By Eric Dixon
Track failures inside Manhattan’s Penn Station are blamed for last week’s horrid NJ Transit and Amtrak train delays which are now expected to continue through this summer.
The larger picture, though, is a region-wide transportation infrastructure collapse. This is due to overcapacity and deterioration of century-old tunnels and highways.
You Think It’s Bad Now? Just Wait…
New Jersey is at immediate danger of having thousands of people suffer a doubling of their old commuting time. The current infrastructure is beyond its capacity, and not just in one place, but across the board. Just look at the age when the following structures were completed:
Amtrak tunnels under the Hudson River: 1910.
Holland Tunnel: 1927
Goethals Bridge: 1928
Outerbridge Crossing: 1928
George Washington Bridge (upper level): 1931 (lower level); 1962.
Bayonne Bridge: 1931 (and being reconstructed now, in order to accommodate larger ships using the Kill van Kull underneath)
Lincoln Tunnel: three separate tubes completed in 1937, 1945 and 1957.
Lincoln Tunnel “helix” — Considered “nearing the end of its useful life” — 1938
Port Authority Bus Terminal: 1951 (and at full capacity by 1966)
Verrazano Narrows Bridge: 1964
New infrastructure must be constructed. Yet such new construction must also be forward-thinking enough to avoid the mistakes of the past projects such as the West Side Elevated Highway (which trucks could not use) being obsolete upon its completion and the infamous Port Authority Bus Terminal being practically obsolete within 15 years of its completion (or in other words, a half-century ago).
New York got rid of at least some of its rotting, obsolete infrastructure, such as the infamous West Side Elevated Highway which was shut down after a car and truck literally fell through the roadbed to the surface streets underneath in 1973.
So why hasn’t New Jersey done the same? As I’ll explain in detail below, the answer basically boils down to elected officials not bearing the risk of failing to address the situation. In a political world of competing incentives, your elected local officials too often don’t have the proper incentives.
For the average resident, though, that means residents and too often, homeowners, bear the risk, the burden and the pain of this systemic, depraved indifference.
What’s at risk first?
Those segments of the regional economy which depend on on-site staff. This means service industries which serve people in New York City.
Once workers cannot reliably get to work, there are two options. The first is for the jobs to move to where the workers are. This has been happening recently; it’s called remote access, and sometimes it’s called outsourcing.
The second is for the workers to move to where the jobs are. This means workers moving back towards or into New York City or the other regional employment hubs (e.g., Jersey City).
It also means workers often leaving the region entirely. According to Census Bureau data just updated, between 2013-2015, New York and New Jersey were second and third in the nation in people leaving those states. (Illinois was first.)
But then, what’s next to get hit?
Both options threaten the residential real estate market in New Jersey. Here’s why.
The value of a home is preserved, and enhanced, by its proximity to good things: work, school, recreation, places of worship and shopping. It’s also preserved by its location away from bad things such as crime and quality of life issues.
In much of northeastern New Jersey, “walkability” is an asset. This means how much an average person can do his or her daily tasks without getting into a car or onto a bus. Hoboken, for one, is an example of a walkable — and expensive — town. Many towns retain this asset.
However, those towns depend on homeowners and particularly the highest-income residents who work in Manhattan.
But with the PATH trains now strained beyond capacity, NJ Transit trains delayed to the point where printed schedules should be considered “advisory,” and buses to New York routinely delayed because of any one incident of traffic on the Manhattan side of either tunnel, any semblance of predictability in one’s mass transit commute is now lost. Worse, there is no immediate hope for improvement. The new commuting status quo is here, and it’s not what many residents signed up for when they moved here.
When the commute from Bergen, or Essex, or even parts of Hudson, becomes as long as the commute from Princeton, or from parts of Suffolk County in Long Island, commuters will be rethinking their decision to stay here or move here.
One sign of commuter distress is the increasing car traffic into New York. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are fewer “white collar” bus and train passengers. Some sources report seeing “a change” in the composition of fellow bus riders. The most logical conclusion is that the “white collar” riders, being able to afford to drive into New York, are doing just that.
That isn’t a sign necessarily of a growing economy, but rather of a mass transit failure where the hassle of driving in and paying both tolls and parking is preferred to the “experience” of riding a bus or train. It shows that people are increasingly willing to pay both tolls (upwards of $12 one way) and parking (almost always $20 or more in Manhattan, and often double that amount) for the relative predictability of a still-unpleasant commute.
What’s really the cause?
Shortsightedness, or callous neglect, from long-serving elected officials whose ineffectiveness, inattentiveness or absolute indifference have grown the longer they have gone past their “best if buy date.”
Many of these officials depend on the support from local residents who live and work in New Jersey and who rarely if ever travel into New York. Those residents — including just about all public employees working in local schools, hospitals and government at all levels — are rarely or never impacted by the regional commuting disasters.
There is the rare exception of elected officials like State Senator Loretta Weinberg who have taken note of commuters’ complaints, and who have taken the Port Authority to task. But the rest of the political apparatus has been around for years. Governor Chris Christie has been in that post for nearly eight years, and before that was certainly an attentive public official as United States Attorney.
But the rest of the New Jersey political establishment has too often been around for a long time, for decades, and has not addressed the infrastructure crisis.
Local officials hardly, if ever, depend on support from residents who commute into New York for work, school or entertainment.
This system prioritizes purely local interests, who feed off the New York-centric workers who most often are paying the most property taxes in bedroom communities, thereby supporting the rest.
The result? Local officials get rewarded for their indifference.
Until that situation changes, there won’t be any real incentive for improvement.