The Five Borough Report
Rebuild the Port of New York, by Jerrold Nadler

The revival of the Port of New York and New Jersey and the construction of a rail freight tunnel under the harbor are vital to the very economic survival of the City and the future quality of life for its residents.

New York is the only major port city in the United States that has never built a rail freight tunnel or bridge under or over its harbor or river. The Port Authority was set up specifically to build such a tunnel. The first Chairman of the Port Authority, Eugenius H Outerbridge, (and when I learned his name, it answered my childhood question, where is the inner bridge crossing?) said that the rail freight tunnel from Bay Ridge to Bayonne was the ďkeystone in the arch of the master plan.Ē But the Port Authority never got around to building it, and this inaction has cost the region immensely. 

Location, location, location. New York became the center for commerce and business that it is today because of the Erie Canal. DeWitt Clinton and others understood that if you could connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, you could make New York City a major hub. In 1820, New York City had 2% of the nationís maritime commerce, and 2% of the nationís population. By the 1830 census, five years after the Canal opened, New York City had 38% of the nationís maritime shipping. The Erie Canal allowed us to exploit our geographic location at the entrance to the only sea level route to the interior of the continent from the Eastern seaboard. 

Keep on trucking? The New York region is almost totally dependent on trucks. This dependence pollutes our air, congests our streets, tears up our roads and water mains, increases the cost of doing business and helps exacerbate our loss of manufacturing which is not, as some people claim, inevitable. We have been losing manufacturing jobs at a rate 6 times the national rate of loss over the last 30 years.

Probably the main reason the region has become so truck-dependent is that there is virtually no way to cross the Hudson River or New York Harbor, without a tunnel. This past June, the New York City Economic Development Corporation completed a major investment study of the tunnel, which shows that a two track tunnel would cost approximately $2.3 billion, including associated costs for raising clearances along certain rail lines and paying for new rail terminals. For this investment, the economic return to the city of New York would be about $520 million dollars a year.

The environmental impact would be profound as well, as the tunnel would remove over one million tractor-trailers a year from New York City streets with all the obviously beneficial results on pollution and congestion, and the cost of doing business. It would also make the economy more flexible and adaptable and, therefore, more efficient. A rail freight tunnel would also make possible a major container shipping port in Brooklyn. And thatís vital.

The challenge. A decade or so from now there will be one major seaport on the Eastern seaboard. New York is in competition with Halifax and Norfolk to be that hub port. The stakes are enormous. A 1995 Port Authority study found that if we donít become the hub port, we will lose about 40% of our maritime traffic and 40% of the 180,000 port-dependent jobs. New York City and Port Authority studies in the last couple of years have found that if we do become the hub port, we have the potential to multiply port traffic over a 40-year period.

The solution. We have to have good land transportation access to the port. It does no good to land a ship, take the container off the ship and put it on a truck chassis and have the truck get stuck, on its way to New England and to the countryís interior, in the busiest traffic in the world on the Gowanus Expressway.  A decent rail freight system with a cross-harbor rail freight tunnel solves this problem.

There are two good sites for container ports in New York harbor; Bayonne and Brooklyn. It makes sense to rapidly develop a container port in Bayonne. But we also need a container port in Brooklyn, on the other side of New York harbor, which would require a rail freight tunnel. The highway network in Brooklyn is over-taxed and will not accommodate another million trucks a year. With any luck, we should have the tunnel finished nine years from now, and a container port operating in Brooklyn within ten, which means we should be able to beat everybody else in terms of time. Then our natural geographic advantages will make sure we get the bulk of the Atlantic maritime commerce.

Some people think that New York is in competition with New Jersey and that a container port in Brooklyn would take away business from New Jersey. While this may have been true at one point, itís no longer true. If the forecast of a great increase in the maritime traffic available to the Port of New York and New Jersey is at all accurate, we are going to need every inch of container port shipping space we can lay our hands on. Weíre not going to be competing for scarce traffic, weíre going to be trying to figure out how to handle all the traffic we can get. Itís a regional priority to make us, to make the Port of New York and New Jersey the hub port. But if we do that in an environmentally sensitive way, we will be able to achieve the economic vitality in the 21st century, that we achieved in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century.

Jerrold Nadler is a member of the US House of Representatives from New Yorkís 8th District in lower Manhattan. This article is adapted from a speech he gave in May.

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