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Op-Ed: With Tunnel Repairs in Offing, Bikes are Key to Keeping People on the Move

It’s imperative to make contingency plans for a shutdown of Hudson rail tunnels. Step one: Widen bike paths on George Washington Bridge to accommodate far more riders

Neile Weissman
Neile Weissman

Over the coming decade, there’s a significant chance that the aging, salt-damaged Hudson rail tunnels will be shut down for restoration before new tunnels are complete. If so, the region’s transportation providers would need to enact major contingency plans to move 200,000 affected travelers.

Bicycling can move a significant portion cheaply, healthfully, and on their own schedules. But to make this happen, the paths on the George Washington Bridge — the only bikeable connector between northern New Jersey and Manhattan — must be widened to accommodate substantially more users.

Consider how New York City is handling a similar scenario, fittingly known as the L-pocalypse.

In 2019, L-subway service between Brooklyn and Manhattan will be suspended for 15 months to refurbish the century-old Canarsie Tubes, which — like the Hudson rail tunnels — were flooded during Superstorm Sandy. The closure, affecting 225,000 commuters daily, will not be preceded by new tunnels. Rather, riders will be rerouted onto new and beefed up subway, bus and ferry service.

They will also be encouraged to bike.

‘Hudsogeddon!’

To that end, the city will stripe new paths across the two boroughs. Fourteenth Street, which straddles the L, will be reserved exclusively for buses and bicycles. The number of cyclists accessing the Williamsburg Bridge is expected to double to 14,000 per day and thousands more will stream over other East River bridges.

New York City’s subway boasts considerable redundant capacity, crossing numerous bridges and tunnels. By contrast, the Hudson rail tunnels comprise a single point of failure for Amtrak and NJ Transit. This makes contingency planning for their loss far more difficult, expensive — and necessary. (“Hudsogeddon!”)

Adding buses would require considerable staging and on-street storage. Proposed expansions to PATH services would not be ready in time. Ferry utilization, now at 25 percent, could be increased; the challenge is getting commuters to the water. Which brings us to cycling.

Bicycling provides crucial “last-mile” connections to ferries, trains and buses. It can also provide true one-seat rides from people’s homes without burdening mass transit or congested streets.

Six towns in Hudson County have inaugurated bike share, whose continued development would increase ferry utilization. State-of-the-art paths across the Bayonne and Goethals bridges, due by 2019, will enable 45- and 60-minute commutes to Wall Street via the Staten Island Ferry.

Critically, George Washington Bridge paths — widened to comply with national standards developed by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (“AASHTO”) — would safely support 20,000 cyclists per day, plus pedestrians and bike share.

Port Authority plans for GWB are a problem

Communities near the GWB now send tens of thousands of bus riders a day into Midtown Manhattan. Many would opt for a 60-minute bike ride rather than sit in traffic for hours. Bergen County’s plan to link its parks with bikeways will connect its million residents. And New York’s legalization of electric-assisted bicycles (“e-bikes”) will further extend catchment.

As an indicator of widespread support, 60 municipalities from Middlesex to Passaic counties have called for greater GWB cycling capacity. So too have the Union, Hudson, Bergen Freeholders and Gov. Phil Murphy.

The obstacle to this scheme, however, is the Port Authority. As part of its $1.9 billion GWB restoration, the PA plans to return the paths to their 1931 configuration and allocate to cyclists a single 7-foot path. This may conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), but that’s a low-use pedestrian standard — inadequate to support even current use, let alone growth or emergency demand.

The PA states that the constraint is cost, which it puts at $90 million. But this is far less than it would cost later as a stand-alone job, or what’s being spent on bridges across the region — many of which won’t see a fraction of the George’s activity. If started now, half capacity would be online by 2021, the remainder by 2025.

New Jersey would do well to adopt New York’s mantra for its tunnel shutdown: “Doing nothing is not an option.”

History demonstrates the role cycling can play in a transit emergency. The day following Superstorm Sandy, bike trips across New York’s East River bridges surged from 13,000 to 30,000. This wasn’t happenstance. It was preceded by decades of planning and investment, during which the public became accustomed to cycling.

The sooner these investments are made, the sooner people will incorporate them into their daily travel habits, providing resilient new capacity for the changes down the road.

We may have survived the “summer of hell,” but winter is coming.

Neile Weissman heads up Complete George, a coalition of 240 organizations, businesses, communities, and elected officials, which is asking the Port Authority, as part of its $1.9 billion “Restore the George” program, to widen bikes lanes on the George Washington Bridge to comply with national standards. A version of this Op-Ed, with images and sources, can be found here.

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