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Light at the end of the rail tunnel

Funding, timing hurdles threaten Amtrak's Gateway, but Sandy proves project's need

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Drew Galloway says the Gateway tunnel is 'part and parcel' to Amtrak's plans for improving flood protection for the next Hurricane Sandy.
Drew Galloway says the Gateway tunnel is 'part and parcel' to Amtrak's plans for improving flood protection for the next Hurricane Sandy. - (AARON HOUSTON)

After pumping millions of gallons of water from its trans-Hudson rail tunnels, Amtrak was left with more than just miles of damaged equipment in Hurricane Sandy's wake. It was also faced with a new source of urgency for what was already a pressing need — relieving the clogged passages between New Jersey and New York, while upgrading the decades-old infrastructure on each end.

The federal rail agency, which is spearheading the Gateway tunnel project, had hoped to jump-start those efforts with a $191 million infusion from Congress' recent Sandy relief package. But the funds — tied specifically to the project's first steps — were left out of the final bill that was signed into law last month, and a commercial development project's looming groundbreaking has put the whole plan on the clock.

Plans call for the Gateway tunnels to pass under the sprawling Hudson Yards development on Manhattan's west side, said Drew Galloway, Amtrak's chief of Northeast Corridor planning and performance. But the developer, Related Cos., plans to start construction this summer, and Amtrak is racing to design and carve out a "tunnel box" — essentially, a placeholder for a segment of the $15 billion Gateway project.

The agency still needs $120 million to start the 800-foot tunnel segment, said Petra Messick, a Northeast Corridor infrastructure planner for Amtrak. It's "exploring a range of options" to secure funds to meet the deadline, including using Amtrak's own capital funds, securing future federal appropriations and arranging financing.

The setback is ill timed for a plan advocates say is more comprehensive and politically palatable than Access to the Region's Core, the tunnel project that Gov. Chris Christie, fearing cost overruns, canceled in late 2010. Amtrak envisions the 12-year project as a partnership among transit agencies, as it would upgrade infrastructure used heavily by NJ Transit, while making investments that will benefit the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New York Penn Station.

What's more, Gateway is "part and parcel" to Amtrak's plans for improving flood protection and resiliency for future storms, Galloway said, especially through the addition of two new trans-Hudson tunnels.

Gateway enjoys broad support, said Christopher P. Boylan, director for governmental and strategic partnerships for the General Contractors Association of New York. But he said stakeholders are still waiting to learn how its costs will be distributed.

"I don't think there's anybody who argues how beneficial it is," said Boylan, a former MTA executive director who helped secure federal funding for Manhattan's east side access and Second Avenue subway projects. "But it goes back to the age-old question, which is how much is it going to cost, and who's going to be responsible for paying the cost of it?"

How the political discussion around Gateway evolves remains to be seen, but Anthony Coscia, an Amtrak board member, said Sandy seemed to rally policymakers and government leaders from different areas. The need to invest in the system was already finding a consensus beforehand, but the cross-agency cooperation during the restoration "highlighted the fact that, if we have an opportunity to make these improvements, (they) will make the system operate that much better."

"I think this has probably accelerated those discussions and created a greater sense of urgency among everyone to try to bring a plan together that would allow us to do this," Coscia, a partner with Windels, Marx, Lane & Mittendorf, in New Brunswick, said before the relief bill was passed.

For flood protection, Galloway said Gateway's tunnels "would be designed to much more stringent standards under any circumstances, so we will have some resiliency built in as a consequence." Furthermore, in general, Amtrak needs the new passages before it could consider taking the current tunnels out of service for improvements.

Gateway's broader focus and its planned Penn Station improvements are among several key differences from ARC, Galloway said, along with more opportunities for private-sector involvement. But the need to reduce congestion between Newark and Manhattan is paramount — the two tracks under the Hudson, along with the segment over the Hackensack River, represent the highest density of train movement per track mile "that we can find anywhere in North America."

That also means NJ Transit would be "the dominant beneficiary, in terms of raw capacity," as its Northeast Corridor service carries some 210,000 riders daily, he said. Amtrak already is studying how to address congestion at Newark Penn Station while "looking at bridge replacements that fall within the Gateway footprint."

Amtrak's early plans, as outlined in its funding request to Congress, also include the first phase of a new bridge over the Hackensack River to replace the century-old Portal Bridge, and design work for new track configurations, signal systems and other elements. Besides increasing resiliency to storms, Gateway would meet the agency's overall goals of reducing trip time and easing strains on the Northeast Corridor.

"Given the volume of traffic and travel in and out of New York, if you're going to invest in a project of this magnitude anywhere, this is where you start," Galloway said.

E-mail to: joshb@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @joshburdnj

CORRECTION: An incorrect photo ran with the print version of this story. It should have featured the image above of Drew Galloway.

Joshua Burd

Joshua Burd

Josh Burd covers real estate, economic development and sports and entertainment. Before joining NJBIZ in 2011, he spent four years as a metro reporter in Central Jersey. His email is joshb@njbiz.com and he is @JoshBurdNJ on Twitter.

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