While still dogged by major funding questions, the planning process for a proposed new trans-Hudson rail tunnel is moving forward this month with public review of the latest draft of the tunnel’s alignment and its potential impact on the environment.
A series of public hearings on the proposed tunnel’s draft environmental impact statement wrapped up yesterday. Federal and state officials are also collecting public comments on the tunnel, which would be built as part of the larger Gateway transportation project, through August 21.
The public hearings and the collection of public comments are important steps in the tunnel project’s planning process, which currently calls for a final environmental impact statement to be issued next spring to allow for construction to get underway in 2019.
The new tunnel between North Bergen and New York’s Penn Station is the most significant feature of the Gateway initiative, which also involves other infrastructure improvements in the region, including the planned replacement of a key rail bridge spanning the Hackensack River near Secaucus Junction.
Will President Trump come through?
The completion of the public-hearing phase for the tunnel was lauded yesterday by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-Newark), who has been a staunch advocate of Gateway. It was also praised by environmentalists who believe a new tunnel will help to reduce traffic and pollution in the region. Yet there remain open questions about the project’s finances, including whether President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress will live up to a commitment to provide at least half of the Gateway project’s more than $25 billion overall cost.
The current trans-Hudson tunnel that’s utilized by both Amtrak and New Jersey Transit supports an estimated 200,000 daily train passengers, but it is already more than a century old. The existing tunnel, which features two tubes that allow for traffic in each direction, was also damaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and is in need of repair. Transportation officials have warned that if just one of the two tubes were to go out of service for emergency work, there would be a reduction in overall rail capacity of 75 percent.
With a price tag of roughly $13 billion, the new tunnel will also involve the building of two tubes to permit rail traffic in each direction. Once completed, the new tunnel would alleviate the concerns about an emergency shutdown of the existing tunnel, and it would also allow for that tunnel to be fully repaired without disrupting service.
The original finance plan
An original finance plan for the Gateway initiative drafted during the tenure of former President Barack Obama called for an equal sharing of costs between the federal government, and 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. And earlier this year, the Port Authority set aside $2.7 billion in its latest 10-year capital plan to cover Gateway-project debt service.
But a budget summary that was released by Trump’s new administration in March raised questions about the federal government’s commitment to the project when it called for a freezing of new federal-grant agreements for infrastructure projects like Gateway that aren’t yet fully funded.
However, Trump’s proposal seemed to be largely reversed in a House spending bill for transportation that advanced last month for the federal government’s 2018 fiscal year, which begins on October 1. A summary of the bill issued by U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th) indicated the House would provide $500 million from a fiscal year 2018 allocation for the Federal Railroad Administration to benefit Gateway; another $400 million in federal transit dollars would be set aside for the project. But the Senate now has its own version of the spending bill, meaning the Gateway funding issue will likely have to be sorted out this fall during a budget process known as reconciliation.
State and federal transportation officials also met yesterday in Newark and have officially begun to seek information from the private sector about possibilities for a public-private partnership that could help generate financing for the Gateway project.
Despite that uncertainty over the funding, state and federal officials have moved ahead with the formal planning process for the new tunnel that is required under the National Environmental Policy Act. Public hearings on the draft environmental impact statement were held earlier this month in Manhattan and Secaucus, and yesterday in Union City. Public comments are also being collected online at www.hudsontunnelproject.com or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org through August 21.
Booker submitted formal comments yesterday that called the tunnel project one of “national significance.” He also alluded to ongoing problems that commuters in both New Jersey and New York have been dealing with in recent months due to the region’s aging infrastructure.
“Without the completion of this project, the commuting public will continue to be subject to extreme overcrowding, major delays, and adverse economic impacts as commuters in the workforce spend more time traveling to and from work,” Booker said.
The tunnel project, meanwhile, was also praised by Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey’s Sierra Club, as a “win-win for the environment and the economy.”
“Since one train could take 500 cars off the road, we will see millions of tons of air pollution reductions as well as major reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions,” Tittel said.
“With more trains moving into New York City and the region, there will be great environmental benefits,” he went on to say.