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Amtrak tunnel gains speed as backers busily build support Malaise in Washington, paucity of transit funds pose threats

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Tony Coscia has been in public service long enough to know that a groundbreaking doesn't mean more Amtrak trains will suddenly be rolling into Manhattan.

But a ceremony in late September, which kicked off a key piece of the planned Gateway tunnels, was a statement moment for a project that must build public and private support to become reality.

"People are about trying to get the project done, and getting it done in a very solid way," said Coscia, Amtrak's board chairman, adding that stakeholders are "not caught up in the optics of it, but the substance of it."

For the federal rail agency, executing in the early phases will go a long way toward ensuring support for Gateway, he said. And that focus is even more important, with political acrimony in Washington, D.C., running as high as ever.

Gateway, estimated to cost around $15 billion and take some 15 years to complete, aims to reduce congestion in the trans-Hudson rail system and upgrade the surrounding infrastructure. It also would protect the system against future storms like Hurricane Sandy, which flooded Amtrak's century-old rail tunnels.

Jon Carnegie, executive director of Rutgers University's Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center, said the need for new rail capacity is widely recognized, but "the tone is so incredibly negative."

"There's perhaps more tension than there has been in the past, in terms of making public investments in infrastructure," he said. "It's a huge challenge, but this is also a long-term project that will span multiple congresses, so we'll see what happens."

In August, Amtrak began work on a "tunnel box" on Manhattan's west side, an 800-foot-long concrete casing under the Hudson Yards development site. The project, aimed at preserving Amtrak's right of way, capped an 11-month stretch in which the agency raced to design, finance and secure contracts and approvals for the placeholder segment.

The $185 million tunnel box is being funded by the Sandy relief bill that Congress approved earlier this year. It is expected to be complete by October 2015.

Ultimately, the tunnel box is "a small step toward a very big project," Coscia said. But it also "gave us a chance to prove ourselves" and Amtrak's ability to guide the overall Gateway program.

It's a challenge Coscia embraces when asking federal, state and local governments to get on board — not to mention the private sector.

"Like any other company that is trying to do significant things, (Amtrak) has to prove itself in the marketplace," said Coscia, a partner with Windels, Marx, Lane & Mittendorf, in New Brunswick. "Everyone agrees that trans-Hudson capacity expansion is necessary. What's important is convincing people that (Gateway) is a strong plan for people to support."

That argument isn't helped by how the last major trans-Hudson plan — the ARC tunnel — ended. The Access to the Region's Core program sought to double rail capacity into Manhattan at a cost of $8.7 billion, but Gov. Chris Christie killed the project in 2010.

But Coscia's case is helped by continued demand for Amtrak's services. Last week, the operator announced it broke a ridership record in fiscal year 2013, carrying 31.6 million passengers. That was thanks in part to steady ridership on its Northeast Corridor service, which was virtually flat despite the disruption caused by Sandy.

Projects like Gateway will continue to find support in the business community, especially in Newark, which could be one of the biggest beneficiaries.

Chip Hallock, CEO of the Newark Regional Business Partnership, said his group is pleased by the momentum, "but we also understand there's a great deal of complexity."

He said there's no understating the importance of good rail service, despite a dearth of transportation funding in recent years. Train access has been critical for attracting companies such as Audible and Panasonic to Newark, and Hallock said Amtrak is a crucial resource for many of the regional law firms in the city.

And if Newark continues its push to attract new residents, he said, rail becomes "a key factor in people's decisions to come to a city like this."

"We know, demographically, that the cities are continuing to grow," Hallock said. "And we need to continue to service the population and move those people."

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

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