Commuters getting a gift from Macy’s basement

U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg: He was right about the need for a tunnel; but wrong on where it should go.

Commuters getting a gift from Macy’s basement

Tuesday, February 08, 2011  By Paul Mulshine/The Star Ledger

If these two had backpedaled any further, they might have ended up in Macy’s basement.

I’m talking about our two U.S. senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez. Yesterday they had the unenviable job of telling us that everything we were told about the canceled Access to the Region’s Core tunnel project wasn’t true after all.

What we’d been told was that because of economic and environmental constraints, it was impossible to dig shallow rail tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station in Manhattan. Therefore, New Jersey would have to tunnel deep under Manhattan to a new train station to be built near the cellar of that famous department store.

After the Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel labeled this "the tunnel to Macy’s basement," people had a graphic image of just how far the plan had gone off the tracks. Gov. Chris Christie last year employed Tittel’s witticism in explaining his decision to cancel the $8.7 billion project for fear of multibillion-dollar cost overruns.

That set off a political brawl, with our two Democratic senators assailing the actions of our Republican governor as shortsighted. But they had little support among advocates of passenger rail. These guys worship "connectivity," and the last thing they wanted to see was all that precious transit money going to a project that didn’t connect to anything.

That lack of connectivity created a flaw equal to the potential cost overruns. Amtrak couldn’t share those tunnels to Macy’s basement. Therefore the national rail line would have to build two new tunnels of its own. And those two tunnels would have to be the same type of tunnels NJ Transit says can’t be built — shallow tunnels to Penn Station that would be shared with NJ Transit.

That’s what Amtrak proposed yesterday. And that led me to ask Menendez the obvious question: How can Amtrak do what NJ Transit said it couldn’t do? Menendez hemmed and hawed a bit before handing the question off to Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman. Boardman, who was administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration when the ARC plan was being developed, left no doubt where he stood on the canceled plan.

"I didn’t like what NJ Transit was going to do when I was the FRA administrator," said Boardman. "I said so."

Of those two shallow tunnels to Penn, Boardman said, "Their studies told them they couldn’t do it. We believed that they could, and we believe that we can and we will."

When I asked Boardman afterward about the canceled ARC plan’s shortcomings, he uttered the magic words.

"Part of NJ Transit’s problem was their alignment was going to Macy’s basement," he said. "We know what we have to have for the benefit of the Northeast and our business area: a new tunnel coming into Penn Station."

Actually, we knew that 12 years ago. Boardman’s quote could have come out of the original ARC plan of 1999. Let’s call it "Plan A." It called for two new tunnels to Penn that would have solved the capacity problems of both NJ Transit and Amtrak. Those tunnels would have continued on to Grand Central. This would have created the "Access to the Region’s Core" for New Jersey commuters that gave ARC its initials.

Unfortunately, by 2003, Plan A had become Plan B. The connection to Grand Central was killed by infighting among the various railroads that would have had to converge there: NJ Transit, Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road. "The boys didn’t want to share their train sets" is how the rail advocates put it.

In a few years, even the connection to Penn was written out of ARC and we had a Plan C that pleased no one except the NJ Transit execs and the contractors who would have gotten the work.

A better configuration is possible after the demise of ARC, Boardman said.

"We can do this and make it work better than it would have worked before," he said.

We can indeed. The plan released yesterday gets us back to the Plan B of 2003. Add that Grand Central link and we’re back to the Plan A of 1999. There were quite a few rail advocates in the room yesterday, and all said that’s where we want to be.

How we’ll get there remains a mystery. But we’re headed in the right direction: backward.

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