How to Improve Trans-Hudson Travel Before Gateway is Complete

Image: Bosc D'Anjou/Flickr

While it looks as though the tri-state region will be spared the worst of Hurricane Joaquin’s wrath, all the talk about storm preparedness got us thinking about resiliency, redundancy, and what might happen if catastrophe struck New York and the metropolitan region again.

There are some components in the region’s transportation network that are particularly vulnerable, but perhaps none more so than the rail tunnels beneath the Hudson River. The century-old North River Tunnels serve about 200,000 New Jersey Transit and Amtrak passengers each day, but their condition is a daily threat to transport and commerce because of the damage they sustained from Superstorm Sandy. The New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman wrote in July:

Engineers realized both tunnels urgently needed repairs to avoid Railmageddon. Built on silt, they move with the tide. People who have inspected them tell me they’ve seen pools of water. Today the tunnels barely manage 24 trains at peak hours. Closing one for long-term repairs, experts say, will reduce the hourly number to six trains, an 80 percent drop.

Fortunately, there appears to be hope for the Gateway project, which would connect New York and New Jersey with a new pair of tunnels. Last month, Governors Cuomo and Christie committed to paying for half of Gateway’s cost, and this week U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said that early planning is underway at the federal level.

But construction on the Gateway project won’t be done until 2025, and according to the Port Authority, “trans-Hudson commuter demand will increase by 50 percent over the next 25 years.” So what can we do to help accommodate that growing demand before Gateway is complete? It probably wouldn’t be much different from what we would do if Joaquin decides to change course and take the same path Sandy did.

Ferries – It’s how people crossed the Hudson before we had any tunnels under the river, and a practical solution for getting across the river if a storm (or years of neglect) were to disable the tunnels we now have.

Lincoln Tunnel bus lanes — The single exclusive bus lane in the Lincoln Tunnel opened in 1971, and still only serves eastbound commuters during the morning rush (even though just about as many people head west during the evening rush each day). That needs to change. The Port Authority installed a westbound exclusive bus lane for the Super Bowl in 2014. Let’s do it for everyday commuters, too.

More bus lanes — Remember the “bus bridge” over the East River post-Superstorm Sandy? We shouldn’t have to wait for a natural disaster to get better bus service, so let’s not stop at the Lincoln Tunnel. Let’s convert some general travel lanes in the Holland Tunnel and on the George Washington Bridge to bus-only lanes. And since west-of-Hudson commuters also come into Manhattan from points even farther north, why not bus-only or bus/HOV or HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes on the Tappan Zee Bridge? This would require, like we recommended in 2009, a coordinated effort between NJ Transit, the MTA, Transport of Rockland, and Westchester County’s Bee-Line to expand bus service between Bergen, Rockland and Westchester counties and the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal.

Manhattan bus capacity — With more buses coming into Manhattan, and a Port Authority Bus Terminal at capacity since 1966, there would no doubt be a need to reshuffle the way buses pick up and drop off passengers in the city. Perhaps NJ Transit buses would get exclusive access to the gates at Port Authority, with intercity buses relocated to curbside stations, not unlike the westernmost block of 34th Street where Megabus operates. Of course, finding all this new street space for bus operations would likely entail — gasp — losing some curbside parking spaces. And speaking of reducing space for cars…

Ban single-occupant vehicles — Single-occupant vehicles (SOV) are the least space-efficient means of moving people, especially in a place and time where road space is so limited. SOV were banned on Manhattan crossings in the months following 9/11. It might seem a bit extreme today, but if the North River Tunnels were to go offline on short notice, this would certainly be a useful congestion mitigation tool.

What are some of your ideas for improving trans-Hudson travel in the short term? Leave them in the comments section below, or tweet them to us at @Tri_State.

6 Comments on "How to Improve Trans-Hudson Travel Before Gateway is Complete"

  1. Clark Morris | October 5, 2015 at 8:31 pm |

    If you are going to use buses on the Tappan Zee Bridge why aren’t they to be used as feedrs to Metro-North? Also by taking advantage of the EIS work already done for the tunnel to Macy’s basement fiasco and building on it instead of starting over maybe the two tunnels could be built by 2020 or earlier. Do EIS work and detailed planning together, not serially with each feeding the other. Also get New Jersey Transit to learn from the Dutch and other how to split and join trains so that maximum advantage can be taken of the existing tunnels. All peak period trains should be at least 10 cars.

  2. Clark Morris | October 5, 2015 at 8:33 pm |

    I assume the other commuter carriers such as Lakeland and De Camp will remain in the Port Authority Terminal under your proposal.

  3. Clark Morris | October 5, 2015 at 8:36 pm |

    Having intercity buses use the curb side for loading and unloading plus baggage handling means any adjacent businesses will probably suffer due to pedestrian traffic being blocked. There is a reason that inter-city buses were moved to the Port Authority terminal.

