important for both New Jersey's and New York's economies. But the reality is that putting more people in the same part of Manhattan is just plain dumb.

Across Manhattan on the East Side, the Long Island Rail Road is doing the same thing, but smarter. Long Island commuters have access to Penn Station. They don't have access to Grand Central Station. A new tunnel under the East River will connect them to a deep-tunnel station below and slightly north of Grand Central. Long Island commuters will have a choice of Penn Station on the West Side and Grand Central on the East Side.

New Jersey commuters will end up where they always have. NJ Transit cannot take its trains to Grand Central because it would have to bore below a massive tunnel supplying water to Manhattan. Until an additional water tunnel is operational, there will be no NJ Transit trains to Grand Central. This should be the deal-breaker for the project as planned. It makes little sense to expend billions and billions of dollars for a less-than-perfect solution.

The federal money now available would be better spent on expanding light rail from Hudson County into Bergen County. Light rail would be used by thousands of commuters and it would feed into Hoboken and the Gold Coast, where commuters can access the PATH to either lower Manhattan or Herald Square. It also could be completed sooner than the tunnel project.

Christie said expanded mass transit between New Jersey and New York is important to this region. He could not be more correct. But he will also be looking at a long list of transportation needs and a shorter list of available funding sources.

Sen. Robert Menendez took umbrage over Christie's comment to The Record that New Jersey's two U.S. senators could be doing more when it comes to securing federal transportation dollars.

 That was a cheap shot at Menendez and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who has a long history of supporting mass transportation and a viable national rail network. The problem isn't getting the money as much as choosing how to spend it wisely.

The Hudson River tunnel project is monumental. But if it isn't done right, it's a monument to excess. The advocates for building it now, regardless of where it terminates, are not the everyday people who have to travel back and forth on the trains. Exactly where are the thousands of new commuters going to go after they arrive at 34th Street? Can all those new commuters be absorbed into the existing subway infrastructure at 34th Street? Not likely. It should be Grand Central or bust.

One of the biggest tests for the new governor will be his willingness to halt projects that seem unstoppable even when they are clearly flawed. Christie is smart enough not to get on Lesniak's gas-tax express. He should be equally cautious about the train through a new Hudson River tunnel. Billions of dollars to take commuters to where they can already go isn't progress, it is politics as usual.

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