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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

 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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