  4. Rob Durchola | October 6, 2015 at 10:17 am |

    I would like to comment on your suggestions for short-term fixes to trans-Hudson commuting congestion. Sadly, most are impractical or serve no useful purpose.

    1. Westbound PM peak bus lane from the PABT – This long time TSTC recommendation is not needed. Let me explain.

    Yesterday (10/5), using the My Bus Now map on NJT’s website, I traced five routes into and out of the PABT between the Exit 16E tollbooths of the NJ Turnpike and the top of the ramp portal of the PABT. I used routes 112, 113, 114, 115 (outbound only as it stops in Union City inbound), and 116. I traced buses from 5:15 PM to 6:01 PM. Five trips took seven minutes, seven trips took eight minutes, and five trips took nine minutes. The median time of eight minutes from the PABT to Exit 16 is excellent.

    Only three in service trips to New York were observed. The first bus reached Exit 16 at 5:30 PM. It still had not entered the Lincoln Tunnel as of 6:01 PM (31 minutes later). Indeed, all three trips were trapped on the helix or on NJ-495 just before the helix.

    These observations confirm my own personal experiences, relatively easy to get out of the PABT once the bus comes and you are rolling, horrible to get into the PABT.

    The inbound buses face three major problems:
    A: The mixing bowl from the Turnpike ramps and NJ 3 east and local streets at the beginning of NJ 495 (including the exit ramps to Tonnelle Avenue and Kennedy Boulevard)
    B: There are only two eastbound lanes of the Lincoln Tunnel in the PM peak.
    C. The PABT is overcapacity.

    I also checked running time for buses using the eastbound XBL this morning from 8:05 AM to 8:35 AM using the same routes. At 8:08 AM and 8:09 AM four buses passed through Exit 16. They arrived at the PABT at 8:29 AM (travel time – 20 minutes). Between 8:12 and 8:14 AM six buses passed through Exit 16. The first two buses arrived at the PABT at 8:35 AM (travel time – 22 minutes). The remaining buses were on the ramps or in the tunnel.

    Thus, westbound PM peak bus service without an XBL is functioning far better than eastbound AM peak service with an XBL.

    2. Reserve PABT for NJT buses and send intercity buses to the street. – Only a small percentage of peak period buses at the PABT are intercity buses. Almost all of the buses using the PABT are from the greater New York metropolitan area including buses operated by Academy, Coach USA (Suburban, Rockland, Short Line, Olympia Trails), DeCamp, Lakeland, Trans-Bridge and probably one or two I forgot. Commuters using these companies’ routes deserve equal access to midtown Manhattan.

    I will comment on the non-PABT related suggestions separately.

  5. GWB will never have bus only lanes. Not only would that snarl traffic (eastbound congestion started about 5:30 this morning), no one would use it. People would rather have a one seat ride (like myself) into the city and be able to connect to any train of my choosing. The current A transfer at 181 is totally unappealing.

  6. Rob Durchola | October 6, 2015 at 7:59 pm |

    To continue my discussion of TSTC suggestions on how to improve trans-Hudson bus service:

    1. GW Bridge Bus Lanes – There is (or maybe was) a short XBL leading to the GWB. However, with the decline in bus service to the GWB Bus Station, it may not have been feasible to maintain. Such a lane would need to exist eastbound in both the AM and PM (essentially all day) because the most serious congestion on the bridge occurs when an accident or construction on the Cross-Bronx Expressway backs traffic up across the bridge and into New Jersey.

    There are, however, more serious issues that need to be addressed if the GWBBS is going to be a major asset in relieving cross-Hudson congestion.

    A. Much higher frequency bus service on existing and any new routes – Because of declining passenger demand to the GWBBS, the bus companies have reduced service frequencies and cut out entire routes. In turn, this has discouraged use of the GWBBS further, especially to New Jersey in the shoulder and off-peak periods. If the A train is even a few minutes behind schedule, people miss their connecting buses and it is a long wait for the next bus. In contrast, most bus routes from the PABT have a more frequent shoulder and off-peak headway. Of course, increasing service would create a major budget impact for the carriers serving the GWBBS with no guarantee that ridership would develop.

    B. With declining use of the GWBBS, people are more concerned with their safety on the walk from the subway platform to the Bus Station as fewer people are making the connection.

    C. Only the A train and a few bus routes provide connections to the rest of Manhattan and there are relatively few jobs within walking distance of the GWBBS. In contrast, the PABT has one of the densest job markets in the world within walking distance and many subway and bus routes.

    2. Holland Tunnel Bus Lane – There is one major issue here. Lower Manhattan has only limited capacity for buses and essentially no additional locations to stage buses in the PM peak. Thus, there would be no ability for the bus companies to provide reliable service for the afternoon commute.

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