Response to “Crossing the Hudson”

ReThinkNYC’s response to the Regional Plan Association’s report “Crossing the Hudson”

Aug 22, 2017

The RPA’s report last week on “Crossing the Hudson” was a major step forward for those of us who have been beating the drum about the need to better coordinate spending. At the core, we and the RPA have both identified the single biggest problem with regional transit planning in the New York City Metropolitan Region: Agencies make plans that solve part of related problems without ever coming together behind a holistic solution.

From the RPA’s report: “Each of these projects [Gateway, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and Moynihan Station] has been planned and studied in isolation of the others. Rather than looking holistically at the links across the Hudson River, and where people are coming from and going to, the agencies have been focused on solving their individual problems. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that they haven’t been able to come up with a comprehensive solution.”

And from the Executive Summary of our own RUN proposal, released earlier this year: “New York needs to change the way it approaches projects like [Gateway] for its system to meet the needs of residents and businesses. It’s no longer sufficient to have disconnected plans that neither work together nor leverage each other. New York needs holistic, regional planning that simultaneously addresses multiple issues. “

Identifying this issue is an important first step, but it does not make either the RPA or us unique. Nor is identifying the problem enough. We need to truly commit to the principles that this insight demands of us as planners. Unfortunately, the RPA has not done that. The actual proposals that they have made in this report fall victim to the exact same problems they identified and criticized in current proposals.



1. Having a true transit network requires each transit mode to interact with the others

Transit networks work best when they “talk” to each other at multimodal hubs. Connecting the regional rail network, the Subway network, the bus network, the light rail network, and the air network – and optimizing the point of connection for easy transfers between modes – makes each individual system much stronger.

The RPA’s statement of principles acknowledges and identifies this– but then still designs a system in which the various transit modes work independently of each other. The true test of whether they have lived up to the principle of finding a “comprehensive solution” to trans-Hudson mobility is whether and how the various investments they propose work together, rather than in isolation. It’s not enough to say that our regional rail networks need to break down the artificial barriers separating them: we need to also break down the artificial barrier between different modes of travel.


This failure is most glaring when it comes to the Javits Basement terminal. Under the RPA’s proposal, those on the bus network today would still be on the bus network in the future – and vice-versa with rail. Indeed, it is difficult to see how the Javits Basement Terminal would be of any use to people who currently commute via rail, or how their version of Gateway and “Gateway East” would be of use to people who currently commute via bus. The transfer from the Javits Basement to the 7‑Train will be lengthy and difficult for anyone not working on the Far West Side, and the added rail capacity of Gateway is not nearly enough to re-activate dormant rail lines or shift people from buses to rail.

The primary benefit of a Javits Basement option appears to be that it can be built relatively quickly and cheaply. This kind of path of least resistance planning, focused on one mode in isolation of any others, is the kind of thinking the RPA rightly rejected in their own statement of principles,

By contrast, we propose a multimodal hub west of the Hudson River, including links to both PATH and the 7‑Train, because putting the transfer there allows everyone a variety of means of crossing the River. It would remove entirely the need buses for many buses to use the Lincoln tunnel. It also makes far more intra-Jersey trips possible via mass transit. Virtually every rail line in North Jersey planners have considered reactivating runs through or near Secaucus; with the 7‑Train and PATH extended to Secaucus, those rail lines could be operated as light rail feeders for the subway. This would allow you to maintain a “right-sized” Manhattan bus terminal as the primary option for bus passengers who are either from Hudson County or parts of Bergen County, or who want to pay extra for a single-seat ride.

2. The top priority for regional rail must be to fix the problems that exist at the platform and track level in Penn Station

The RPA has also correctly identified that current proposals don’t fix the problems of Penn Station. But theirs doesn’t either. The single most important thing that can be done for Penn Station is to make it operate as a station, not a terminal. It needs wider platforms and a massive increase in vertical circulation. Every train needs to run through Penn Station in order to maximize its potential. As the RPA notes in its criticism of the current Penn South proposal, which would combine some terminating tracks with some tracks that might in the future be able to run through, “This hybrid approach will limit the capacity benefits of through-running.” 

And yet the RPA has not proposed altering the current inefficient use of Penn Station at all. Their station complex would be the very kind of “hybrid approach” they correctly note is inefficient. They would add some additional vertical circulation and provide a more pleasant concourse level, but there is no indication that the station would operate substantially differently than it does today. There is certainly no indication that there would be significant changes made at the track and platform level – where the changes would do the most good.

Find out more about ReThinkNYC’s Penn Station plan:

3. Projects must be optimized in some way for cost

This gets to the last, and arguably greatest issue: Cost, and an inability to optimize spending. The cost estimates for “Gateway East” – two new tunnels from Penn Station out to Queens, with a new rail station in Murray Hill – are extremely optimistic. In press reports the RPA has cited a cost figure 50% lower than the cost of the new Hudson River Tunnels, but a quick look at a map shows that the required tunnel length for Gateway East is approximately twice that of Gateway itself. It would travel under a river, across most of Manhattan, and under up to 9 different subway trunk lines (8th Avenue, 7th Avenue, 6th Avenue, PATH, Broadway, Park {Lexington}, IND Crosstown, Flushing, and the Queens Blvd Lines). It would be a far bigger and more complicated project than Gateway itself.

This option would be significantly more complicated than East Side Access – which will end up costing $15 billion and taking two decades when all is said and done.

For those reasons, we don’t see how Gateway East could be built for the $7 billion price tag quoted in the press. Add in the cost of Penn South and the Murray Hill station, and you are likely rapidly approaching a $30 billion total project cost for the combined project. It is extremely difficult to foresee it being funded at that price. It is also extremely difficult to see it being worth the expenditure at that price – by ridership, by economic activity generated, or by any commonly used standard.

Moreover, this $30 billion of scope is required because of design choices that are not necessary – namely the choice to be based around Penn South. We will be releasing our own 10-phase plan for Penn Station construction in the near future, demonstrating conclusively that Penn South is not required to be able to achieve through running at Penn Station. Such a plan would also achieve approximately half of the increased capacity under the East River that an entirely new tunnel pair would seek to achieve, by making it possible to operate Penn Station efficiently.

If the goal is to make Penn Station an efficient through station, and come up with a comprehensive plan to get people across the Hudson River, then Penn South and Gateway East are one of the least efficient ways to achieve that goal.

And if new tunnels are required after Gateway – and we agree that they are – then surely a subway tunnel across the Hudson River and a multimodal hub west of the Hudson would be a far higher priority than Gateway East.


The RPA has done excellent work this year identifying both sound goals and the overarching problem of infrastructure construction costs in the New York City region. The recommendations for action items should meet those criteria. Instead, we have a proposal that rehashes a number of ideas that have been previously proposes rather than taking the opportunity to “rethink” core assumptions.

Based on those criteria, that the RPA itself has identified, we believe our own proposal is a far superior one.

Our proposal:

  1. Achieves through-running within the current footprint of Penn Station, at a substantially lower cost. Through running much less likely to happen with RPA plan because of expense.
  2. Fixes the problems in Penn Station at the source: The tracks and platforms
  3. Does not require two more East River Tunnels.
  4. Gives New Jersey a multimodal hub that would make it significantly easier to access every major job and population center in North Jersey.
  5. Is a regional plan, not one focused seemingly exclusively on serving Midtown Manhattan.
  6. Brings the Harlem and Hudson lines to Penn Station and to New Jersey.

We look forward to continuing the debate and discussion about the right way to build the infrastructure the New York region needs for the 21st Century.

Read our book ‘Vol 1. First Steps — The Regional Unified Network’ for more detailed information on our proposal.