New York harbor rail tunnel pushed with special truck toll tax

September 29, 2004
NYCEDC proposed rail tunnel from NJ to Brooklyn
NYCEDC proposed rail tunnel from NJ to Brooklyn
Concept of rail to truck yards in Queens using Bay Ridge right of way
Concept of rail to truck yards in Queens using Bay Ridge right of way
Rail car 'float' across the Hudson with 1930s skyline behind - WPA Guide etching
Rail car 'float' across the Hudson with 1930s skyline behind - WPA Guide etching
Bay Ridge right of way - NYCEDC wants to run trains there but trucks would make so much more sense
Bay Ridge right of way - NYCEDC wants to run trains there but trucks would make so much more sense
No trucks signs are common, and there are no dedicated truckways... and then they wonder why trucks crowd local streets
No trucks signs are common, and there are no dedicated truckways... and then they wonder why trucks crowd local streets
The truckway that NYCEDC never even looked at. Solid line shows first priority truckway South Brooklyn to LIE and to JFK, next priorities in broken line are cross harbor tunnel and northern extension to the Bronx
The truckway that NYCEDC never even looked at. Solid line shows first priority truckway South Brooklyn to LIE and to JFK, next priorities in broken line are cross harbor tunnel and northern extension to the Bronx

A multi-billion dollar rail tunnel under New York harbor - relying heavily on a special tax on truck tolls - is still being seriously pushed by a city agency. The Cross Harbor Rail Tunnel between Jersey City and Brooklyn is envisaged as earning only trivial revenues from any railroads using it. It would depend for the great bulk of its funding on federal and state grants, borrowings, plus a large tax (called a "surcharge") on truck tolls over the toll crossings owned by the PANYNJ and the MTA Triborough Authority.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), a rail-promoting city agency somehow landed itself the job of leading the planning/permitting process for the cross harbor freight study several years ago. It has spent some $20m of mainly federal funds on the rail tunnel planning and permitting process. It issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) called the "Cross Harbor Freight Movement" project in April.

The favored option is twin tubes of 8.8km (5.5mi) for a rail line each direction between the Greenville yard in Jersey City and the Bay Ridge Line at 65th Street in Brooklyn. It is known as the Double Tunnel System New Jersey Alignment (distinguishing it from single tunnel options and a Staten Island alignment). Construction would be mostly by tunnel boring machine with some cut & cover and immersed tube at the ends. The tunnel top would be 24.4m (80ft) below sea level to allow an 18.3m (60ft) shipping channel plus 6.1m (20ft) of cover. The tunnel structure will be two tubes 10m (33ft) external diameter to allow for 6.86m (22.5ft) overhead clearance for double stack containers or 3-level auto-cars plus possible electrification.

Project cost is variously put at $6370m and $7350m (2002$s) which includes $1,898m for the tunnel construction, $898m for right of way, and $866m for rail yards, large amounts being for design, administration, contingencies and other expenses. (p2-26)

One financing scheme called Scenario C in planning documents suggests a $4 truck toll tax on behalf of the rail tunnel. (They use the term 'surcharge'.) Another Scenario D has a $10.31 truck toll tax per crossing. These would represent a 20% to 60% tax on existing truck tolls of around $20/trip.

NYCEDC doesn't spell out its estimates of the yield of these toll taxes. We've estimated them at current traffic at $60m for the $4 tax and $153m for the $10.31 tax based on 7m heavy truck tolls annually at MTAB&T and 7.9m at PANYNJ.

In summary: the NYCEDC, a city business agency, is proposing that truckers NOT using the rail tunnel pay between twice and five times what the rail users themselves will pay!

The only payment proposed for rail is a toll of $2/ton - $44/container and $140/railcar. It would only cover the $29.9m average annual operating costs in 2025, the NYCEDC reports, and provide nothing for debt service.

The city agency DEIS report suggests several different financing alternatives, but none of them propose the users of the rail tunnel should pay for the capital costs.

