Regional Transportation Projects to Keep an Eye on in 2021

2020 has been a devastating year for the transportation industry. The coronavirus pandemic caused ridership to plummet and federal funding has not kept pace with demand. As a result, transit agencies across the country have slashed their budgets and are preparing for what is shaping up to be a years-long economic recovery. Given the current state of affairs, we have been looking at the biggest ongoing and upcoming projects that industry experts, policymakers, and transit riders should watch over the next year. The election of President-elect Joe Biden has injected new hope in saving transit agencies from collapsing, and expediting critical infrastructure projects that have been stalled for the last four years but can now help jump start the economy. With Republicans likely to control the Senate and a pandemic that continues to depress transit ridership, the fate, timeline, and funding of some of these projects still remains uncertain. Here’s a look at what’s at stake for the tri-state area:

  • Amtrak’s Gateway Program: Hudson Tunnel
    • Cost: $13 billion
    • Location: Hudson Palisades – Midtown Manhattan
Alignment of Amtrak's proposed Hudson Tunnel
Proposed alignment of Amtrak’s Hudson Tunnel

The Gateway Program is expected to be a priority infrastructure investment for the incoming Biden administration. What was once a bi-partisan project fell apart due to partisan politics, and has not been able to move forward without federal approval and funding. In 2015, New York and New Jersey agreed to pay for half of the project with the Feds agreeing to pay the other half. When President Trump was elected however, that deal went out the window (allegedly as revenge for NY Senator Chuck Schumer not agreeing to fund Trump’s border wall). Despite the political games, this is a race against the clock. Without a new tunnel and renovation of the existing century-old tunnel, the Northeast Corridor could come to a grinding halt. In this doomsday scenario, an estimated 10,000 more people will be forced to drive into Manhattan, further gridlocking traffic. Recently, Governor Cuomo threw a wrench in the plan when he touted a study by London Bridge Associates that claims the existing century-old tunnels could be fixed while remaining in service (a strategy used for repairing the L Train and F Train tunnels). It’s not entirely clear that this solution is feasible given the heavier equipment used on the Northeast Corridor, and it may also further delay the most urgent infrastructure project in the country just days away from an Amtrak-friendly administration entering the White House.

  • Port Authority Bus Terminal Replacement
    • Cost: $10 billion
    • Location: Midtown Manhattan
Perkins Eastman rendering of a vision for a new Port Authority Bus Terminal

The Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown has a reputation of being the most squalid and overcrowded transportation hub in New York. Opened in 1950, the terminal went through one massive expansion in the 1980s due to the need for more capacity to handle a growing number of bus riders commuting from New Jersey. Now, the Port Authority is looking to expand the terminal again so it can handle an additional 77,000 daily riders by 2030. The proposal calls for a larger terminal with capacity for 30 percent more buses and passengers, as well as comfortable and modern amenities for commuters. For years, TSTC has chronicled the rocky road of getting this project done. While a new terminal will certainly improve the commuting experience for people arriving in and departing from Midtown, it’s less clear how Port Authority and NJ Transit, which operates the majority of the terminal’s service, will add new capacity to the Lincoln Tunnel, where most of the region’s bus service is bottlenecked. Furthermore, the neighborhood surrounding the Midtown terminal has legitimate concerns over addressing poor air quality caused by exhaust from diesel buses.

  • AirTrain LaGuardia
    • Cost: $2 billion
    • Location: Queens, New York
Proposed alignment of Port Authority’s AirTrain connecting LGA with the 7 Train and LIRR at Willets Point

If construction moves forward as planned, LaGuardia Airport could be connected by a new AirTrain to the commuter rail and subway networks as soon as 2025. Though it has support from the Federal Aviation Administration, this project continues to face significant local opposition and there are lingering concerns about the project’s benefits being worth the cost, especially at a time when the city, state, and Port Authority are essentially out of money. Opposition to the project is largely centered on the alignment, which will make airport-goers from Manhattan travel several miles past LaGuardia to Willets Point before catching the AirTrain back to the terminals. At Willets Point, the AirTrain will connect to the 7 Train subway line and the Port Washington Branch of the Long Island Rail Road, both of which already suffer from overcrowding. A more direct rail connection to LaGuardia would be an extension of the NYC Subway from Astoria, but elected officials have repeatedly shot the idea down as too expensive and infeasible. The least obstructive–and probably most efficient–alternative would be to beef up existing bus service between LGA and the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Ave subway station, where commuters can transfer between multiple subway lines.

  • Congestion Pricing
    • Cost: $500 million
    • Location: Manhattan
Proposed congestion pricing zone: Manhattan, south of 60th Street

After two decades of advocacy from TSTC and our allies, congestion pricing is “an idea whose time has come,” according to Governor Cuomo. In the spring of 2019, a congestion pricing plan for Manhattan’s central business district was approved as part of the state budget. A year ago, the MTA awarded a $500 million contract to TransCore for designing, building, and operating the system. The congestion pricing zone covers most of Manhattan south of 60th Street and is expected to simultaneously reduce paralyzing traffic congestion while raising $1 billion annually for the cash-strapped MTA. Federal approval is needed for the plan to move forward because a few of the roads affected by the scheme are federally-funded. Earlier this year, however, it became apparent that the system will not be implemented on schedule because the Trump Administration is reportedly withholding federal support without a clear motive. Although the incoming Biden administration is likely to sign off on the project, congestion pricing could be delayed until 2023.

