- Getty Images/Pool
- President Donald Trump opposes a project to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River.
- He’s may not be doing it for the right reasons – but the project does cost too much.
- We should ask why tunnels cost so much here, and find a way to build them for what they would cost in France.
For President Donald Trump, I’m sure it’s mostly about a grudge.
Chuck Schumer isn’t giving Trump the money he wants for a wall on the Mexican border, so Trump doesn’t want to fund a similarly priced infrastructure project that’s dear to Schumer’s heart: A new rail tunnel under the Hudson River.
Despite Trump’s objections, there are a few hundred million dollars for this project, called the Gateway Program, in the omnibus spending bill he just signed. Maybe that’s one reason Trump was so grumpy about being pushed into signing it.
Additional railroad tracks under the Hudson River are something New York and New Jersey will need in the long run to support the economy and keep up with commuters’ needs. But while getting revenge on Schumer is a bad reason to oppose this project, there is a good reason to oppose this particular plan: Like most underground rail projects in New York, it’s going to cost about five times as much as it should.
Because of the eye-popping price tag, Trump has stumbled into the right position – opposition – for the wrong reason.
Under a handshake agreement during the Obama administration, the federal government was supposed to pay half the $12.7 billion bill for the first phase of Gateway, which would build the tunnel and a new bridge over the Hackensack River. Additional bridges and an expansion of Penn Station would push the total price tag for the project to $29 billion, a lot of that to be funded with federal tax dollars.
The federal government should not give New York and New Jersey $6.3 billion as a down-payment on a boondoggle.
Amtrak officials, the governors of New York and New Jersey, and officials from local agencies like New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority, should all be sent back to the drawing board to find a way to do this project at a reasonable price.
Because in any other country, this project wouldn’t cost $30 billion – and it doesn’t need to cost that here, either.
New tunnels in New York are drastically expensive compared to France and Spain
New York likes its superlatives, but our distinction of building the world’s most expensive subways is not one we should relish.
As The New York Times described in an investigation last December, the recently opened Second Avenue Subway in Manhattan cost $2.5 billion per mile. A recently completed project of similar scope in France, Line 14 of the Paris Metro, cost only $500 million a mile.
Why the difference? It’s not that France has low pay or poor working conditions.
As the Times describes, there is a problem in New York of misaligned incentives among construction workers’ unions, the politically connected project management firms those unions provide labor to, and the government agencies that basically pay whatever bills those management firms send their way.
“I think people like doing business with people they know, and so a few companies get all the work, and they can charge whatever they want,” is how one of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s own board members, Charles Moerdler, described their approach to tunnel contracting to the Times.
An example of the complete failure of cost control in contracting is that, in New York, it takes about 25 workers to operate a tunnel-boring machine that would be driven by a dozen workers in France.
There are also problems of project scope. One of the big cost drivers of Gateway’s phase two is the need to acquire an entire city block of midtown Manhattan real estate to build a southward expansion of Penn Station, adding seven new terminal tracks.
But if New York adopted operating best practices from Europe – having commuter trains continue through Penn Station from New Jersey to Long Island, instead of terminating and turning around – it would be possible to greatly increase the station’s capacity without adding any new tracks, saving billions of dollars.
People will tell you there’s no time to get costs under control
I get horrified reactions in New York when I tell people I’m against Gateway at its current price tag.
The warnings are dire: If we don’t build these new tunnels, it will eventually be necessary to close the existing Amtrak tunnels under the Hudson River for an extended period of emergency maintenance. This will turn commutes into hell and greatly disrupt the economy.
Local politicians have even taken to loosely suggesting the existing tunnels could “fail” or “collapse” unless there is an extended maintenance closure, which is not the risk described by structural engineers.
The risk on the table is that damage from Hurricane Sandy to systems within the tunnels that could disrupt service or necessitate emergency closure. That would indeed be a very large problem, but it’s less sexy than the structural tunnel failure implied by “collapse.”
Regardless, these risks lead serious people to say the responsible thing is to build new tunnels at any price, rather than take the extra time it would take to figure out how to build this project for the single-digit-billion number of dollars it would cost in France.
We should expect our local leaders to control these costs
I am always suspicious of warnings from officials and agencies that say dire things will happen unless you give them billions of dollars. But suppose New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is right, and we have no choice but to do this project the $30 billion way.
In that case, the primary target for your anger should not be Trump, who doesn’t want to give us the money to do that.
You should be angry at local New York and New Jersey officials, who oversee a government so incompetent it can only figure out how to build infrastructure for five times what it should cost. It has led to price tags so inflated, this wealthy region cannot conceive of any way to finance critical projects without financial assistance from the federal government.
If our government were any good at building tunnels, we could fund the whole cost of a new one under the Hudson River, plus the required interconnections, for less than what’s supposed to be our state and local share of the bloated project on the table now.
We wouldn’t need to beg Trump for money. We could do it ourselves, if we had to.
Maybe a refusal of federal funds is the kick in the pants New York and New Jersey officials need. If asking Trump for money doesn’t work, getting cost effective will be the only option.
And learning to build new tunnels at a reasonable price would bring benefits to New York far beyond the Gateway Program – it would allow us to finally consider broader expansions of our subway system, because they would be newly much more affordable.