Rail Tunnel Advocates Say Politics Won’t Derail Project

NEW YORK (AP) - A massive project to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River won’t fall prey to the type of interstate political spats that have bedeviled other large infrastructure plans in the New York region, some of the major figures behind the project said Monday.

New Jersey Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and Amtrak Chairman Tony Coscia attended a panel discussion that provided an update on the so-called Gateway project, the $20 billion-plus plan to build a new tunnel, expand New York’s Penn Station and make other significant improvements along the aging, congested rail line between Newark, New Jersey and New York.

One past and one current project offer cautionary tales:

Six years ago, Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie curtailed a rail tunnel project, citing concerns of cost overruns, after more than $100 million had already been spent. The project, called Access to the Region’s Core, or ARC, wasn’t fully supported by New York lawmakers and was to be funded by New Jersey, the bistate Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

This year, bickering between the two states has brought the development of a new $7.5 billion bus terminal in Manhattan to a near-standstill. New York lawmakers claim the process is being dictated by New Jersey lawmakers, and say the Port Authority will need to seize land to build the new facility.

The Gateway project, which has the support of Christie and Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is different, Menendez said.

“I don’t see this as a bistate squabble,” Menendez said. “I see that this project is one where we’re all singing off the same song sheet. Maybe there might be some debate about the bus terminal, but that’s not going to affect this project. This project is about opening up the economics of the entire region. I think everybody on both sides of the river fully understand that.”

Gateway has already been approved for expedited environmental permitting, a process that should be completed by early 2018, Coscia said Monday. Schumer and Booker both expressed cautious optimism that President-elect Donald Trump would continue the government’s financial commitment.

“At the end of the day, he’s a New Yorker,” Booker said. “And this is a vital artery into this city, and to have this artery continue to crumble threatens the lifeblood of New York.”

Coscia reminded listeners of the ticking clock that provides a backdrop to Gateway: Two years ago, Amtrak predicted the existing tunnel would someday have to have each of its two tubes closed for a year or more to repair saltwater damage from 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.

The 55 hours per weekend Amtrak now spends on tunnel repairs eventually won’t be enough, Coscia said.

“The reality is, I think we’re doing everything we possibly can, but I can’t, nor can any engineer, really predict how long we can actually do this before a problem arises that is beyond what we can fix in the normal course of a repair program,” he said.