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Reluctance by NJ, NY to Help Finance Hudson River Tunnel Bodes Ill for Commuters

Lawmakers in Trenton told passing the buck on Gateway project means rail-transit woes will only get worse

stephen gardner amtrak
Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s vice president for Northeast corridor investment and infrastructure development, testifies before a NJ state Senate committee.

New Jersey commuters should expect more problems like lengthy delays that stalled rail traffic in and out of Manhattan last month as long as two 105-year-old Hudson River tunnels remain the primary way for trains to get in and out of the city.

That was the message delivered yesterday to state lawmakers who are holding hearings on the state’s commuting woes and whether there’s a viable way to address them.

Some good news was offered up by Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s vice president for Northeast corridor investment and infrastructure development, during the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee hearing. Plans are on the drawing board to build two new rail tubes into Penn Station in New York, he said. That would enable the region to keep up with rail traffic that is projected to double by 2030, and also allow for more single-seat service from New Jersey into Manhattan.

But Gardner told committee members there is one big catch: The governors of New Jersey and New York would have to come up with some of the roughly $15 billion needed to complete Amtrak’s planned Gateway tunnel project.

“Fundamentally, what we need from the states of New York and New Jersey both is commitment to this process, commitment to developing this program, undertaking the work that’s necessary to define it and to build a path forward,” Gardner said. “Clearly, resources will be a very significant piece of that.”

So far, neither New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie nor New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made any type of firm funding commitment to the Gateway project. And raising any money for transportation infrastructure in New Jersey has become its own challenge, which was another topic explored at length during the committee hearing yesterday.

Ideally, the costs for Gateway could be split roughly 80 percent to 20 percent between the federal government and the state governments, Gardner explained. Federal low-interest loans could also be part of the funding mix, which would mean the states could pay down their shares over a long term instead of having to come up with the cash right away.

But absent that funding commitment – Cuomo said Sunday that he would not finance a new tunnel using loans and Christie has said his support would be contingent upon significant buy-in from New York and the federal government – commuters will be left to rely on the two existing tunnels – which still need repairs in the wake of damage caused by 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.

Risks of inaction

Committee chair Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) asked Gardner what would happen if one of the tunnels fails before new tubes can be built – which would take an estimated 10 years, even if Gateway is put on a fast track. Gardner said trains that now run under the river 24 times each hour during peak commuting times would be restricted down to six.

“The impacts are very significant,” Gardner said.

Gordon also asked Gardner -- who at one point held up a piece of damaged electrical wiring to demonstrate the federal agency’s maintenance challenges -- if commuters should begin to expect delays like the more than hour-long disruptions that occurred over a series of steamy days last month.

“It’s quite possible that these delays will become the norm at some point,” Gardner replied.

Afterward, his comments to reporters were even more direct.

“We have a crisis brewing here,” he said.

It’s more than just tunnel capacity that’s causing commuter delays in the region. The portal bridge, a chokepoint that spans the Hackensack River near Secaucus Junction, is more than 100 years old and needs to be replaced. A $1 billion project has been designed and permitted and is ready to go – if the funding was there, Gardner said.

For New Jersey, coming up with the money to properly fund any transportation-infrastructure project is becoming a significant challenge. Right now, the state will have only enough money for its Transportation Trust Fund to get to June 30, 2016. After that, New Jersey’s 14.5-cent gas tax will have to be increased or another source of revenue identified to keep the trust fund alive.

Battles over funding

Christie, who is now running for the GOP nomination for president, has yet to put forward a plan to renew the trust fund. And with the entire state Assembly up for reelection this year, no movement among lawmakers is expected before the fall.

Others who testified during the legislative hearing yesterday expressed frustration with the lack of stable state funding for transportation.

Tom Bracken, chairman of Forward New Jersey, a coalition of 75 organizations that has been pressing for a transportation-funding solution, said the issue doesn’t just affect commuters.

“This deplorable situation that we have is impacting our economy,” Bracken said.

For his part, Christie has taken a lot of heat from commuters for stopping a tunnel project that had been planned before he took office and redirecting the billions of dollars in funding from it to help prevent a gas-tax hike.

But Gardner, under questioning yesterday from the senators, downplayed the importance of that project, dubbed Access to the Region’s Core, since it didn’t connect directly to Penn Station in New York.

Still, Christie has done little since he made that decision in late 2010 to rally support for a new way to alleviate the delays and disruptions that commuters now face on a near-daily basis.
Janna Chernetz, senior New Jersey policy analyst for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said Christie has “wasted those five years.”

And leaving the future of the Transportation Trust Fund in doubt means New Jersey is in no position to make a firm commitment to the Gateway project, said Anthony Attanasio, executive director of the New Jersey Utility & Transportation Contractors Association.

“Where is the New Jersey portion going to come from?,” he asked. “What are we going to do now as far as Gateway? We need the administration to lead on this.”

Christie’s office yesterday sent reporters a series of comments that the governor has made on the commuting issue, including his recent statement that he supports increasing rail capacity into Manhattan if the costs are shared fairly by the federal government, New Jersey and New York.

“Many more specifics are still needed, but today’s comments support what both governors and the Port Authority have been saying about the need for the federal government to recognize its funding role in addressing critical infrastructure to Amtrak and the region as a whole,” said Christie spokeswoman Nicole Sizemore after the legislative hearing.

But Gordon, also after the meeting, said he hopes Christie gets the message that the Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, wants to make funding the Gateway project a main priority.

“It’s got to be up there at the top of the agenda,” Gordon said.

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