Amtrak’s New York-to-D.C. Fixes Leave Biggest Worries Unresolved

(Bloomberg) -- Along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, roughly $3.4 billion in improvements are underway to bring faster, more reliable service to the busiest rail route in the U.S. Yet the region’s biggest and most important infrastructure project remains unfunded, a failure that threatens service to 820,000 regional and commuter passengers each workday.

Station renovations, high-speed track, power lines and signals -- all decades-deferred work that has begun -- will be for naught if century-old infrastructure under the Hudson River crumbles. In all, Amtrak needs at least $37 billion for improvements from New York to Washington, D.C., with the bulk of it -- $30 billion -- for Gateway, which would include replacing a rickety bridge, building a second tunnel linking New Jersey to Manhattan and overhauling an existing one whose days are numbered.

Amtrak’s New York-to-D.C. Fixes Leave Biggest Worries Unresolved

“People say it’s a New York-New Jersey problem,” U.S. Representative Mikie Sherrill, a first-term Democrat from Montclair, New Jersey, said in a telephone interview. “It’s an every-state-in-the-Northeast problem.”

Amtrak says the Northeast Corridor is safe, though reliability is faltering. In September, two trains lost power inside the flood-damaged North River Tunnel, Amtrak’s only access to Manhattan from New Jersey. The cause hasn’t been identified. Malfunctions at the swing span Portal Bridge, over the Hackensack River in New Jersey, prompted Amtrak in November to ask the U.S. Coast Guard to limit rush-hour boats. Near Philadelphia and Baltimore, trains that can go 150 mph on a straightaway are slowed by antiquated engineering.

Speed Limit

On a media tour Jan. 11 from Washington to New York, Amtrak officials showed how improvements haven’t kept pace with ridership amid years of dwindling federal funding. On the approach to the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, opened in 1873, four tracks became two -- to fit the narrow confines -- and the train slowed to 30 mph (48 kilometers) to navigate curves and a steep grade. On weekdays, about 140 Amtrak and Maryland commuter trains pass through. The $2.45 billion Acela Express replacement fleet -- capable of traveling 186 mph -- will have to crawl in that area, too, when it enters service in 2022.

Amtrak’s New York-to-D.C. Fixes Leave Biggest Worries Unresolved

“You can see the ‘river’ flowing to your left,” said Stephen Gardner, the railroad’s senior executive vice president, pointing to a two-foot-wide stream that could undermine the tunnel’s lining and slabs if it weren’t for sump pumps and monthly maintenance. Two years ago, the Federal Railroad Administration put a replacement cost at $4.52 billion if construction were to begin in 2025, though the funding has yet to be secured.

Urgent Needs

As the train continued toward New York City, Ray Verrelle, assistant vice president of engineering and design, pointed to overhead power equipment from the mid-1930s. Warm weather causes copper wiring to expand and sag overhead, interfering with the trains’ electrical contact. “If we don’t start replacing it soon, we’re going to lose reliability,” he said.

Amtrak’s New York-to-D.C. Fixes Leave Biggest Worries Unresolved

Over the next 75 miles, three more Maryland bottlenecks loomed: early 20th-century bridges spanning the Gunpowder, Bush and Susquehanna rivers, all on Amtrak’s replacement list. “There is no identified source of funding for environmental review, preliminary engineering or construction work,” Amtrak says of the Gunpowder and Bush bridges. Susquehanna, at an estimated $1.7 billion cost, is further along, though without construction money.

Cost-Sharing

In 2015, elected officials, including Democratic U.S. Senators Cory Booker from New Jersey and Charles Schumer from New York announced that President Barack Obama had committed to a federal cost share of at least 50 percent for Gateway. The Trump administration has said, though, that no agreement existed, and the states must pledge far more money.

“This is killing our region,” Booker, who is considering a 2020 run for president, said today at Penn Station in Manhattan, after he, several members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation and Governor Phil Murphy viewed the tunnel aboard an Amtrak car. “We now have a president who is not only not helping the project, but he’s actually doing things to hurt and undermine our progress.”

As Booker spoke, Northeast Corridor trains to and from Penn Station were delayed by as much as 20 minutes because of an Amtrak switching problem, according to New Jersey Transit.

Sherrill, the New Jersey congresswoman who campaigned in part on the need for Gateway, is among the co-sponsors of a bill called the Transportation Funding Fairness Act, which clarifies that federal loans can count as the states’ share of the burden. Meanwhile, the Gateway Program Development Corp., which would oversee construction, says the federal shutdown further delayed an overdue environmental review, and in a Jan. 18 letter urged U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to abide by a Trump executive order on expediency for such tasks.

A one-day disruption of the Boston-to-Washington route could cost the U.S. $100 million in productivity, congestion and related transportation impacts, the Northeast Corridor Commission stated in its 2016-2020 capital plan.

Station Work

For now, the railroad is focusing on some near-term improvements. In New Jersey, the railroad is using a $450 million federal grant for 23 miles of new signal equipment, crossovers and overhead wiring for power continuity and higher speed. At stations including Washington’s and Baltimore’s, improvements will include more natural light, better pedestrian flow and improved disabled access. Amtrak’s Philadelphia plan makes the 30th Street Station, the nation’s third-busiest, the anchor of a mixed-use neighborhood, with a master developer to be named in 2019.

Even the trains themselves are being freshened, with new seat cushions, carpeting and reading lights, and special attention to bathrooms.

Amtrak’s New York-to-D.C. Fixes Leave Biggest Worries Unresolved

“I don’t want to get into a long discussion about toilets and odors, but we know these things matter,” said Caroline Decker, vice president of the Northeast Corridor.

By far, the biggest near-term transformation will be at Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, a shabby warren that Amtrak shares with Long Island and New Jersey commuter rail and the subway system. Starting in 2020, Amtrak service will move to Moynihan Train Hall, a revamping of the Beaux-Arts James A. Farley Post Office.

The new location will be worth it for the space alone, according to Gardner, the Amtrak executive. Penn was designed with city riders in mind, not hordes of commuters, and the passenger volumes overwhelm the narrow platforms. At Moynihan, Amtrak riders will have an experience more like that at Philadelphia’s 30th Street.

“At 30th Street, loading passengers can take 2 minutes,” Gardner said. “At Penn, it takes 15.”

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