  • MTA Bus Network Redesign
    • Location: New York City
Draft design of new Queens bus network produced by the MTA

Many of the city’s bus routes have remained unchanged since buses replaced streetcars in the first half of the twentieth century. Over time, demographics have changed, the population has grown, and new employment centers have emerged outside of the traditional urban core. New York City never stops growing and so too must the bus network. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the MTA was well underway with a borough-by-borough bus network redesign. Staten Island and the Bronx were the first to have a final redesign plan and Queens was in the middle of the redesign process when the pandemic put the entire project on hold. The MTA’s loss in revenue, the unclear fate of congestion pricing, and the inability to hold substantive public input hearings due to COVID-19, has set the project back. It is likely that the pandemic will further change commuting patterns, underscoring the need for a network redesign as soon as it is safe for the MTA to move forward.

  • Sunnyside Yard Master Plan: Sunnyside Station 
    • Location: Long Island City, Queens
NYCEDC rendering of Sunnyside Station in Long Island City, Queens

As part of the Sunnyside Yard Master Plan, Sunnyside Station is a proposed regional rail hub that will be built in Long Island City on the Northeast Corridor. The new station will be a game-changer for the development of western Queens, providing the region’s workforce with direct access to an emerging urban core across the East River from Midtown, Manhattan. The fate of this project hinges on political will and funding from both the city and state, as well as implementation of through-running train service at Penn Station. Through-running is critical because it will allow Sunnyside Station to be served by all of the region’s rail operators: NJ Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad, and Amtrak. Regardless of the decking and development of the surrounding railyard, Sunnyside Station will be a major addition to the regional transportation network.

  • Second Avenue Subway: Phase 2
    • Cost: $6.9 billion
    • Location: Harlem, Manhattan
Alignment of Second Avenue Subway: Phase II through the Upper East Side and East Harlem

After the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway opened to the public in 2017, all eyes are on the next phase of the project, which will extend the Q Train from 96th Street to 125th Street in East Harlem. Funding for the project remains fragile at best, but the incoming Biden administration may provide some fresh federal support. It’s unclear how much the pandemic and subsequent fiscal nightmare will delay work on the new subway line, which was originally proposed over a hundred years ago and has been myriad by delays ever since. Once completed, the Second Avenue Subway will reduce overcrowding on the adjacent Lexington Avenue subway line and stimulate economic growth in uptown Manhattan.

  • Growing the Circuit Trails Network 
    • Location: Southern New Jersey & Greater Philadelphia
Map of existing and proposed Circuit Trails network in the Greater Philadelphia and South Jersey region

The Circuit Trails is an incredible regional asset for the Greater Philadelphia-South Jersey region. The region’s diverse and growing network of trails is a place for communities to connect, gather, commute, recreate and discover new destinations. With more than 330 miles of completed trails to date, the network is still growing toward its ultimate goal of 800-plus miles across a nine-county region. As the coalition works toward a completed network, the Circuit Trails needs to reach an interim goal of 500 completed miles of trails by 2025. And to get to that goal, the coalition developed an action plan to move the Circuit Trails forward. The result of more than a year’s worth of analysis and work conducted by members of the Circuit Trails Coalition, the action plan maps out trail segment projects and policy recommendations that will help the coalition reach its goals.

  • NJ Transit Bus Network Redesign
    • Location: New Jersey
An NJ Transit bus stops for passengers in Newark

In 2019, TSTC released “A New Ride for New Jersey,” a report that outlines critical steps NJ Transit must take to build a better bus system. One of the report’s key recommendations is for a bus network redesign, which means matching routes with modern commuting patterns, shifting demographics, and new employment centers. The goal is to encourage more use of public transit, especially for people trying to reach an NJ Transit rail station. Last year, a $580,000 contract was awarded to Transportation Management and Design, Inc. to spend a year studying how NJ Transit can reimagine its bus network. As of 2020, NJ Transit included a bus network redesign as a priority in its 10-year strategic plan and the agency intends to start with the City of Newark. The fate and timeline of this project is dependent on more funding for the agency and ongoing political support. However, the impact of COVID-19 on the regional workforce and commuting patterns makes taking a fresh look at the system all the more necessary.

  • Bus Fleet Electrification
    • Location: New Jersey, New York, & Connecticut
MTA deploys first all-electric articulated bus fleet

Efforts to electrify public bus fleets have been rapidly advancing across the tri-state region. Two new coalitions of transportation and environmental justice advocates, ElectrifyNY and ElectrifyNJ, have worked with TSTC to successfully push the MTA and NJ Transit, two of the region’s largest transit operators, to commit to a full transition to an all-electric bus fleet by 2040. In 2019, the Connecticut General Assembly committed to electrify 50 percent of Connecticut’s light-duty fleet purchases and 30 percent of the heavy-duty fleet purchases, including transit buses, by 2030. The incoming Biden administration has made electrification a key pillar of a plan to invest trillions of dollars into infrastructure and transitioning to a clean energy economy. With increased federal support, the region will continue to fast track public and private sector electrification of the automobile industry, helping to reduce carbon emissions and meet each state’s climate goals. 

More projects to keep an eye on (to be discussed in future blog posts)…

  • Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel
    • Currently under Tier II EIS review by the Port Authority.
  • Empire Station Complex
    • $3 billion renovation project for the area surrounding Penn Station.