The environmental impacts of a large-scale transformation of the Northeast Corridor rail line would be greatly outweighed by an eventual decrease in energy usage and greenhouse gas production, as well as an increase in economic activity and mobility, a draft environmental report released Tuesday concluded.
The report by the Federal Railroad Administration analyzed three alternatives for upgrading the corridor between now and 2040 that feature improvements ranging from the mundane but utilitarian (streamlined ticketing) to what might seem wishful thinking given current economic constraints (a rail tunnel connecting Long Island and the Connecticut coastline).
The three alternatives were compared to a No Action alternative that would maintain existing service and infrastructure as ridership grows. To give an idea of the scope and expense involved, the No Action alternative would cost roughly $20 billion over the next 25 years, while the most ambitious alternative, which includes the underwater rail tunnel, would cost about $290 billion, federal rail officials said on a conference call Monday.
For context, they said that, given the fact that the Northeast Corridor region produces one-fifth of the nation's gross domestic product, an unexpected loss of the NEC for one day could cost the nation nearly $100 million in transportation-related impacts and productivity losses.
The 457-mile corridor is the busiest commuter rail line in the country and the site of regular and often lengthy delays on Amtrak and regional lines such as New Jersey Transit, due to 100-year-old infrastructure and crowded tracks.
The three alternatives under consideration came from an original list of 98 that was winnowed to 15. Federal officials will hold public hearings on the plans in December and January. By next spring they will choose a preferred alternative for final environmental review.
The corridor project is proceeding concurrent with a renewed push by the federal government and New York-area officials to build (and fund) a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, a project expected to take roughly 10 years and cost well over $10 billion.
Rebecca Reyes-Alicea, FRA program manager for the Northeast Corridor, said Monday a new Hudson tunnel would be considered vital to any of the three alternatives reviewed in the environmental study but said specifics on the tunnel project were in the hands of local stakeholders. She and other officials didn't discuss how the three plans would be paid for.
The study predicted that a wider array of rail choices could increase intercity rail ridership by as much as 92 percent to 102 percent by 2040, compared to the No Action alternative. It found the environmental disruption caused by large-scale construction would be outweighed by other benefits, including less pollution from buses and planes as more people opted for trains.
"From a public health perspective, these improvements to air quality, energy use, and community access add up to an overall better quality of life for persons living and commuting throughout the Study Area," it concluded. "The improved reliability and mobility of service provided contributes to an improved quality of life for people living and working within the region; attracts businesses and employees to the region; and in turn supports economic growth and development."