SCI-NY: Congestion pricing just got the ‘ok’ in NYC. The city’s crumbling tunnels might finally get the money they need to survive.

Today marked a significant milestone in urban transportation policy in the US as the Federal Highway Administration approved the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) congestion pricing tolls in New York City. This landmark decision has drawn a mix of reactions, with public transit advocates lauding the move and those resistant to change expressing their concerns.

The congestion pricing program, the nation’s first, will impose charges on motorists entering Midtown Manhattan and could potentially commence as early as next spring. Originally endorsed by lawmakers in 2019, the program aims to lessen traffic congestion, enhance air quality, and critically, generate much-needed revenue for the MTA.

While the final toll rates have yet to be set, proposed fees hover around $23 during rush hour and $17 during off-peak hours. Targeted at drivers navigating south of 60th Street in Manhattan, the tolls are projected to yield at least $1 billion annually. This funding will provide a significant boost for the MTA’s capital projects.

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Such financial backing is pivotal to realizing the MTA’s 2020-2024 capital plan. This plan outlines the financing of $15 billion in bonds for mass transit improvements, including key projects such as the $7.7 billion extension of the Second Avenue subway, the completion of the Penn Access project, and enhancements to the accessibility of numerous subway and Long Island Rail Road stations. In addition, the program will fund less-visible but essential projects such as new electronic signals for more efficient train operation and the acquisition of electric buses, in line with the state’s goal of an all-electric bus fleet by 2040.

The congestion pricing initiative has not been without controversy, however. Taxi drivers and ride-hail services like Uber and Lyft have raised concerns about possible reduction in demand due to increased fares. Furthermore, Democratic lawmakers from New Jersey fear a backlash from constituents accustomed to toll-free commuting into NYC. However, certain groups, including those with disabilities and residents earning less than $60,000 a year, will be either exempt from the toll or given a tax credit to offset it.

The MTA has been active in addressing these concerns. They have proposed limiting tolls for taxis and ride-hail vehicles, committed to regular check-ins with small businesses in the tolling zone, and pledged substantial investments in efforts to alleviate potential increases in pollution due to diverted traffic. They are also contemplating further toll exemptions for drivers crossing the Holland or Lincoln Tunnels, as lobbied by New Jersey officials. The MTA plans to start toll collection as early as May, indicating the imminent transformation of New York City’s urban transportation landscape.

One potential beneficiary from the money earned from congestion pricing are tunnels running under the Hudson River.

Known collectively as the Hudson River tunnels, they are possibly in the worst shape in terms of New York City infrastructure. They are two of the busiest tunnels in the world, carrying over 200 million vehicles per year. The tunnels were built in the early 1900s and have not been significantly renovated since then. They are now in need of major repairs, including waterproofing, structural reinforcement, and electrical upgrades.

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy flooded the tunnels with saltwater, which caused further damage. The tunnels are now considered to be at risk of failure, and in 2017, Amtrak estimated that they have about a decade before one of them fails. New York legislators are still seeking federal funding for the renovations.

In a report released that year, Amtrak said that the Hudson River tunnels had about a decade of life left before one of them failed. The report also said that the tunnels were in need of major repairs, including waterproofing, structural reinforcement, and electrical upgrades.

The report was based on an inspection of the tunnels that was conducted in 2016. The inspection found that the tunnels were in poor condition, and that they were at risk of failure. Amtrak said that the tunnels would need to be closed for at least two years for repairs if one of them failed.

The report’s findings led to calls for action from lawmakers and transportation officials. In 2018, Congress approved $11.6 billion in funding for the Gateway Program, which includes plans to renovate the Hudson River tunnels. However, the project is still facing funding challenges, and it is not yet clear when it will be completed.

Both tunnels are important transportation links for the New York metropolitan area. The Lincoln Tunnel is the busiest tunnel in the world, carrying over 100 million vehicles per year. The Holland Tunnel is the second busiest tunnel in the world, carrying over 100 million vehicles per year.

The failure of one of the Hudson River tunnels would have a significant impact on the New York metropolitan area. It would cause major transportation disruptions, and it could also lead to economic losses.

Underwater tunnels, often unseen engineering marvels, bridge gaps between cities, states, countries, and continents. The construction of these subaqueous passageways, offering alternate transportation routes, commenced in the early 19th century in response to significant traffic congestion in London. The innovative solution involved building an underwater tunnel beneath the River Thames, but the initial process proved dangerous, leading to numerous casualties due to flooding, decompression sickness, and lack of air.

The landscape of tunnel construction changed dramatically in 1818, with the invention of the tunneling shield by French engineer Marc Brunel. This device, a large frame covered in movable iron plates, allowed miners to safely chisel through the earth, providing protection from flooding and cave-ins. This revolutionary innovation set the stage for the development of tunnel boring machines in 1845. These mechanized giants of engineering replaced hundreds of workers, significantly reducing risk and expense. The English Channel Tunnel, or ‘Chunnel’, exemplifies the advances in tunnel boring technology over the last century, though its completion took over a hundred years.

In the early 20th century, another method of tunnel construction emerged — the immersed tube tunnels. Invented by American engineer W.J. Wilgus, these tunnels are made from prefabricated segments that are submerged and connected underwater.

Despite the significant leaps in engineering, underwater tunnels remain expensive and hazardous to construct. However, they are often the optimal solution in areas plagued by heavy traffic, inclement weather, or situations requiring surface infrastructure to remain undisturbed.

A contemporary instance of the ongoing relevance and necessity of underwater tunnels is the Hudson Tunnel Project. Regular commuters have long grappled with train delays and derailments due to the aged and damaged tunnel under the Hudson River. A landmark initiative by the US Transportation Department has proposed $100 million funding for 2023 to support the repair of the old tunnel and construction of a new one, at an estimated total cost of $12.3 billion.

Introduced in 2011 by Amtrak, NY and NJ Transit, the Hudson Tunnel Project forms part of the broader Gateway Program aiming to upgrade rail infrastructure across the Northeast Corridor from Washington D.C. to Boston. Despite political pushback and questions over its hefty price tag, construction is set to begin in August 2023. Engineers will face the complex task of digging into the Hudson’s bottom, a challenge equivalent to tunneling through a material as viscous as toothpaste. Options for construction include the use of a tunnel shielding, a tunnel-burrowing machine, or sinking pre-made sections of the tunnel to the river bottom.

WORDS: The Biology Guy.

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