• Federal-state financing agreement 'a first important step'
  • Hudson River tunnel may benefit from Northeast Corridor profit

The $20 billion Gateway rail-tunnel project aimed at alleviating Manhattan commuter congestion may not need congressional appropriations, which would increase its chances of approval, U.S. Senator Cory Booker said.

Booker, a Democrat who is the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, said he had increased confidence in legislation he introduced in June that would allow Amtrak to keep revenue generated on the Northeast Corridor, its busiest and most profitable line.

The amount, which Booker called hundreds of millions of dollars annually, would help pay for improvements, including a new tunnel under the Hudson River, a replacement portal bridge and high-speed access at Pennsylvania Station in New York.

Senate and U.S. House of Representatives approvals of such a move, with the signature of Democratic President Barack Obama, would preclude the need for tax dollars appropriated for Gateway, estimated by the governors to cost $20 billion, said Booker, who co-sponsors the Amtrak legislation with Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi.

“Now we have to have a conference to reconcile the bills,” Booker said Thursday in a telephone interview. Though he said he didn’t want “to speak with too much certainty,” he expects a vote within months, if not weeks.

An agreement announced by Booker and U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York this week splits the Gateway cost burden between the state and federal governments. Amtrak, which says it’s too early to estimate a cost, expects construction to take 15 years.

Meanwhile, century-old rail tunnels between Manhattan and New Jersey increasingly are at risk of becoming unusable, Booker said last month.

While Amtrak operates as a for-profit corporation, it depends on taxpayer subsidies that have been cut by Congress as Republicans reject public funding for transportation. By 2020, Amtrak will have just 25 percent of $4 billion needed for planned Northeast Corridor work, it has said.

Augmenting and improving Amtrak’s tubes that bring commuters under the Hudson is among the biggest U.S. infrastructure challenges. The only rail links to Manhattan for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit are at capacity, while peak commuter demand is expected to grow 20 percent from 2010 to 2020.

Federal officials and Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York have agreed on an oversight and financing plan, “a first important step,” Booker said Thursday in an interview.

“It will allow us to do some basic things: designing the scope of the capital stack, the sources of funding, how much will be debt, how much will be grants and the like,” said Booker, 46. “We have some complicated work to do.”

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