Two somewhat predictable camps on regional rail exist in northern New Jersey: Democrats who support more funding, and Republicans like Gov. Chris Christie who want less.
The Democrats were, and remain, widely in support of a trans-Hudson tunnel — known as Access to the Region’s Core, or ARC — and to this day think the biggest problem with New Jersey Transit is that Christie cancelled the project. The late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg was perhaps most emblematic of this approach, fighting for every last dollar without much interest in how the money would be spent (something that so endeared him to NJ Transit that it named a major new transfer station after him).
Many Republicans, on the other hand, found the ARC tunnel wasteful. Though Christie never came out and said it, his actions after canceling the project — redirecting the funding to road projects — suggested that he doesn’t believe a trans-Hudson rail crossing is all that necessary in any form. Christie’s interest in transit appears limited to airport travelers and using it as a bargaining tool for other political objectives.
But there is a third way. Last week two New Jersey politicians, Joe Pennacchio and Mike Doherty, shepherded a bill through the state senate that calls for the creation of a Passenger Rail Study Commission to examine ways to make regional rail in New Jersey work more effectively.
“A thorough examination of the many rail systems throughout New Jersey to create a more streamlined, efficient and cost effective mass transportation system is long overdue,” Pennacchio said in a press release. “Can the boys share their toys?”
“All opportunities to cut costs through consolidations or mergers should be explored to assure commuters are receiving the best service possible and that taxpayers are being protected from duplicative costs and infrastructure projects,” Doherty added.
This is not the first time the pair has tried to get the New York region’s famously fractious railroads to get along. Both NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road are essentially descendants of the old Pennsylvania Railroad, which built Penn Station in Manhattan as a through-station. Today the two railways can’t be bothered to cooperate on so much as unified station signage or ticket machines at Penn, never mind big-ticket items like through-running trains from New Jersey to Long Island.
This year’s iteration of the bill has little chance of passing the state assembly. Democrat John Wisniewski, who chairs the chamber’s Transportation Committee, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he sees little merit in any transit reform short of digging a new tunnel beneath the Hudson, and dismissed integration between New York’s railroads as impractical for technical reasons.
“I was disappointed to hear Wisniewski’s comments,” Pennacchio told Next City. “We’ve reached out, but of course he doesn’t want to.” (Wisniewski’s office did not respond to Next City’s request for comment.)
Regarding the technical barriers to integration mentioned by Wisniewski, Pennacchio shot back: “He mentioned different voltages — yeah, that’s why we need [cooperation] in the first place!”
Pennacchio also referenced a proposal by Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat, to force shared services — efficiencies in local government areas like, presumably, policing, firefighting and schooling — on New Jersey’s infamously tiny towns. He questioned why state Democrats thought those efficiency measures were worthwhile, but anything involving New Jersey’s transit agencies was not.
“Steve Sweeney’s talking about shared services in towns,” Pennacchio said, but when it comes to rail, “you’re telling me we can’t find opportunities to share, to consolidate?”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.