NYC facing a commuter surge — new tunnel an imperative

New York Faces New Commuter Surge, Ready or Not, Study Suggests

The study appears to underscore the need for a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, part of the huge and long-planned Gateway project.

The pandemic emptied out commuter trains and buses from west of the Hudson River.

The pandemic emptied out commuter trains and buses from west of the Hudson River.Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

By Patrick McGeehan

June 15, 2022

The shift from commuting caused by the pandemic left empty seats on the once-packed trains and buses bringing commuters from New Jersey to New York City. But those crowded conditions will return and may worsen over the next decade as the region’s population grows and more employers call workers back to their offices, a new study concluded.

Even if working from home quadruples from prepandemic levels, there still would be more commuters piling onto trains and buses to get across the Hudson River from New Jersey on some weekdays than in 2019, according to the study, scheduled to be released on Wednesday by the Regional Plan Association.

The study comes at a pivotal moment for the long-delayed plan to add a rail tunnel under the Hudson — the crucial element of a sprawling, $30 billion project that has gained momentum and political support but still needs state and federal funding.

The researchers found that future crowding would likely be worst on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays — the days workers are most likely to be expected in the office, the study said. On those days, there could be as many as 46,000 more cross-Hudson transit riders by 2030 than there were in 2019, an increase of more than 10 percent.

For a transit network that already was overcrowded and prone to breakdowns and delays, that could pose problems. More than 400,000 commuters crossed the Hudson on trains and buses each weekday in 2019, many of them standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the aisles as they arrived at Pennsylvania Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

Back then, transit executives and elected officials were rallying support for construction of a second rail tunnel between New Jersey and Penn Station to supplement the existing pair of single-track tubes that were built more than 110 years ago. Part of a $30 billion project known as Gateway, the $12.3 billion tunnel would improve reliability and help meet the need for additional capacity, officials said.

But just as political support for Gateway was building, Covid drove away most of those commuters. Ridership plunged as people stayed home, leaving only the most essential workers continuing to commute. Seats began to fill again as the pandemic ebbed, but ridership is still far below 2019 levels.

The sustained drop in the flow of commuters raised the question of whether Gateway would still be necessary, said Thomas K. Wright, the chief executive of the Regional Plan Association, which has been a strong supporter of the project. But the study, which plotted four scenarios for the pace of growth in the region, found that the crush of commuters will soon return, Mr. Wright said.

“Even with a slow return to offices and modest job growth, we will need the additional capacity that Gateway will bring,” Mr. Wright said.

The digging of the tunnel has not begun and is not expected to be completed for another decade. The project’s funding, which will likely be split between the federal government and the states of New York and New Jersey, still needs to be worked out.

The project has broad support among elected officials from the region. But Republicans from other parts of the country have opposed a large federal investment in it and stopped the project from progressing during the Trump administration.

It has also faced criticism for its staggering estimated price tag, concerns about the potential for huge cost overruns and doubts about its necessity beyond the pandemic. Forecasting commuting patterns in and around big cities after the pandemic is a complicated task, said Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities.

“The central business district is the last relic of the old industrial age,” Mr. Florida said. “The office district where you pack and stack knowledge workers and they plug in their laptops, I think that’s a thing of the past.”

Mr. Wright said it was urgent for the states to reach an agreement they can present to the federal Department of Transportation before the midterm elections, when Democrats appear likely to cede control of Congress. “Starting in January of next year, it could be much more difficult in terms of working with the federal government on this thing,” Mr. Wright said.

Stephen Sigmund, a spokesman for the Gateway project, welcomed the report’s findings. “For two years, some have questioned whether Gateway is as urgently needed post-Covid,” he said. “This report shows the answer is yes.”

Regardless of its past advocacy for Gateway, Mr. Wright said that if his organization’s analysis concluded that the tunnel would not be needed soon, he would say so. “We stand by the integrity of our research,” he said.

The analysts estimated that regular commuters to Manhattan were working from home only about one day a month, on average, before the pandemic. They calculated the long-term effects on trans-Hudson commuting if they continued to work from home about twice a month, or even once a week, on average.

They tested those scenarios against both robust and slow rates of growth for the region’s population and employment. In all cases, they found that overall demand for seats on trains and buses crossing the Hudson would exceed pre-pandemic levels by 2050, if not sooner.

In all but the slow-growth, most-work-from-home scenario, that new high level of demand would arrive by 2040, several years after Gateway is scheduled to be completed, their analysis found. If the regional economy grows as fast as in recent decades, additional capacity could be needed even before Gateway could be completed, especially in the middle of the workweek, they concluded.

Commuting patterns are sure to change, Mr. Florida said, but with traffic on city streets already having returned to pre-pandemic levels, lots of people will ride transit into cities for other work and leisure purposes, such as attending shows and sporting events.

“It seems to me the long-term issue is if you’re going to run a region of 20 to 25 million people, the car isn’t going to work,” Mr. Florida said. “I’m not sure that the Gateway tunnel will even solve it.”

Patrick McGeehan writes about transportation and infrastructure for the Metro section. He has been a reporter for The Times since 1999 and has covered Wall Street, executive pay, transportation, the New York City economy and New Jersey. @NYTpatrick

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