Hudson Tunnel Plan Gets Sudden Attention After Commuter Meltdown

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Travellers pass through the Amtrak terminal of New York Penn Station on May 14, 2015 in New York City.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

After years in limbo, the Gateway rail-tunnel project under the Hudson River is having a moment.

The entryway to Manhattan, proposed in 2011 after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed a similar project, has languished without financial commitments. After arduous commuter-train delays this month, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called for meetings with Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to discuss reviving Gateway, calling crumbling infrastructure “a major threat to the region.”

Both states agree that a new tunnel is crucial to avoid damaging the economy of the nation’s largest city and its prosperous western suburbs. Even if the federal government finances half the project, which could cost $16 billion, such spending needs approval from a Congress deadlocked over a plan to fix the nation’s roads and bridges. New York and New Jersey would have to agree on their own shares.

“It’s a bit like a poker game,” said John Degnan, whom Christie appointed last year as chairman of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. “We haven’t even decided who’s going to show their cards first, much less how much money is going to be on the table.”

Amtrak owns the infrastructure and leases rails to New Jersey Transit, the state’s mass transit operator. Gateway is its biggest priority in the Northeast Corridor, the Washington-to-Boston-via-Manhattan routes that produce its highest revenue, said Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Yet the U.S. is accustomed to deteriorating infrastructure, and getting lawmakers to focus is difficult.

“We’re kind of like the frog in boiling water,” Jeans-Gail said.

In recent weeks, the frog has been considering its situation. There has been a flurry of activity since four days of delays for Manhattan-bound commuters last week.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, a Democrat, said this week he had spoken with both Christie and Foxx.

“We’re going to bring folks together, and we’re going to talk about a plan,” he said.

In a June 26 letter, the heads of all major New York and New Jersey transportation agencies asked Foxx to help them devise a financing strategy. On July 21, Foxx said that inaction was “almost criminal” and after last week’s delays, he asked Christie and Cuomo for a meeting.

Ante Up

Cuomo, a Democrat, said in a Wednesday radio interview that the U.S. must contribute more than the $3 billion previously offered. Christie, too, wants more.

“If the federal government wants to step up and be a full partner, I think Governor Cuomo and I are ready to be full partners,” Christie, a Republican, told reporters in New Hampshire on Wednesday.

Foxx may be hoping to get the governors thinking creatively, said Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“It’s not like there’s some new pot of money out there,” he said.

Part of the challenge is Congress’s drive for fiscal responsibility, said Paul Lewis, director of policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington. Pet projects, the grease that used to make transportation bills the easiest to move, have been eliminated; spending in one place requires commensurate expenditure elsewhere.

“The climate here in Washington doesn’t suggest they’re going to be looking to dump a bunch of money in the New York region,” he said.

The area’s lawmakers put on brave faces, but didn’t speak about specifics of any possible deal.

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer of New York, a Democrat, said in a statement he has been “hard at work with Amtrak to design and build Gateway.”

Steve Sandberg, press secretary for New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, said the lawmaker “hasn’t stopped fighting for the resources.”

For now, though, the only direct rail access between New Jersey and Manhattan remains a pair of century-old tubes. They are at capacity, and travel demand is expected to double by 2030, according to the Port Authority.

Compounding those woes, Hurricane Sandy inundated the tunnels with corrosive saltwater in 2012, requiring repairs that would take weeks or months. Closing the lines without a new route would cost the national economy about $100 million a day, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman said in a February letter to Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner.

Twenty-five one-way trains carry 40,000 people through the tunnels every hour, said Lewis of the Eno Center.

“It’s not just a 20-minute delay, it’s 20 minutes times 40,000,” Lewis said.

Folded Hand

The tunnel project that Christie canceled in 2010, known as Access to the Region’s Core, would have doubled peak Manhattan service as soon as 2018.

The federal government was expected to fund about half the cost, estimated at as much as $12.4 billion in 2010, up from $7.4 billion in 2006, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The rest was to be split between New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which operates tunnels, bridges and airports.

Christie has said that he canceled Access to the Region’s Core because New Jersey would have paid for cost overruns as New York reaped benefits from Garden State workers. He diverted his state’s share to repair highways, allowing him to avoid raising the gasoline tax.

That sum is gone and New Jersey is left with “no tunnel, the need for a gas tax and no money,” said state Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat.

Martin Robins, founder of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University and the project’s original director, said New York and New Jersey have frittered away the ensuing five years.

“The states have to come up with something,” Robins said. “Right now, it’s all words.”

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