Operating costs are tiny compared to debt service costs of the capital required for the project. On the NYCEDC numbers (Ch20) debt service on a capital cost of $6370m would be $427m annually for a total annual cost of $457m - so the rail companies would be getting the tunnel for a mere 6.6% of its cost, or a 93.4% subsidy! [Alternatively NYCEDC's net present value puts total costs at $4631m and aggregate operating costs at $251m suggesting a subsidy for rail operators of 95.4% of total costs - Table 20-4, p20-12]

Big user benefits claimed

Of $4061m total benefits (in 2025 in 2002$s) estimated for the tunnel almost all are user benefits. 89% or $3621m are 'personal income benefits' from reduced freight costs. Another $126m are estimated benefits for non-business travel. A mere $40m are safety benefits, $15m are environmental benefits and $71m are called public agency savings. (Table 20-1, p20-4) These benefits are calculated by the usual opaque modeling, but if they are correct they support the case for treating the tunnel as a user-pays project which is self-financing.

Randall Pozdena of ECONorwest once wrote sagely: "If a roadway facility provides enough economic benefits to justify its development, there usually is an efficient pricing structure that will capture those economic benefits and permit the facility to be largely self-financed." (TOLL ROADS NEWSLETTER #28 June 1998) The same principle should apply to a rail project, or any other infrastructure project for that matter.

But you have to wonder about the reality of the economic benefits when the project sponsors at NYCEDC suggest four financing alternatives, none of which make serious use of user fees. And look at their bogus claim that rail transport is cheaper than trucking: "freight transport by rail is on average 2.7c/ton-mile versus 5.0c per ton-mile for trucks." (pS-3) This statement is the basis for much talk of continued reliance on roads and trucking being detrimental to the New York region's economy. The costs they quote are nationwide figures. Freight tends to be sent via the mode most suited for that kind of freight. Therefore most rail freight is bulk handled commodities going long distances directly from point of production to point of use or export - coal, grains, sand, trash, chemicals, metal products. Rail costs are lower than trucking costs because trucking carries principally products that are less standardized and can't be bulk-handled from multiple points of origin to multiple destinations and generally shorter distances. But trucking delivers more quickly and door to door, or loading dock to loading dock. On the NYCEDC logic it shouldn't be pushing rail but barge! Barge costs are about one-third of the cost of rail at 0.74c/ton-mile.

In the real world accessibility, speed, and reliability of service are major factors in the choice of transport mode and enter into calculations as to what is most economical. Trucking is everywhere dominant for intra-metropolitan area freight movement because of the accessibility provided to trucks by the ubiquitous network of highways, streets, alleyways, driveways, and loading docks. Rail once had a network of branch lines and sidings in older areas but that is long gone. The railroads have no interest in resurrecting it. They concentrate on longhaul (500 miles and more) and low value, less time critical cargoes where the low cost per ton-mile is most important.

That NYCEDC should make the sweeping claim about railing being more economical than trucking for the New York metro area based on these these nationwide numbers casts doubt on the seriousness of their analysis.

It is claimed by NYCEDC that the "lower costs" of greater reliance on rail will "promote economic development" (S-14). If indeed the tunnel makes rail so much more economical than trucking then it should be capable of being self-financing. Yet NYCEDC doesn't present any financing alternative with a user-pays scenario.

The "trucking is bigger" in NYC myth

A constant theme of the city agency DEIS - and it has this in common with other reports on freight in the New York region - is that the region is unusually dependent on trucking by comparison with other places. In fact it is not significantly out of line with the national average - trucking moves 81% of the tons of freight in the New York metro area (excludes northern NJ) versus 78% nationwide. ("NYMTC Regional Freight Plan: an element of the regional transportation plan" New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, Public Draft, April 2004. mymtc_task8.pdf, Figures 2.3 and 2.4)

Trucking is the dominant freight mode in New York, as it is everywhere else.

It is certainly true that rail plays a negligible role - less than 2% in New York versus 16% nationwide, but that is because water transport looms so large in New York - barges, lighters and other boats.

The big discrepancy between the New York area and the rest of the country is not rail versus trucking, but rail versus water. And there is a very good reason for that. The New York metro region is very well suited to water transport and very poorly suited to rail.

