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Gateway Official Says There’s ‘No Plan B’ if Federal Funding Falls Through

Rail tunnel isn’t just about commuters; 10 percent of country’s gross domestic product relies on aging infrastructure

Portal Bridge
Regular maintenance on the Portal Bridge can slow or stop traffic on the Northeast Corridor.

Building the proposed Gateway rail tunnel is more urgent than many people realize, according to a key transportation official, because a full 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product hangs in the balance.

John Porcari, executive director of the Gateway Program Development Corp., told state legislators yesterday that there is no “Plan B” if the federal funding for the new tunnel and other major infrastructure upgrades isn’t approved by Congress.

Although the U.S. House of Representatives has approved up to $900 million in the latest federal budget for the project — due to support from Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11), who is chairman of the House appropriations committee — the funding still must be approved by the Senate and the Trump administration. The Trump administration did not include funding for Gateway in its initial budget, setting off alarms among supporters of the project.

‘Race against time’

“We are literally in a race against time,” Porcari told state legislators, as he described failing conditions inside both tubes within the 107-year-old rail tunnel that currently links New Jersey and New York for both New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains. If just one of the tubes were to go out of service, that would reduce train capacity from 24 per-hour to just six.

“The implications for the region’s economy, and for New Jersey’s economy, in particular, would be devastating,” Porcari said.

The uncertainty about funding from Washington is also leaving other elements of Gateway in question, including a planned $1.5 billion replacement of the century-old Portal Bridge, which spans the Hackensack River near Secaucus Junction.

Thinking inside the box

Another key piece of infrastructure near Penn Station in New York known as the “Hudson Yards Box” will cost an estimated $440 million to complete. The box will provide a crucial link between the proposed new tunnel and the train station, but it is currently unfunded even as the massive Hudson Yards development project continues to move ahead. The developer is now preparing to build a deck at the site, but the project is complicated and the box needs to be built at the same time as the deck, according to a recent story published by Crain’s New York Business.

Unless a solution can be found for the third phase of the box project, the construction at Hudson Yards threatens to close off access to the station from the planned tunnel.

“That third piece of the tunnel box has to be built,” Porcari told the joint meeting of the Senate Legislative Oversight and Assembly Judiciary committees.

Meanwhile, others who testified during the hearing urged the lawmakers to consider a scaled-back version of the infrastructure project to ensure at least some improvements make it to the finish line.

The critical component

The proposed new rail tunnel between North Bergen and New York’s Penn Station is the most significant feature of the Gateway project, which officials now estimate could cost nearly $30 billion to complete. Porcari, a former U.S. deputy secretary of transportation, was picked to lead the Gateway Development Corp. after it was created in 2015 as a partnership between the federal government and New Jersey and New York.

During yesterday’s hearing, Porcari said the existing tunnel, which has two tubes allowing for continuous traffic in each direction, has already reached the end of its “design life.” And even though it is structurally safe, damage that occurred when saltwater flooded the tubes during superstorm Sandy in 2012 desperately needs to be repaired to ensure service remains reliable.

Last month, a series of public hearings were held as part of the tunnel project’s planning process, which currently calls for a final environmental impact statement to be issued next spring, and for construction to start in 2019.

Further along in the planning process is the replacement of Portal Bridge, which right now has to be opened for boat traffic and, due to its age, is prone to regular breakdowns. Porcari said the bridge’s design dates to the era of the Civil War, yet it remains a major component of the Northeast Corridor’s infrastructure. And while state funds have been committed to the replacement effort, with initial work expected to begin later this year, the project is now waiting on federal matching dollars to be authorized for construction to get started in earnest in March 2018.

“Any time Portal Bridge and Civil War are stated in the same sentence, we should all be ashamed of ourselves,” said Assemblyman John McKeon, the co-chair of the legislative hearing.

An earlier agreement to finance the new tunnel, Portal Bridge, and other elements of Gateway that was drafted during the tenure of former President Barack Obama called for an equal sharing of costs between the federal government, New Jersey, New York, and the Port Authority. Under that proposal, which came out when cost estimates were closer to $20 billion, the federal commitment would have covered at least $10 billion, with the two states and the Port Authority picking up the balance. Earlier this year, the Port Authority set aside $2.7 billion in its latest 10-year capital plan to cover Gateway debt service.

Frozen out of the budget?

But a budget summary that was released by Trump’s administration in March raised questions about the federal government’s commitment to the project when it called for freezing new federal-grant agreements for infrastructure projects like Gateway that aren’t yet fully funded.

The appropriations bill approved by the House would provide $500 million to benefit Gateway, and it would also set aside another $400 million in federal transit dollars for the project. But the Senate also has its own version of the spending bill, meaning the Gateway funding issue remains unresolved even as the next federal fiscal year is set to begin on October 1. And there’s also the issue of whether Trump will approve whatever amount comes out of the Congress, or seek to fund major infrastructure projects in some other way.

Earlier this month, a bipartisan delegation of elected officials from New Jersey and New York that included governors, senators, and members of Congress made an in-person pitch for Gateway to Trump during a meeting at the White House. Porcari said he didn’t attend the meeting, but was encouraged by what he heard from those who did.

Still, he told the lawmakers yesterday that “the proof will be in the pudding.”

Others who testified during yesterday’s hearing included Joseph Clift, a former Long Island Rail Road planner, and David Peter Alan, chairman of the Lackawanna Coalition, an organization that represents transit riders. They both suggested design changes that could make the Gateway project more affordable in light of the federal funding concerns. For example, Alan said some elements of Gateway, including planned upgrades at Penn Station, are both costly and not completely necessary.

“We need an affordable project, coupled with innovative thinking, before it is too late and the existing tunnels must be taken out of service,” Alan said.

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