Several top New Jersey politicians, along with Amtrak and NJ Transit officials, expressed concern about a newly-released report recommending fixing a century-old train tunnel under the Hudson River on nights and weekends.
Completed by British consulting firm London Bridge Associates, the new analysis rejects the idea that a new $9.5 billion tunnel between New Jersey and New York must be built before the damaged North River Tunnel can be closed for repairs.
Building a new crossing is part of the larger Gateway Program, a $30 billion investment program that seeks to improve service along the Northeast Corridor, one of the most heavily used passenger rail lines in the country.
More Cost Effective
A key component to the long-stalled proposal, the program centers around the construction of two new tunnels connecting the Northeast Corridor to Penn Station, and then rebuilding the existing, deteriorating North River Tunnel to increase the route’s capacity.
In the report released Nov. 23 by the Gateway Program Development Corporation, the agency overseeing the multi-billion dollar transit initiative, London Bridge Associates contends that the two existing tubes can be refurbished five years quicker than building a new crossing because work could begin sooner and be less costly.
Under the Gateway proposal, the tunnel wouldn’t undergo refurbishment until 2032. The new recommendation made by London Bridge Associates says repairs would take about 62 months.
According to the report, repairs would not affect rush hour service and work could be done in one tunnel while the other remains in service to handle rail traffic. The report has the backing of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who cited a similar strategy the Metropolitan Transportation Authority used to fix the L train’s Sandy-damaged East River tunnel show without closing them down.
While the study confirms the need for major repairs, the Gateway Program Development Corporation said the “assumption” that between 85% to 100% of weeknight and weekend maintenance windows can be used for work must be studied further to determine whether it’s a feasible approach.
Following the report’s release, New Jersey officials expressed skepticism to any plan that would disrupt daily service and cause headaches for commuters.
New Jersey Protest
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, along with Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, are advocating for the project to move forward as planned—constructing a new tunnel and then shutting down the old one for repairs.
“While all project partners agree that certain rehab work can be completed on the North River Tunnel in the meantime, I am greatly concerned by proposals in this report that suggest more extensive rehab measures that could potentially interrupt the daily operations of NJ Transit and Amtrak,” Murphy said in a statement. “Make no mistake—I am opposed to any rehab proposals that could negatively impact the reliability of service for thousands of New Jersey commuters who cross the Hudson each day.”
Menendez said, “While we all recognize that ongoing maintenance is necessary to ensure the safety and reliability of the existing tunnel, this work must be done so that it does not result in major, unavoidable service disruptions for NJ Transit and Amtrak customers that use the tunnel every day. This could leave thousands of New Jerseyans stranded and cause significant economic harm to our region.”
Transit Officials Skeptical
Transit officials were doubtful of the recommendations and said they couldn’t support the proposals.
Amtrak Chairman and Gateway Program Development Corporation Trustee Vice Chair Tony Coscia said the report makes “extraordinary assumptions about the feasibility, costs and inherent risks of performing the rehab work entirely on night and weekend outages.”
“The long list of repairs and improvements needed in our century-old tunnel includes certain tasks that will require a full closure of the tubes for some period of time,” Coscia said. “The sooner we build a new tunnel and can move rail traffic out of the 110-year-old tubes, the sooner we can comprehensively rebuild them and deliver the modern, reliable, four-track system the region and the nation needs to remain competitive in the 21st century.”
Jerry Zaro, New Jersey’s trustee on the Gateway Program Development Corporation, called it “utterly fantastical” that the report “suggests we can tear up old track in the middle of the night, change the grade of the track bed, lay new track, connect that back into the old track, clean up the mess and be ready for 200,000 rush hour commuters the next morning.”
NJ Transit officials pointed out the closure of just one of the two tubes would result in as much as a 75% reduction in weekday train service and have a “catastrophic” impact on the region’s economy.
Additional proposed modifications to weeknight service would affect riders by creating gaps in frequency, which would mean longer wait times between scheduled trains.
Due to delays to the Gateway Program, Amtrak launched a program to identify and prioritize repairs that can be done on limited night and weekend outages now to improve reliability of the century-old tunnel.
Calling the recommendations “highly speculative” and in need of “a much more detailed evaluation” before being declared “practicable,” NJ Transit President and Chief Executive Officer Kevin Corbett said the agency won’t consider any project that “adversely impacts service reliability or our ability to maintain current rail service levels to and from Penn Station New York.”
Originally proposed nearly a decade ago, the Gateway Program has been long-delayed due to funding but officials believe the project faces a more favorable outlook once President-elect Joseph Biden takes office.
Funding On the Way?
Booker said, “We must remain committed to ensuring that this work be completed with minimal impact to New Jersey commuters, who for years have experienced far too many service disruptions as a result of aging transit networks and failed public policy decisions. Gateway is the most viable solution to addressing our region’s infrastructure needs, and I am confident that vital projects like this will be prioritized in the Biden Administration.”
“We are so close to having a president in the White House who understands the importance of Gateway, and we must stay fully committed and focused on completing the nation’s most important infrastructure project,” added Menendez.