When you take a train from Penn Station to New Jersey, it goes through one of two slender tunnels. They opened almost exactly a century ago, on November 27, 1910. At rush hour, both run at essentially 100 percent of their capacity, with trains zipping through every two minutes or so, and the slightest hiccup causes cascading delays. Until yesterday, the quarter-million-plus travelers who roll through those tubes each day could expect relief, from the $8.7 billion new tunnel that began burrowing toward Manhattan last year. And now it’s dead. Jersey’s budget-slashing governor, Chris Christie, says he can’t cover its likely cost overruns. His transportation commissioner says that $1 billion of the tunnel’s budget wasn’t specific to this job, and he’d just as soon spend it on highways.
Highways. Have we not learned a damn thing in these past 50 years? Every civil engineer, every urban planner, everyone with eyes knows the truth: If a road is crowded, and you relieve traffic by adding lanes or another road, what you get is more traffic, because people continue to reorient their lives around their cars. What you do to cut traffic is give people other options, like good, safe, reliable trains. People crave them, too. New Jersey Transit’s ridership is up 150 percent in just the past decade. As Alex Marshall, senior fellow of the Regional Plan Association, recently put it, “The most important industry in the Garden State is known as ‘commuting to New York City.’ ”
For several years now, many New Yorkers have sensed the end of the age in which we lived on our infrastructural inheritance. Second Avenue began to get its subway. The Manhattan Bridge, once a friable ribbon of rust, is nearly rebuilt. Deep beneath Grand Central, new train platforms will soon let Long Islanders arrive on the East Side. Downtown, the PATH will enter Santiago Calatrava’s glorious station. Chris Christie probably knows this, but he has a political point to make, and he would rather serve his exurbs than the whole region. “It’s horrible policy,” says Marshall. “The Republicans seem to believe rail is a communist plot or something. [Christie] doesn’t want to raise the gas tax to fix the roads—that’s all it is.”
Admittedly, this tunnel is a half-assed idea, because it doesn’t connect to Penn Station. It simply moves New Jersey Transit’s trains to a new terminal under Macy’s, a block and a half away—but that is at least one version of what we need. Yes, it’s expensive, but the thing about a project like this is that the bonds eventually get paid off, whereupon it gets used forever. Consider another piece of infrastructure desperately necessary to New York: one that suffered a grisly, fatal construction accident in its first months; was delayed to the point that the trustees voted on whether to fire the chief engineer; and was threatened by strikes, financial irregularities, a worker-safety crisis, explosions, a fire, and a fraudulent subcontractor who supplied bad steel. Politicians and editorialists howled about it, throwing around words like “boondoggle.” It took thirteen years to build. A Chris Christie sort would’ve throttled it in its cradle, declaring the cancellation “reform,” and campaigned on it. Instead, New Yorkers ignored the easy out and spent the money anyway, and thank God they did, because 127 years later, we still have the Brooklyn Bridge.