No ARC without TOD

A lot of fuss has been made by urbanists about how important the ARC transit tunnel under the Hudson is to curbing sprawl in North Jersey, but frankly I’m not convinced that more commuter rail into Manhattan is the cure for what ails New Jersey. The state’s fundamental problem is its reliance on two cities outside its borders for providing jobs to its people, and it’s used the existence of New York and Philadelphia as excuses to remain a sprawled, suburban oasis in the middle of a dense Northeast Corridor, which can’t continue once it runs out of land and money.

Commuter rail in post-WWII America has never quite lived up to transit activists’ hopes, and the NJ Transit service and the ARC tunnel will be no different. Instead of viewing suburban train stations as smaller versions of city stations, locals like to think of them as their own personal portals into downtown business districts. Suburbanites don’t want transit-oriented development – they want lots of parking so they have access to the station, since most of them don’t live within walking distance.  Increased density and less parking might benefit future residents who would move in to new developments, but they don’t show up to zoning board meetings and don’t get a vote.

As an example of how many towns waste their transit, I grew up in Bryn Mawr, a suburb of Philadelphia, and a town which has better transit access than the Upper East Side. It’s part of a string of towns collectively known as the “Main Line,” after the train tracks that run through the area, there’s a light rail line that runs south of the main commuter line, and there are a few bus lines (both SEPTA buses and private college shuttles) that connect the towns. Despite its intense connectedness and the relative frequency of rail service, the areas around the train stations are woefully underdeveloped – one sidewalk near the Villanova station ends not a block away at the edge of the university’s campus. Some shops with apartments on top that were built earlier in the century around the stations still stand, but most new development along the main commercial drag is not mixed use, and is set back in a sea of parking. New apartment buildings are not allowed in the commercial zone where the train stations are located, but rather are pushed back to a busy street north of the train line with no commercial development, where they are less accessible and desirable. Along the light rail line there is even less development, with large free parking lots taking up much of the prime real estate around stations. (Perhaps the most shocking irony is that the parking lots taking up prime real estate around stations are owned by the transit authorities themselves.)

Because of the underdevelopment around commuter rail lines, they attract relatively few riders and require ever-larger subsidies (in Philadelphia’s case, at the expense of inner-city lines) to maintain the systems for the few, wealthy commuters (in New Jersey’s case, Wall Street bankers) who still use them. And it is this low ridership and revenue that makes projects like the ARC tunnel such a tough sell for politicians.  Many lines run infrequently outside of peak hours as a result, and sometimes not at all on weekends, further limiting their usefulness.  Anti-density land use policies, so popular with suburban constituents, rob transit systems of the fares they need to be self-sustaining, or even, god forbid, profitable.

If New Jersey wants billions in federal subsidies to funnel even more commuters into Manhattan, it should have to make transit more than just a subsidy to the rich and an excuse not to develop North Jersey. There are plenty of cities, like Newark and Jersey City, that are ripe for expansion and densification – something that wouldn’t require a new rail link, and could be done at a fraction of the cost.  But unfortunately for transit-oriented development, funding decisions are made based on political clout rather than real need, and allowing for dense development around stations is never a prerequisite for continuing to receive subsidies. It’s easy to throw money at the ARC project, but unless North Jersey becomes something other than New York City’s suburb, it will never truly have enough bridges and tunnels.

  • Anonymous

    At the top of this post you talk about the state’s reliance on New York and Philadelphia for jobs, and then further down you talk about how few people use commuter rail lines (presumably to get to those jobs). That seems contradictory.

    Here’s something else to consider, that may provide additional fodder for the other-than-tunnel argument: Proportionally, New Jersey does NOT rely on neighboring jurisdictions to give its residents jobs. According to the 2000 census, only 12 percent of New Jersey workers (6 percent of the state’s entire population) work outside the state. That translates to fewer than 500,000 people, spread across the entire geography, not all of whom are headed to New York. So this is a chicken-and-egg problem: Is that number not greater because transit options are constrained (we’re told the current rail tunnel is at capacity), or are transit options limited because demand isn’t there?

    Looked at from the other side, 3.4 million New Jersey workers stay in New Jersey to go to work. If you ask 100 of them, they will list 100 different origins and destinations for their commutes. It’s impossible to build a sensible public transit network given this kind of wide dispersal of employment opportunities. Perhaps, as you suggest, stimulating high-density employment development rather than suburban office parks will be the real key to the growth of TOD, and will open the door for more intra-state transit development.

  • Anonymous

    The notion that NJ Transit rail into Manhattan is nothing more than a sparsely used, white-collar luxury is not supported by the facts. NJ Transit ridership has been growing consistently for years, and is projected to continue growing, making the ARC tunnel capacity expansion necessary. While its true that more should be done to encourage growth around NJ transit stations (the organization I work for, NJ Future, is a proponent of this: ) turning that idea into an argument against the ARC Tunnel misses the point. While politicians can have some influence on growth patterns through zoning, regulatory policy, tax incentives, etc, the macro-trends in development are dictated by the market. Employers want to locate in NYC for all sorts of reasons, and NJ would be foolish to turn its back on that economic engine. Finally, the type of development you promote IS happening in New Jersey, in places like New Brunswick, Hoboken, Morristown, Rahway, etc. However that trend cannot continue if we do not have the capacity necessary to accommodate all of the new riders that TOD brings, and the ARC tunnel is the only way to provide that capacity.


  • Alon Levy

    The lack of TOD at Secaucus is a major fail. But I’m not willing to write everything off yet, because the way TOD is done in the US is about as bad as not doing any TOD at all. The problem is that instead of relaxation of zoning restrictions, it usually takes the form of special deals between government and developers. The government absorbs the losses of running transit, the developers get to reap all the extra profits, and usually there’s so much parking that transit ridership doesn’t grow much anyway. It’s basically government subsidies to developers, dressed in nice transit clothes.

  • David Keddie

    Anti-density sentiment is quite intense even in areas with heavy commuter rail use. I live in West Windsor Township, home to the Princeton Junction station which is one of the most heavily used railway stations in New Jersey and blessed with its own short branch line to the Princeton campus called the Dinky. The Princeton Junction station is surrounded by surface parking, with 5-10 year waits for a spot depending on residency, and a collection of rundown one or two story buildings merging into low-density suburban development. We’ve had years of meetings over efforts to redevelop the station area as a transit village, with the developer suing to be allowed to build more housing than the final agreement. All along the way local environmental and community groups have fought tooth and nail to prevent upzoning of the adjacent thinly developed Sarnoff site despite their provision for a BRT line. We find ourselves in the rare situation of having private developers begging to build large-scale transit oriented developed and it being bitterly opposed at worst and talked to death at best. If the state is serious about encouraging transit use it must pair large infrastructure projects with upzoning that prevents the local nimbyism from preventing transit-oriented development. Otherwise the rail system will continue as a charity case of the state, overwhelmingly dependent as the ARC is on funds derived from tolls and gas taxes and thus susceptible to the same insecure political support of any charity program.

    Given the failure of the state to work with the MTA to use through-routing to expand capacity in Penn station and the failure to allow transit-oriented development, the ARC tunnel with it’s lack of connectivity and dead-end terminal looks exactly like a boondoggle supported for the sake of providing jobs for union-member constituents rather than the product of a serious approach to encouraging transit use. Unless we can somehow approximate the profit-seeking corporations that built the original tunnels, rail and subway infrastructure then our transit systems will continue to hobble along as wards of the state. That’s my take at least…


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