Federal transportation leaders Thursday announced a plan to spend $185 million in superstorm Sandy recovery funding to begin work this summer on two new rail tunnels connecting Penn Station to New Jersey.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the plan to kick-start Amtrak's Gateway project by directing the Sandy money toward the construction of an 800-foot long concrete casement at the Long Island Rail Road's West Side Yards, through which the new rail tunnels would run.
The so-called tunnel box must be constructed before a private builder, Related Companies, moves forward with a plan to build a commercial and residential development on a platform on top of the yards. Construction of the casement would begin in August and be completed in two years.
Although the Gateway project is being led by Amtrak, Schumer noted that it would benefit LIRR commuters by adding capacity at Penn Station, including new tracks. The railroad has called the Gateway project one of the most important for addressing projected ridership growth at Penn Station, even after the LIRR connects to Grand Central in 2019 as part of the East Side Access plan.
"When you relieve congestion at Penn Station and the general area, it makes everything move faster," Schumer said. "There will be more tracks and more ability to let trains get there on time."
Amtrak separately plans to move most of its operations, including its customer concourse and ticketing, to Moynihan Station, which is being built at the Farley Post Office building across the street from Penn.
The Gateway project was planned well before Sandy, but Schumer said that using relief funding was "perfectly permissible" because the tunnels would be built to better withstand the toll of a storm like Sandy. The October storm's surge flooded the existing 103-year-old Hudson River tunnels, forcing a shutdown of the busy Northeast Corridor stretching from Washington to Boston.
Amtrak also shares the existing tunnels with New Jersey Transit, which also operates out of Penn Station. Amtrak chairman Tony Coscia said the new tunnels would more than double the capacity for trains crossing the Hudson.
Amtrak has said it expected the entire Gateway project to be completed between 2025 and 2030.
"It's not about the present. It's about the future," LaHood said. He said Amtrak's Northeast Corridor is already bursting at the seams and is in dire need of the new tunnels. "This is a great idea."