The New York region is a collection of islands plus a peninsula (Bronx) with broken coastlines and estuarial inlets that make everything reasonably close to water. So water transport has thrived like almost no place else in America. Those many waterways are of course obstacles to rail, and makes rail connections very expensive to build. Therefore with bulk products - gravel, sand, oil, chemicals, scrap, bulk lumber - which in more landbound cities are often railed, in the New York region they tend to be barged. This mode share difference between New York and the rest of America in which rail plays a small role is simply a reflection of geography, a sensible adaptation to the natural resources of the region. It is not a valid argument for attempting to move freight from truck to rail.

Old project

Discussions of rail freight tunnels under New York harbor go back to the late 19th century. In 1893 and again in 1903 the Pennsylvania Railroad looked at the idea but it made no financial sense, and nothing was done. Then city government got into the act. In 1923 under New York Mayor John Hylan a start was made on a rail tunnel a little west of the alignment of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (built 40 years later). Deep shafts were sunk in Brooklyn and Staten Island which were to provide ventilation and access for a 10 mile long tunnel which would have linked existing railroads on Brooklyn with the B&O on Staten island. But the financing was never put properly in place, state politicians opposed the project, and the tunneling work soon ceased on "Hylan's Folly." Mayor Hylan was out of office by 1925. The reason Hylan could never secure financing was because the railroads said they wouldn't use the tunnel at the charges (tolls) needed to amortize the city's proposed bond issues. (Drawing on Jameson Doig's "Empire on the Hudson: entrepreneurial vision and political power at the Port of New York Authority", Columbia Univ Press 2001 p81 on.) it was more economical to use barges and lighters to move stuff across the harbor.

Also in the 1920s Gustav Lindenthal, the famous bridge builder proposed a combined road/rail bridge at 57th Street in Manhattan. The rail lines would have turned south after reaching the Manhattan shore to service the many docks then existing down the lower westside. That bridge was not financeable either.

There was a lot more logic to a rail freight tunnel, or bridge in the 1920s than there is now. In those days the docks were predominantly east of the Hudson along the shore of Manhattan's westside and lower eastside and in Brooklyn from Red Hook south to Bay Ridge. Rail, which was still king, had its railheads along the Jersey shore of the Hudson between Weehawken and Jersey City. Trucking hadn't developed and there was only the low ceilinged Holland Tunnel for them to cross directly. Warehousing was smallscale and dispersed throughout the city.

All that has now changed. With containerization the docks have gone west into Jersey in the vast flat tracts of then undeveloped land around the Meadowlands - Elizabeth, Newark, Bayonne, Jersey City. The docks are now well interconnected with the longdistance railroads, and more importantly with the New Jersey Turnpike and the interstate highways like I-80, I-78, and I-280. Trucking with its door to door service has long since become the predominant freight mode for all but some small niche markets - bulk products and very longdistance (hundreds of miles) movement of containers or trailers. But even more important, warehousing and logistics for the region have centralized in the hinterlands of the Jersey docks, especially along the New Jersey Turnpike and westward. About 70% of the warehousing and storage activity in the greater New York northern New Jersey Connecticut metro area (pop 21m) is located in four northern NJ PMSAs. Just one of these four, Jersey City, has more warehousing and storage activity than the whole of New York City and Long Island. (NAICS Industry Code 493 Warehousing and storage, US Census Bureau 1997 Economic census Jan 5 2000, see An increasing amount of this logistics activity is now outside northern New Jersey. It is in central Jersey, around Trenton or across the border in eastern Pennsylvania. Not only does New Jersey's enormous warehousing serve the greater New York area. Logistics specialists point out that it provides deliveries by truck to Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Albany, and Boston as well - as much as 30 percent of the US population is within its reach.

None of this is peculiar to the New York area. In California vast warehousing is being built in the San Joaquin Valley to serve all of California from the one point. In Britain Amazon and others are building their warehousing alongside the M1 motorway in places like Luton and Milton Keynes midway betwen London and Birmingham. And in Germany, Bad Hersfeld, previously known for its remote location and spas is becoming a logistics center because of its national geographic centrality - halfway between Hamburg and Munchen north-to-south and between Dusseldorf and Dresden east-to-west, and its highways. It is at the intersection of the A4, A5, and A7 autobahns. The trend everywhere is toward the large ex-urban logistics centers that distribute within a range of several hundred miles. For Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island that means being serviced by truck from centers located between the port of Newark and Trenton NJ and Harrisburg PA.

