Red Tape, Permitting Delays Are Chief Enemies of Gateway Project, Experts Warn

John Reitmeyer | May 10, 2016 | Transportation
Keeping trans-Hudson tunnel on track is only way to prevent current $24B price tag from climbing much higher

Robert Yaro (left), president emeritus of the Regional Plan Association, moderating a discussion about the Gateway tunnel. Philip K. Howard, chair of Common Good, and Pat Foye, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, also participated, along with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) via Skype.
As many homeowners know, getting something as simple as a new fence installed or a deck put on often requires a lengthy review process for municipal permits that can stall construction plans for weeks or even months.

Now imagine trying to get all the permits needed for a $24 billion public-transit project that features two new tubes under the Hudson River connecting New Jersey with midtown Manhattan, as well as several other major upgrades to the region’s transportation infrastructure.

Nearly two dozen different government agencies will have a say in the permitting process for the planned Gateway tunnel project, according to a new report released yesterday by Common Good, a nonprofit, nonpartisan good-government reform group. The report stresses the need to keep the permitting process on schedule, saying any delays could end up adding billions to the project’s multibillion dollar price tag.

The group also recommends several actions be taken at the federal and state level to make sure the project doesn’t get tied up in bureaucratic red tape, including putting in place a presidential executive order and getting Gov. Chris Christie and his counterpart in New York to appoint “gateway czars” to make sure timetables are met.

“Our proposal is that this is a project that’s so important to this region and so important to this country the highest officials in the land, starting with President Obama, need to take control of this project,” said Philip K. Howard, the chair of Common Good and the author of the report.

“Officials have to be given the authority to set deadlines — and enforce them,” Howard said yesterday evening while participating in a discussion of the report in Manhattan.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who has been credited with bringing together state and federal leaders to jumpstart the long-planned project, also participated in the discussion via Skype. He said the group’s report makes note that other countries are able turn around major infrastructure projects much faster than the United States does.

“If we’re going to stay competitive in this global marketplace, we need to stop lagging in this area of infrastructure and start leading,” said Booker. “There is urgent work to be done.”

At the heart of the planned Gateway project is the creation of two new tubes under the Hudson linking New Jersey with Penn Station in New York City. The tunnels are needed to meet a projected increase in demand for cross-Hudson rail capacity and to allow workers to get into the two existing 105-year-old tubes to repair extensive damage caused by 2012’s superstorm Sandy.

The project also includes plans to upgrade other transportation infrastructure in the region, including a more than 100-year-old bridge spanning the Hackensack River near Secaucus Junction that right now creates a frequent chokepoint for trains heading into Manhattan. Under the best-case scenario, the two new tubes could be completed by 2025, and the entire project finished up by 2030.

An agreement struck last year between the federal government, Christie, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that was considered crucial to moving the project forward determined the states would pick up half of the total cost of the project, with the federal government covering the rest. The agreement also called for the Port Authority to play a major role in implementing the project, with some engineering work funded by the agency already winning approval earlier this year.

“I think what we’re doing is adopting a practical approach,” said Pat Foye, the agency’s executive director, during the discussion yesterday.

But before construction can begin, reviews have to be completed and permits issued in a process that will involve nearly two dozen different government agencies. Amtrak has estimated the entire process could take two years, while others have suggested it could take several years longer.

The report released yesterday by Common Good, which has former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean and former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, among others, on its advisory board, doesn’t call for a review of environmental issues and other permitting concerns to be avoided altogether. Instead, it says steps should be taken to ensure the review process doesn’t take too long.

The report calculates that more than $3 billion in potential costs would be added to the project’s price tag if it takes a full three years to secure all the necessary permits. The group’s estimates include nearly $2 billion in added construction costs and $575 million in lost productivity that would be experienced as the region runs a greater risk of having to close at least one of the existing tubes for unplanned repairs.

Under the worst-case scenario the group looked at, a permitting process that takes up to seven years could increase total costs by more than $13 billion, again taking into account added construction costs and lost business activity and productivity.

And there would also be an environmental impact associated with delays, the report estimates, as more cars would remain on the roadways for a longer period of time until the new tunnels can open.

To avoid those consequences, the group recommends several actions be taken at both the federal and state levels. First among them would be the signing of an executive order by President Barack Obama mandating that the project be given an expedited schedule. That would give the chair of the federal Council of Environmental Quality and the head of the Office of Management and Budget special decision-making powers.

Congress could also pass a law exempting the project from state and local permit reviews if they cannot meet established timeframes, the report says.

And the recommendation calling on Christie and Cuomo to designate “gateway czars” envisions the officials would be given the authority to enforce timetables set in advance to ensure the project stays on schedule.

Christie used a similar high-level official in the wake of Sandy as part of an effort to keep the state’s recovery and the distribution of federal disaster aid on track. He’s also made eliminating red tape a priority during his more than six years in office, an effort that at times has drawn flak from environmental groups that have accused him of going too far in some cases.

Jeff Tittel, director of New Jersey’s chapter of the Sierra Club, said the goal of keeping the Gateway project on track is a good one, as long as environmental rules aren’t sidestepped in the process. But he said even if the goal of the Gateway project is laudable, establishing an expedited process for it could set a bad precedent that could be abused for less-worthwhile projects in the future.

“That’s a concern,” Tittel said.

And figuring out how to pay for Gateway should remain a key priority, along with making sure all permit applications are complete, Tittel said.

“It’s not the red tape, it’s about getting the green they need to build it,” he said.

Christie’s office referred questions about the report yesterday to New Jersey Transit, which is also playing a small role in the project. Spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said her agency is “committed to working collaboratively with all our partners in advancing this project as expeditiously as possible.”

“We have performed prior environmental analyses and have always maintained their schedules,” she said.

Craig Schulz, a spokesman for Amtrak, said the agency and its partners are committed to an “aggressive 24-month schedule and welcome opportunities to further streamline the process.”

“Amtrak and its partners will continue to advance each component of the program from planning to completion as expeditiously as possible,” Schulz said.