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On Track: Public Hearings Give New Jerseyans Chance to Dig Into Gateway Project

Residents this week can scope out the $24 billion initiative that will bore two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River, linking NJ to NYC’s Penn Station

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Up until now, it’s just been talk and plans on paper. But the federal government is moving forward this week with public hearings on the proposed Gateway tunnel project. The hearings will give New Jersey residents a first chance to officially weigh in on what’s proposed to be the scope of work for the construction of two new tubes under the Hudson River.

The Federal Railroad Administration and New Jersey Transit will host the public hearings on the proposed tunnel, starting with an event in Manhattan today. A similar hearing is planned for Thursday in Union City, and both will feature afternoon and evening hours.

The meetings come as federal and state transportation officials are anxious to start work on a new rail tunnel to replace the more than 100-year-old tunnel that now links New Jersey with midtown Manhattan. That’s because extensive damage done during superstorm Sandy to the two tubes that go through the tunnel now threatens emergency shutdowns that would impact rail service provided by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit.

The current plans for the $24 billion Gateway project call for the construction of a new rail tunnel in a location that will likely be just south of the existing tunnel, which starts in North Bergen and goes under both Weehawken and Union City.

Building a new tunnel will enable the existing tubes to be closed for up to a year each without interrupting rail service that brings over 100,000 passengers into the city on weekdays on both Amtrak and NJ Transit. The existing tubes, once repaired, will be pressed back into service alongside the new tunnel.

But before construction can begin, the federal and state governments have to go get a handle on the environmental impact of the project under a process dictated by the National Environmental Policy Act. An initial stage involves figuring out the scope of the work that will be necessary and drafting an environmental impact statement. This week’s public hearings are part of that process. The first hearing will be held today on the third floor of the Hotel Pennsylvania at 7th Avenue and West 33rd Street in midtown Manhattan, across from Penn Station. The second hearing will be held at Union City High School at 2500 Kennedy Boulevard in Union City.

Both hearings will feature an afternoon session from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., and then another evening session from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. There will be project materials available for review and staff on hand to speak with, and a scoping document has already been posted online. Formal presentations will also be made at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. during both hearings.

A public comment period for this phase of the planning lasts until May 31. And a website for the project -- http://www.hudsontunnelproject.com – has also been established to provide more information.

The work on the Gateway project, which also calls for other regional transportation infrastructure to be upgraded, comes more than five years after Gov. Chris Christie decided to stop another major trans-Hudson tunnel project that was known as ARC. Christie, a Republican who took office in early 2010, cited concerns about cost overruns while announcing that decision.

Though the two projects have some similarities, a major difference is that the new tunnel planned as part of the Gateway project will take commuters directly to Penn Station. The tunnel envisioned under the canceled ARC project, which stood for Access to the Region’s Core, would have left commuters at nearby Herald Square. The original ARC plans also called for the new tunnel to be completed by 2017.

Under the latest plans for Gateway, a newly built tunnel could open within the next 10 years, and the entire project could be completed by 2030. A nonpartisan group that promotes government reform last week put out a report that recommended a number of steps be taken now to prevent the permitting process for the new tunnel -- including the environmental review -- from causing delays.

The recommendations made by the nonprofit group Common Good included getting President Barack Obama to sign an executive order prioritizing Gateway work and getting Christie and his counterpart in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to appoint “Gateway czars.”

The group’s report also warned lengthy delays could cost the region between $3 billion and $13 billion, depending on how long the permitting process takes. But representatives for NJ Transit and Amtrak have pledged to work closely with partner agencies, with Amtrak also saying the permitting process would likely take two years.

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