There is only $70 million for advancing an environmental study along with preliminary design and engineering for the Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel within the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey 2017 – 2026 Capital Plan. This leaves a $9.930 billion shortfall to complete this project. Manhattan-Brooklyn Congress member Jerald Nadler claims that there is real progress for his favorite Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel project. This doesn’t add up if you look at past history. This project has been championed by Congress member Nadler as his number one transportation priority for almost thirty years. After all that time, it has yet to progress beyond the federal National Environmental Protect Act review process. In theory, it might move thousands of trucks on a daily basis off the roads and on to railroad tracks for significant portions of the journey between New Jersey and Long Island. It reminds me of the long forgotten proposed tunnel between 69th Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and St. George, Staten Island. The concept was to extend subway service from Brooklyn to Staten Island. Ground was broken with entrances at both ends in the 1920s, but the project quickly ran out of money and was abandoned to history. When living on Shore Road in Bay Ridge Brooklyn, friends and I would look to no avail in attempting to find the abandon site filled in decades earlier. Flash forward 90 years later and we have the proposed Cross-Harbor Rail Freight Tunnel project.
Construction of any new freight, public transportation tunnel or bridge project can take years, if not decades, by the time all feasibility studies, environmental reviews, planning, design, engineering, real estate acquisition, permits, procurements, construction, budgeting, identifying and securing funding is completed. This is before the project reaches beneficial use. Construction for the Second Avenue subway began in the 1960s. (Bond money intended for this project in the 1950’s was spent elsewhere.) The first segment of three stations between 63rd and 96th Streets on the upper east side of Manhattan was finally opened to the public on January 1, 2017 at a cost of $4.5 billion. Construction for the original tunnel to support bringing the Long Island Rail Road from Queens into Grand Central Terminal began in the 1960’s. The latest completion date is now December 2023 with a current cost of $10.8 billion which could end up at $12 billion. No one can identify all the sources for the estimated $29 billion to build a new tunnel for New Jersey Transit and Amtrak known as the “Gateway project” to gain additional access to Penn Station from New Jersey. Ditto for paying back the $1.6 billion federal and New York State Thruway Authority loans which covered a majority of the estimated $4 billion for replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge in Westchester. Any guess who will find $10 billion or more needed for construction of a new Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel? Neither the Port Authority, Congress member Nadler or Gov. Cuomo have yet to identify and secure the billions needed to fund final design and engineering followed by construction. The Port Authority also needs to find $7 billion toward the $10 billion total cost for a new Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Manhattan along with billions more for other transportation investments.
There is also a potential serious conflict with the proposed $2 billion Triboro X (a new subway connecting the Bronx with Queens and Brooklyn). This route would run parallel from the Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, terminus on to Queens. This would result in serious operational conflicts between freight and subway trains. The proposed Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel may be just another in the continuing series of feasibility studies and environmental reviews sponsored by various governmental agencies and public officials over decades. They generate some money for consultants along with free publicity for elected officials who promise a bright future but all too often move on to another public office before delivering. Taxpayers are frequently left holding an empty bag with unfilled promises.
It is wishful thinking that the Port Authority can count on billions in future federal funding to make up the difference. Don’t be surprised in waiting another 30 years until future Port Authority ten year 2027 – 2036 and 2037 – 2046 Capital Plans are approved before a complete $10 billion or more funding package is in place. This is necessary to support awarding construction contracts.
Some NYC and Long Island residents who oppose the project based on concerns about significant future increases in the number, length and frequency of freight trains need not worry. At the end of the day, just like the long abandoned Brooklyn to Staten Island subway project — don’t count on seeing any shovel in the ground any time soon. You may never see completion of any Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel in their lifetime.
Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office.