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Opinion: A High-Speed Rail Link Will Carry NJ Into the Future

The state can't function effectively with an outmoded rail system that strains to carry millions of residents to work.

Earlier this month, Amtrak released its integrated long-range plan for upgrading the Northeast Corridor (NEC) train line and leaping into the future with a high-speed rail link between Washington, D.C., and Boston. The plans call for making substantial improvements to the current system to increase reliability, reduce travel time, and expand capacity. They also call for finally creating a next-gen , high-speed rail system in the Northeast, to be operational by 2040. The estimated cost over the 2012-2040 period totals $151 billion. Approximately $110 billion of that would be for high-speed rail service and the remainder for capacity improvements.

Amtrak’s plan is welcome news for New Jersey. From 1970 to 2009, the number of New Jersey residents who work in Manhattan has doubled, and from 1990 to 2009, about 85 percent of the growth of commuters into NYC was from Northern New Jersey and the western Hudson Valley across the Hudson River. Transit ridership is at near record levels across the nation. In New Jersey, ridership is up across all four public and private transit systems. PATH ridership rose in the first six months of this year by 3.7 percent, for a total of 39 million riders. Looking a few decades into the future, by 2050, the population of the Northeast megaregion, of which New Jersey is a part, is projected to rise from the current 52 million to 71 million people. Recent trends and longer-term projections tell us that transit demand will continue to increase.

So what does the Amtrak plan offer New Jersey? First, it includes the $14.7 billion Gateway Program, proposed to be completed by 2025. The Gateway Program calls for two new, shared rail tunnels under the Hudson River, the worst bottleneck in the entire corridor. This will add much-needed capacity for commuter, regional, and long-distance rail service, benefiting both NJ Transit and Amtrak riders. The Gateway Program will create two new high-level bridges, the North and South Portal Bridges over the Hackensack River, replacing the 100-year old Portal Bridge and doubling corridor capacity. The Portal Bridge is currently one of NJ Transit’s greatest sources of infrastructure-related delays. The project will also make improvements between Newark and Secaucus, including better connections to the NJ Transit Morris and Essex Lines, as well as improvements to the Newark Penn Station and Frank R. Lautenberg Secaucus Station. Other rail upgrades are planned for the Elizabeth, North Brunswick, and Trenton areas.

These modernizations will set the stage for the next-gen high-speed rail to follow between 2025 and 2040. Once built, the next-gen high-speed rail trains will be able to travel at up to 220 miles per hour. A trip from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., for instance, would be reduced from 93 to 54 minutes. A trip from New York to Boston would be reduced from 214 to 94 minutes. New Jersey residents who now consider air, bus, or car travel for these trips would have train travel as a viable option. At full build-out, four levels of service are proposed: Super Express, to connect major hubs in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, and Boston; Express Service, which would include city and regional stations such as Trenton, Newark Airport, and Newark; Shoreline Express, which would include Newark Airport and Newark stops; and the Keystone Express, which would include Newark Airport and Newark stops.

Critics of high-speed rail cite the cost and argue that we should instead focus on shorter-term improvements to improve efficiency and reliability. But, in fact, Amtrak’s plan includes both short-term and long-term improvements -- an integrated approach that creates stepping stones beginning with near-term track improvements, signaling, and alignments; continuing with medium-term improvements such as the new trans-Hudson tunnel; and ending with a long-term vision and strategy to achieve high-speed rail. The Northeast Corridor is the most heavily travelled rail corridor in the western hemisphere. If high-speed rail should happen anywhere, it should be here.

There are the environmental benefits to consider: improved air quality, reduced vehicle miles travelled, and reduced energy usage. The economic benefits are vast: increased regional competitiveness as New Jersey’s transportation infrastructure is modernized, fostering business attraction and retention and creating new business opportunities and increased real estate investment opportunities near transit; 40,000 annual construction jobs for the Northeast region for a 25-year period; and 7,000 new permanent jobs. And then there are the quality of life benefits: reduced travel times and increased productivity for New Jersey residents.

Critics cite the lack of political will to support the level of investment needed to implement this plan. But this is a 28-year plan that will take us to 2040. For great things to happen, we must start with an ambitious vision for the future. Politicians at all levels of government will come and go within this time horizon. Today’s political climate and appetite for transportation investment may well be different five years from now. We cannot allow short-term political considerations to deter us from building the strong support needed for an economically vibrant and environmentally sustainable future -- and a modern rail network is integral to that future.

Lucy Vandenberg is the executive director of PlanSmart NJ, a statewide nonprofit research and advocacy organization that advances the quality of community life through sound land use planning and regional cooperation. She can be reached at lvandenberg@plansmartnj.org

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