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Port Authority poised to lead $14B Gateway Tunnel Project

Ongoing construction of a rail tunnel, left, at

Ongoing construction of a rail tunnel, left, at the Hudson Yards redevelopment site on Manhattan's west side in New York, April 17, 2014. The tunnel was badly damaged during superstorm Sandy. Credit: AP / Bebeto Matthews

The Port Authority is poised to take a lead role in the multiagency effort to build a new rail tunnel from New Jersey into Manhattan and refurbish the decaying 105-year-old tunnel badly damaged in superstorm Sandy.

The board of the Port Authority took the first step last week by agreeing to create a development corporation that would include representation from the Port, Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the U.S. Department of Transportation. Creation of the corporation is expected to help expedite the so-called Gateway Tunnel Project, an effort that could take 10 years and cost about $14 billion, officials said. The federal government has said it will pay for half of the project, but how it will be financed by local governments hasn’t been determined.

The tunnel project is part of the larger Gateway Program for rail improvements along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor from Newark Penn Station to Penn Station in Manhattan, all of which is expected to cost about $20 billion. The urgency of replacing and renovating the Hudson River tunnel has been underscored in recent months, especially by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has led efforts to get the project funded and organized.

Schumer said the existing tunnel, a crucial link in Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, could be nonfunctional in as little as seven years.

“Everyone thought they had 20 or 30 years, and then Sandy came along and made it much much worse, so we really had to move,” Schumer said.

Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye and members of the board said expediting the tunnel is regionally necessary.

“Given the cost, financial and perhaps more importantly the potential environmental cost of delay, it is imperative that together we find a way to accelerate permitting of this project,” Foye told the board last week. “One only needs to imagine the transportation and environmental impact to this region of 200,000 daily travelers having to turn to cars and buses to recognize how important the replacement of these tunnels is.”

The century-old tunnel into Penn Station and its two tracks are used by 450 trains and 200,000 Amtrak and New Jersey Transit riders every weekday, and it’s a vital link in the Northeast Corridor, which gets 750,000 passengers every weekday. Constructing the new tunnel first would allow the existing tunnel to be taken out of service while it’s renovated without disrupting commuters. When the project is complete, there will be four tracks from New Jersey into Manhattan.

The tunnel has made headlines for service problems since Sandy, and failure of high-voltage cables this summer led to major disruptions, Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz said. “We all got to see in pretty up-close-and-personal terms what we mean when we say that the tunnel will suffer reliability issues with increasing frequency the longer we go without constructing a new tunnel,” Schulz said.

The development corporation will enable the agencies to leverage their combined resources and expertise, he said. “It brings together the people working on this critically important project, and puts them basically under one roof,” he said.

Several breakthroughs in the federal transportation bill will help fund the tunnel project and the larger Gateway Program, Schumer announced this month. “If we don’t get this tunnel done on time it will cause a recession in the New York and New Jersey area,” Schumer said.

Amtrak has already spent $300 million on the Gateway Program, Schulz said, including building a concrete casing for the new tunnel in the Hudson Yards in Manhattan, which allows the agency to preserve the underground right of way that will bring the new tunnel directly into Penn Station.

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