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ARC: 100 Years Later, An Attempt to Re-Conquer Gotham


One hundred years ago, during the early months of 1908, workers – known as “sand hogs” - blasted through the first rail tunnels under the Hudson River. As Jill Jonnes recounts in her recent book Conquering Gotham, the dreams of the Pennsylvania Railroad and its president, Alexander Cassatt, were finally fulfilled. No longer would Manhattan bound train riders have to disembark in New Jersey for a ferry ride across the Hudson.

By April 1908, “You could now enter a tunnel at Bergen Hill and, following it down under the North River, as the New York Times reported, ‘Walk from Hackensack Meadows to Long Island, but the Way is Stony and Wet.’ More than five miles of PRR railroad tunnels, starting in New Jersey and ending in Long Island were now bored completely through,” said Jonnes. At the same time, the old Penn Station was rapidly rising to become a temple to this amazing feat of engineering.

The PRR’s two-track tunnel has served the region well for the past century. But today there are more riders than ever. As a result, NJ Transit and Amtrak are facing a capacity crisis. The tunnel simply cannot handle any more train traffic during rush hour. Talk to anyone who takes NJ Transit to Penn Station and you are bound to hear horror stories about delays.

In response, NJ Transit, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the federal government have proposed the first trans-Hudson rail tunnel in one hundred years. The project is known as “ARC” for Access to the Region’s Core.

The $7.6 billion project will double train capacity into Penn Station by building a new two-track tunnel and a new train station under 34th Street. Currently, it is expected to begin construction in 2009 and to be completed in 2017.

Most everyone agrees that the region needs a new commuter rail tunnel, but there has been plenty of debate about its planning and design. Whereas the first trans-Hudson train tunnels arrived in the magnificent old Penn Station, the new ARC tunnel will terminate in a cavern 125 feet below Macy's. To connect to other trains at Penn Station riders will have to ascend over 100 feet and walk the equivalent of 2-3 blocks through a passageway.

Supporters of the current proposal include the Regional Plan Association, the New York Building Congress, and the New Jersey Alliance for Action. Opponents point out that the proposed station is not integrated with the platforms that will serve the future Moynihan Station - nor does it provide an opportunity to connect to Grand Central for access to the Midtown East commercial area.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign is concerned about pedestrian overflow on the already overcrowded sidewalks around 34th St – which sounds to us like another reason to reopen underground passageways and consider Manhattan BP Scott Stringer’s proposal for a pedestrian thoroughfare on 33rd Street.

Transit advocates represented by the Regional Rail Working Group, including George Haikalis (of “Ask George” fame) and the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers, have voiced concerns about the deep cavern station under 34th St because of security concerns and the lack of direct connection to Penn Station. The station will be four times deeper than the existing Penn Station platforms. Instead, they believe the tunnel should come into existing tracks at Penn Station (see our recent post about the Grand Central/Penn Station connection for more info).

Meanwhile, the Architect’s Newspaper reports that New Jersey’s budget problems are holding up federal funding for the project. At a recent conference hosted by the New Jersey Alliance for Action, Governor Corzine said “co-equal investments with the federal government are vital.” He added, “If we cannot provide state matching dollars, we could lose the ARC tunnel.”

Timing is critical. Ridership is expected to double by 2015 and New Jersey officials, including Corzine, are concerned that Manhattan’s congestion pricing plan will place more stress on the trans-Hudson tunnel capacity crisis.

Resources for more information:

Visit the Access to the Region’s Core site

Listen to Jill Jonnes talk about Conquering Gotham on NPR’s All Things Considered

Read “Growing Pains; The Midtown Direct Line, a Victim of Its Own Success, Leaves Riders Grumbling About the Rush-Hour Madness,” from The New York Times

Read “Uniting Suburbs, One Rail Project at a Time,” by Ken Belson for The New York Times

Read “Port Authority Expected to Raise Tolls to Support 2nd Hudson Rail Tunnel,” by Ken Belson for The New York Times

[Images courtesy of Conquering Gotham and Access to the Region’s Core]