NYC Rail Tunnel Takes Key Step Toward Cash After Trump Snub

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Amtrak’s proposed $11.6 billion passenger-rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey received long-delayed environmental clearance from U.S. officials, the project’s biggest step forward in years. The decision is crucial to start the next phase of work and secure billions of federal dollars for what’s considered one of the most vital U.S. infrastructure needs.

The Federal Railroad and Federal Transit administrations released a final environmental impact statement today. The move allows Gateway Program Development Corp., which is overseeing the project, to begin acquiring real estate and start advanced design and pre-construction work.

Progress on those tasks will increase Gateway’s chances of securing half the total cost from President Joe Biden’s administration, which is pledging hundreds of billions of dollars to major infrastructure nationwide. New York and New Jersey officials have called Gateway crucial for the U.S. economy. The existing tunnel can’t handle growing capacity and needs to be shut for major repairs. It’s key to the Northeast Corridor, the nation’s busiest passenger-rail route, serving a region from Boston to Washington that contributes 20% of U.S. gross domestic product.

NYC Rail Tunnel Takes Key Step Toward Cash After Trump Snub

Biden, a Democrat, is negotiating what he first proposed as $2.25 trillion in infrastructure and jobs spending. Republican lawmakers want less than half that amount.

“I’m hopeful that the case for the tunnel is so compelling that under almost anyone’s version of a national infrastructure package, adequate funding will be part of it,” Tony Coscia, Amtrak’s chairman and a Gateway trustee, said in an interview.

Moving Forward

Biden’s administration had set a Gateway environmental decision deadline for today. In a joint statement, governors Phil Murphy of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York praised the states’ Democratic U.S. elected representatives for championing the project even when it was stalled during the administration of Biden’s predecessor, Queens-born Republican Donald Trump.

“Today’s action is a key step forward to building rail infrastructure that will be dependable for decades to come,” Murphy said. Cuomo called the Biden administration “stalwart champions for New York from Day One.”

“It should be clear to every American that this administration is serious about implementing the vision behind its bold infrastructure agenda,” Cuomo said.

Lost Time

Gateway involves construction of a two-direction tunnel under the Hudson River, plus the shutdown, rehabilitation and reopening of the 110-year-old existing passage. Construction of the new tunnel was expected to take seven years, followed by three years of work on the existing one, according to early estimates from project officials.

The project has to make up for lost time, Coscia said. He didn’t have an estimated completion date.

Amtrak says the existing link is safe for the regional and NJ Transit commuter trains that use it, but electrical and other damage from a 2012 flood makes it increasingly unreliable.

An earlier tunnel project with full funding in place, called Access to the Region’s Core, or ARC, was on the cusp of construction when it was canceled by then-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in 2010. Christie, a Republican, cited concerns about cost overruns and design shortcomings, including inadequate capacity and a Manhattan station far from other rail lines.

Christie used some of that project’s dedicated funding to plug state budget holes and avoid raising the gasoline tax on his way to a failed run for U.S. president. The ARC project, which was touted as a solution to rush-hour bottlenecks and other delays endured by NJ Transit riders, had a target completion date of 2018. In a statement, U.S. Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey called the environmental approval an “exciting step toward providing New Jersey commuters the relief they desperately need.”

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez from New Jersey, in a statement, said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Nuria Fernandez, acting head of the Federal Transit Administration, “gave me their word that they will continue to work with me, our state’s congressional delegation, Governor Murphy and the project sponsors to advance Gateway -- and I intend to hold them to their commitments.”

The federal weigh-ins on hundreds of pages of Gateway environmental research initially were due in March 2018. But Trump, a Republican, stalled the effort, saying the tunnel’s costs should be shouldered by the states, not federal taxpayers. New York, New Jersey, Amtrak, NJ Transit and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have pledged to pay for half.

About 820,000 trips are made on the Northeast Corridor every day, either on Amtrak ore one of the commuter railroads. The Gateway project will allow for a doubling of passenger trains under the Hudson into New York.

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