Revival of tunnel idea for Brooklyn container port

Interestingly the recent push for the rail tunnel NJ to Brooklyn goes back to the the mid-1990s when some local politicians pushed for building a large container port on the Brooklyn waterfront. The rail tunnel was supposed to get imported containers out of Brooklyn to New Jersey without putting too many more trucks on the streets. The Brooklyn container port made no sense. Brooklyn has better uses for its waterfront and there is plenty of better placed and cheaper land for containerport expansion on Staten Island, Jersey City and Bayonne. So the Brooklyn container port plans languished. But the rail tunnel continues with a new role, sold as a way to get trucks off the streets of Brooklyn.

Getting trucks off the streets myth

New Yorkers get very irritated by trucks. It's no wonder. In Brooklyn in particular they jam the expressways and the avenues (signalized arterials). Therefore any proposal to "get trucks off the streets" is popular. NYCEDC claims in the DEIS that the tunnel will reduce Hudson River truck crossings 880,000 or 11%, and that area truck traffic will drop by 4.5% in terms of vehicle miles traveled. These are numbers produced by the opaque modeling of consultants - impossible for an outsider to judge. Even if correct this claim is highly misleading, indeed propagandistic. It neglects to point out first that only a specific class of trucks are being modeled, so-called 'commodity trucks' which constitute only about a quarter of commercial vehicles. Second the claimed "reduction" is not a reduction at all, but a slightly lesser increase than otherwise. (Shades of so-called "cuts" in government spending!)

Without any mode transfer away from trucking it is forecast to grow from 460m tons to 841m tons or 83% to 2025 by one forecast cited. Total freight moved in the metro area is forecast to grow from 582m tons to 989m tons or 70%. This is admitted in one of the detailed chapters (1-5, 1-17) but not mentioned in the executive summary because it would put the damper on claims of a "reduction" in truck traffic as a result of the rail tunnel.

In Chapter 8 there is a table (Table 8-9) that gives the lie to the "reduction" in truck traffic. Here are the pertinent numbers for projected change in Hudson River crossing daily traffic:

thousands/day*2000*2025 w/o rail*2025 w/ rail*"reduction"*
Commodity trucks20.725.922.911%
All trucks 72.585.882.93%
All vehicles929.61368.81365.90%
Commodity trucks100125111
All trucks 100118114
All vehicles100147147

[[After tenth attempt to get table above working am fed up with html PSam]]

What is sold by NYCEDC as a reduction in commodity trucks of 11% is in fact an increase of 11%. Total truck traffic across the Hudson is up 14% compared to 18% without the rail tunnel. And total traffic, all vehicles, increases 47% whether or not the rail tunnel is built. So what the NYCEDC DEIS manages to obscure is the fact that the load on the Hudson River road crossings is going to grow substantially whether or not the rail tunnel is built. A solution for the trucks on roads will have to be found, regardless.

In denial

NYCEDC's DEIS describes the freight problem of New York well enough - congestion and low quality truck routes - but its "solution" of a freight rail tunnel under New York harbor and a rail-line into Brooklyn and Queens is no solution at all. The authors are in denial about the realities of modern logistics and the centrality of trucking. They somehow think that if government builds a new rail line fifteen miles from New Jersey into Brooklyn and Queens that freight trains will come. They overlook a half a century of investment in warehousing and logistics centers in central and northern New Jersey out of which trucks daily distribute throughout the whole New York/nNJ/CT region, and for that matter into much of New England and Pennsylvania.

Governments can spend the billions of taxpayer money and build a freight rail line into Brooklyn and Queens alright, as this report advocates, but wholesalers and distributors have no reason to replicate the northern New Jersey warehouses in New York City. They already have New York City covered with their New Jersey warehousing which is convenient to the region's major port, to interstate highways, and to railheads. Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island are only a segment of their market. Why should they build expensive new duplicative facilities on very expensive New York land to serve just that market segment? They won't do it. And without a vast network of new warehousing in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island the trailers and containers won't be dispatched and the trains won't come to this Cross Harbor rail folly.

