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The Next Big Things

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The Port Authority was supposed to build this tunnel in the twenties and never has. It's basically against the idea, saying the tunnel would cost perhaps $3 billion, though proponents put the figure at more like $900 million. Mayor Giuliani has embraced the plan, which Congressman Jerry Nadler has been trumpeting for twenty years. The city's Economic Development Corporation is completing a study of cost and logistics. "Technically, we don't even have a proposal for a tunnel yet," says EDC president Charles Millard. "We have a study asking 'How do we best solve the problem?' which is going to say, 'Build a tunnel.' "

What's the point to you and me of backing a project none of us will ever use or probably even see? One word: Trucks. As in, far fewer of them on the roads.

Freight moves three ways: boat, rail, road. In New York, 96 percent of it moves by road. And our road network is -- surprise -- congested and obsolete. Commercial roadways are clogged beyond hope, and designed for thirties-style traffic; today, most have no shoulders, meaning one dead battery can delay tens of thousands of people and businesses.

Trucks, thousands of them a day, come to the city from the Jersey ports -- some via the Staten Island Expressway, most over the George Washington Bridge. If, however, there were a rail tunnel from Jersey to Brooklyn, many of the goods carried by truck today could come through it. A city study estimates that the freight tunnel would take 800,000 trucks a year off the GWB. That's a shorter wait at the bridge; an easing of the awful situation on the Cross Bronx, which has been traffic hell for years; and less air pollution. Of course, it's less toll revenue as well -- and remember that trucks don't pay the standard $4 but pay per axle, meaning $8 or even $16 to cross the bridge. The Port Authority collects these tolls. Understand now why it opposes the tunnel?

Fine, you say, but wouldn't the freight tunnel add traffic to the aching Gowanus, since it would be right there? The city has thought of that. The tunnel would come up to 65th Street in Bay Ridge. There's an interborough rail line right there, which runs up into Queens and has connections to the Bronx. Cargo, then, could come into port at Brooklyn and move by rail, rather than truck, to within a few miles of its destination.

None of this will get every truck off the roads, of course -- Manhattan has no active commercial rail lines, and it's not as if we can build one along Fifth Avenue. It'll take other ideas to unclog midtown. But various estimates suggest the freight tunnel could reduce truck traffic into the five boroughs by a fifth, maybe a quarter. The difference to residents of Staten Island and the Bronx, and everyone who drives, would be tremendous.

Public infrastructure doesn't come cheap, and doing the work isn't easy. But New York has spent too many years avoiding the issue -- systems are strained, and residents are hassled and ill-served far beyond the point that even New Yorkers should have to put up with. Solutions aren't complicated: Other cities have found answers to the very problems New York now faces. The projects were expensive and complex there, too, but they somehow got them done.

In Boston, people poke fun at the Big Dig's cost overruns, just as New Yorkers of an earlier day thought a certain East River span had white elephant written all over it. But the Brooklyn Bridge has worked out fairly well, and Bostonians -- and Londoners and Chicagoans and others -- will reap the benefits of their projects for a hundred years or more. New York's leaders have utterly lacked that kind of vision. "There is a consensus among everybody that this makes good sense," says Richard Kahan, who was instrumental in building Battery Park City. "And yet we don't have the leadership that's willing to say, 'We can't have a tax cut this year because we have to build this or that.' "

When the new Penn Station is unveiled this summer, we should applaud. It's a beautiful project, and everyone involved in making it happen deserves our thanks. But we should also use it as the occasion to say, "Fine. So what's next?"


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