If you are a geek about transportation infrastructure or if you just think trains are cool, then I have a book to recommend. Subway: The Curiosities, Secrets, and Unofficial History of the New York City Transit System, just published by Black Dog & Leventhal, will scratch both of those itches.
First, full disclosure: the author, John E. Morris, was a colleague of mine when I was an editor at The Deal, a news and information outlet covering M&A, private equity and other corporate transactions. I know John as a careful, diligent reporter and a graceful writer. And I am delighted that he sent a copy.
As the title notes, the book is mainly about the history of New York’s extensive subway system. But Morris includes a chapter about the building of the Hudson & Manhattan Subway – the modern-day PATH system. That story can be instructive as we consider the status of the Gateway Project and other efforts to rehabilitate the commuter rail infrastructure in northern New Jersey.
Gateway, of course, has been stalled for years by bureaucrats in Washington. And before Gateway, there was Access to the Region’s Core – or ARC – which would have added a rail tunnel under the Hudson River and a new station adjacent to New York Penn among other facilities. That project was cancelled by Gov. Chris Christie, who claimed he was doing so because of the threat of cost overruns that would be borne by New Jersey taxpayers. When the project was axed in 2010, $600 million had already been spent. Had Christie not pulled the plug, trains might be running through the new tunnel today.
Those events lend credence to the lament, often expressed both inside government and among the public, that huge infrastructure projects are just too complex, too controversial and too expensive to even contemplate anymore. And while some federal funds were recently freed up for a piece of Gateway, the ideas of a new tunnel and a modern station in Manhattan still seem like distant possibilities.
So, it’s worthwhile to consider John Morris’s account of the efforts by William Gibbs McAdoo to build a rail connection between New Jersey and New York. He writes that digging on the project began in 1873, 27 years before work started on New York’s subway. But the tunnelers didn’t get far from the Hoboken shoreline.
First, a railroad worried about competition to its ferries was able to obtain an injunction that stopped work for six years. After the digging resumed, the tunnel extended 280 feet under the river, but an accident that killed 20 workers stopped progress again. After another restart, workers completed about 1,500 feet of one tube and 750 feet of a second. A shortage of funds, another accident and the financial crisis all created obstacles. In 1891, work stopped again, with 3,700 feet of tunnel dug. This time, the shovels would be idle for nine years.
Enter McAdoo. Morris describes him as a “lawyer and transit investor” who was “frustrated at having to take a ferry across the Hudson to catch a train to Philadelphia or Baltimore.” After touring the unfinished tunnel in 1901, McAdoo began raising money to buy it and build a system connecting three stations on the New Jersey side to New York.
Anyone who has ridden a PATH train can guess how the story turned out. After six more years of work, McAdoo was operating trains to Sixth Avenue and 19th Street in Manhattan and two years later reached 34th Street. In 1909, a line from Jersey City to lower Manhattan began service through a second tunnel. McAdoo had other plans that never came to fruition, but he managed to set up the foundation for the busy commuter system that today connects two counties in New Jersey to Midtown Manhattan and the Financial District in New York.
Bygone days, to be sure. But McAdoo’s approach still resonates.
For example, Morris quotes McAdoo describing a visit to the dormant tunnel and what spurred him to finish the job:
The Fates had marked a day when I was to go under the riverbed and encounter this piece of dripping darkness, and it would rise from its grave and walk by my side. I was destined to give it color and movement and warmth, but it would change the course of my life and lead me into a new career.
The image was echoed in the pictures of New York and New Jersey officials leading reporters on tours of the tunnels damaged by Hurricane Sandy – through the “dripping darkness” – to pressure Washington to spend the money necessary for repairs.
The Gateway Project is led by would-be McAdoos. These individuals are committed to fixing what’s broken, expanding service and making the trains more reliable. But without a McAdoo-like figure in Washington, the purse strings will remain cinched shut.
Fortunately, just such a figure may be on the way. Morris describes McAdoo as a “rail enthusiast” who was “solicitous toward his employees and modest.” He designed his system to be more comfortable and efficient than the New York subway and always shared credit for his success.
Who will be our McAdoo in Washington? Well, business and labor leaders in New Jersey are counting on Joe Biden to be that person. The president-elect is famously a fan of Amtrak and understands the value of fast, reliable public transportation.
Greg Lalevee, the business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825, cited Biden’s affinity for Amtrak in an interview with me shortly after the election. And Amtrak Chairman Tony Coscia told my colleague Daniel Munoz that Biden “was very vocal about being supportive of the Gateway program and what it means to the nation’s economy.”
Of course, Biden will face political and financial challenges even if his heart is in the right place. But a huge infrastructure project would provide a major boost for the economy in the short and medium term. And the benefits of an improved transit system will pay off for decades in the future.
Under these circumstances, I know what William Gibbs McAdoo would do.