This has been said repeatedly by the distributors, by retailers, by logistics experts. No railroad has shown any interest in building the tunnel, and there is little interest in using it.

The project is regarded as ill-conceived at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), the agency which is most intimately involved in all aspects of freight in the region - they are the major NY/NJ area ports and airports, operate the six NY-NJ crossings, and they are involved in an ambitious "Port Inland Distribution Network" which is working on realistic and reasonably low-cost methods of moving containers by rail and barge to inland centers outside the New York metro region. The PANYNJ have looked at the cross harbor rail tunnel many times since it was first proposed a century ago, and have never found it a viable project.

NYCEDC's fraudulent "reductions" in truck traffic

Worst of all, even if the rail tunnel DID manage to reverse the tide of logistics centralization in northern New Jersey/eastern PA and to get distributors to establish warehousing in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island the truck traffic problem would remain to be solved. This is admitted in numbers deep in the DEIS. Indeed some of the East River crossings would get more truck traffic - apparently because containers/trailers would go to Maspeth Queens via the cross harbor rail tunnel and then be trucked into Manhattan over the East River bridges instead of, as now, going straight in from NJ by the Geo Washington Bridge or the Lincoln Tunnel. Table 8-14 shows the Triboro Bridge as now 1713 commodity trucks/day going to 2159 in 2025 without the rail tunnel but to 2329 with the rail tunnel! On a lesser scale other East River bridges - the Queensboro and Williamsburg bridges and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel also see worse truck traffic with the harbor rail tunnel than without it. Overall the East River bridges see the daily big rigs now 3452 going to 4741 (+37%) with no rail tunnel, but going to 5036 (+46%) with the rail tunnel. Not only does the rail tunnel not reduce truck traffic, it generates more for the East River crossings than would be there in its absence. The tables show this. The summary and other NYCEDC propaganda omit any reference to it.

Table 8-15 too shows a lesser increase in heavy truck traffic on Brooklyn's avenues (signalized arterials) with the rail tunnel, but the difference is not great, and this only counts the very big rigs. Third Avenue Brooklyn goes from 151 'commodity trucks' now daily to 809 in 2025 without the tunnel and to 717 with it. Linden Av goes 844, 1291, 1260 and Atlantic Av 393, 570, 526. The LIE is 2864, 4652, 4447. The BQE and the Gowanus are forecast to have actual reductions in truck traffic both without a rail tunnel and with a rail tunnel - numbers that are not explained.

The executive summary with its talk of "reductions" in truck traffic avoids reference to these awkward findings in the modeling.

"Use of highways to accommodate growth... is not feasible"

About the most irresponsible themes of the NYCEDC DEIS is contained in this statement: "From a transportation vantage point, the use of highways to accommodate the growth in commodities shipped and transshipped in the region is not feasible..."

Well guys WAAAAAAAKE up! By your own forecasts the highways are going to have to accommodate major growth in commodities shipped whether you build your blessed rail tunnel, or not.

Guys, what help is it to say more trucks can't be accommodated? More trucks are coming. They have to be accommodated.

Instead of pushing this great rail tunnel boondoggle which at best can only slightly slow the growth of trucking NYCEDC should face up to the reality of inevitably growing truck traffic and see what can be done to make trucks in New York move better and with fewer adverse impacts. The answer is truckways - getting a decent portion of trucks out of the mixed traffic and off the signalized avenues and tight expressways (the BQE and the Van Wyck have overbridges with less than 14ft [4.26m] clearance) and onto dedicated truck roads designed for at least national highway system sized rigs to run free flow - independent of other traffic.

