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Prepare for Disaster

"As the enemy drew nearer to Moscow the attitude taken by its inhabitants in regard to their position did not become more serious, but, on the contrary, more frivolous, as is always the case with people who see a great danger approaching. At the approach of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal force in the heart of man: one very reasonably tells the man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of avoiding it; the other even more reasonably says that it is too painful and harassing to think of the danger."

-Tolstoy, War and Peace

In 2012 Superstorm Sandy flooded the ancient rail tunnels that connect New Jersey and New York with saltwater, tunnels so old they were constructed by the sons of men who fought in the Civil War.

The prognosis was horrible:

  • Report: NEC New York tunnels need major work (Oct 2014)

  • New York on the brink of a rail tunnel crisis (Nov 2014)

  • The nightmare that awaits N.J. if a Hudson rail tunnel is forced to close (Aug 2015)

  • Time is running out on Amtrak's aging tunnels (Nov 2015)

Since then, the situation has only worsened, yet in many ways our sense of urgency about what needs to be done has diminished.

As a Division Officer aboard the USS GERMANTOWN, I was a foot soldier in the war on salt water corrosion. Salt water in a poorly lit and ventilated tunnel like the North River Tunnels is a terminal diagnosis. Without closure, equipment replacement, and fresh water flushing, it will corrode everything made of metal or concrete.

The clock is ticking on these tunnels that carry 400,000 passengers between New Jersey and New York and it is unlikely that the Gateway project will be complete by the time the first tunnel is rendered inoperable or only capable of reduced operations.

Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, recently said that there "will be major disruptions before Gateway is built under any scenario. The question is how long we're going to suffer under that math."

As if tunnel troubles weren’t enough, years of preventative maintenance have been deferred as NJ Transit has raided their capital improvements budget to pay for operating costs. This is all to mention nothing of the Portal Bridge, Sawtooth Bridge, or a number of other absolutely critical pieces of infrastructure all in need of replacement or massive refurbishing.

As bad as commuting is right now, it’s going to get worse.

At the same time, politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to use this funding as a bargaining chip and carry on as though this is business as usual, rather than the dire emergency that it is. While a contingent of local lawmakers toured the tunnels recently, there has been no movement on funding and no sign of compromise with the Senate majority that would be necessary to secure this funding.

Like the high society of Moscow as Napoleon approached, our situation is becoming more dire and our actions are becoming more frivolous. We collectively need to stop deluding ourselves that these tunnels will survive until Gateway is built. As our region’s outlook becomes more dire and a seamless transition to new tunnels looks less likely, attention needs to be focused on developing a contingency plan for how to best survive a tunnel failure.

This plan needs to involve relevant agencies and private companies, happen in public, and be treated with the same sense of urgency as building Gateway itself. We have the resources needed to see our state through the impending crisis, but we need to start planning now and bringing all parties to the table.

New Jersey is a great state nestled between two amazing cities - access to those cities remains our region’s lifeblood and we need to prioritize protecting these essential connections.

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