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.