The highest priority as described in the "Regional Freight Plan" of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (April 2004) is an east-west truck route South Brooklyn to JFK, a distance of about 20km (12.5mi). Cars have the Belt Parkway as a limited access route along the Brooklyn shoreline, but as on almost all New York parkways trucks are banned. For trucks the trip can take anywhere between an hour and two hours because they are forced onto (and in places off) the Gowanus Expressway, the BQE, the LIE and the Van Wyck - a 35km (22mi) journey. Or else they have to drive the avenues of Brooklyn, signal to signal in queues, mixing it with local traffic. South Brooklyn from the end of the Verrazano Narrows bridge to JFK could be a 12 minute trip for a truck, not the 60 to 120 min ordeal it is now. NYCEDC's plans do nothing for such trips deemed the highest priority in the official plan!

The NYMTC plan calls for: "Construction of an east-west facility or use of a reconstructed Belt Parkway that provides for more direct truck access to commercial areas in South Brooklyn and JFK International Airport would significantly improve commercial vehicle operations, reduce truck traffic on local streets, and provide an alternative to the more circuitous routing via the Gowanus Expressway. Commercial traffic is currently prohibited from using the existing Belt Parkway and must rely on local arterials such as Linden Boulevard, Atlantic Avenue, and others to reach JFK. This new truck facility could be a new roadway, (which would need to pass difficult community and environmental challenges) or could alternatively consist of a series of commercial vehicle-related improvements on a particular arterial or series of arterials, similar to the Portway concept in New Jersey."

There is also a strong case for improved connections between southern Brooklyn and the Long Island Expressway (LIE). Two thirds of this inverted 'T' plan could be accommodated within the almost entirely unused right of way of the Bay Ridge branch of the LIRR - which unfortunately NYCEDC proposes to turn over to the service the cross harbor tunnel. Its use as a toll truckway would add far more economic value than as a subsidzed railroad feeder. The truckway would serve not only 'commodity trucks' but, equipped with ramps it would also serve pickup and delivery trucks and others on the streets of Brooklyn. It would take trucks off the avenues, off the Gowanus and the BQE. The final third of the route from the Canarsie/East New York area to JFK would be partly in tunnel under Linden Blvd (NY27), then alongside the Nassau Expressway. The tunneling would be comparable to road tunnels being built in Dublin (to the port), in Sydney, Paris, and Zurich.

As the NYCEDC correctly reports congestion is worse on the major highways and streets of New York City than it is on the major crossings themselves, so the NYCEDC's priority for the cross harbor tunnel is misplaced. But Hudson River crossing capacity for trucks will need to be improved before long, so a second priority would be a cross harbor truck tunnel to provide direct connections between the heavily trucked New Jersey Turnpike/Portway NJ roads and the Bay Ridge-JFK-LIE Truckway just described in south Brooklyn. The truckway network could later be extended north alongside the old New York Connecting RR, now an Amtrak line from the LIE north through Queens to the Hell Gate and into the Bronx for connections with the Major Deagan and Bruckner Expressways, and into Hunts Point and other yards of the south Bronx.

Such truckways would, unlike the rail tunnel fantasy, really get substantial numbers of trucks off the streets onto more efficient, safer and environmentally less impacting infrastructure of their own.

NYCEDC's report is self-serving

CONCLUSION: In failing to examine 'all feasible alternatives' this report is in breach of the spirit if not the letter of the federal law under which it is conducted. The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) should never have been accepted to conduct such a planning study. A Tammany Hall type city "business" promoter, NYCEDC has no legitimate qualifications to conduct an impartial planning study on behalf of state or federal permitting authorities. Indeed it has a vested interest in the result. NYCEDC is heavily involved in railroad operations which might benefit from the rail tunnel - in the Staten Island Railroad, in the Arlington rail yards, rail connections to the Fresh Kills transfer facility, and in railroad operations in south Brooklyn. (p1-14). Having NYCEDC pronounce on freight policy in New York City is like having Ford Corp pronounce on tailpipe emissions. The report is a disgrace to a great city - it is corrupt and self-serving. As proposed public policy is wasteful, silly, and misleading.

CONTACT: The study is amateurishly produced. It can only be downloaded as about 20 separate pdf files and though we went through the tedious downloading twice, not one of the graphics in the study works. We did eventually get a readable copy via a mailed CD-Rom. see TOLLROADSnews 2004-09-29

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