Friday, November 12, 2010

Amtrak Kills Potential Deal With NJ Transit On Hudson River Tunnel

Amtrak is now pursuing its own brand of stupidity with talks ending between Amtrak and NJ Transit over jointly building a tunnel into New York from New Jersey along the Northeast Corridor.

This is once again the height of stupidity because neither Amtrak nor NJ Transit has the capacity to build the tunnel on its own and the federal government is the one party that can bring sufficient funding to the table for this critical interstate infrastructure.

Gov. Christie rightfully killed the ARC tunnel because New Jersey would be left on the hook for cost overruns and the federal government refused to pick up the tab on potential overruns, that could range from the most optimistic $1 billion to more than $5 billion. That the federal government wasn't willing to pony up the obligation to cover that amount when President Obama was backing mass transit and high speed rail projects as part of his stimulus package and upgrade to the nation's infrastructure is quite telling as to the Administration's true intentions and knowledge of the project. Moreover, it shows that the New Jersey Congressional delegation simply didn't have the wherewithal to get the additional funding, even as they blasted the Christie Administration for killing the project. Senator Lautenberg was more interested in launching investigations into why Christie killed the project than he was in securing the necessary federal funding to see the project continue so that New Jersey taxpayers wouldn't be on the hook for all of the cost overruns.

Amtrak's excuse for this latest nonsense is that they are not interested in operating with a commuter rail project and that they are focused on intercity rail.
“We are no longer interested in this project,” said Vernae Graham, spokeswoman for the national rail agency.

“There were exploratory talks going on with NJ Transit,” Graham said “The talks have stopped. … That was commuter rail, and we are interested in intercity rail projects.”

Graham said she could not say when the discussions ended, and had no further statements.

The agency’s sudden announcement came late Thursday, a day after Governor Christie optimistically told The Record’s editorial board that Amtrak was interested in engineering work and other plans NJ Transit had already done for a Hudson River commuter rail tunnel project Christie shut down last month.

“Amtrak has already spoken to us about whether certain [aspects] of the engineering work and other [work] that was done already might be something that they could purchase from us as they begin to look to plan their tunnel for high-speed rail,” Christie said at the Wednesday meeting.
Here's a memo to Amtrak. NJ Transit shares those tracks and tunnels out of necessity because the acquisition of additional rights of way is cost prohibitive. Ignoring the fiscal reality means that Amtrak and NJ Transit will not get the additional capacity that both agencies need - they need to pool their resources rather than fight each other for their own separate rights of way and infrastructure that neither can actually afford to maintain.

Amtrak has been incapable of managing its own infrastructure and yet it thinks that it can scrape together the funds to build a completely new infrastructure. Amtrak has yet to show that it can build a single mile of high speed rail comparable to European levels of service at a comparable cost.

Indeed, the ARC tunnel project cost at least three times as much per mile as the Swiss Gotthard base tunnel project, even though the actual tunnel length was several times shorter. Unless American projects can get the cost per mile down to within the range for projects done in Europe, they aren't going to make any headway.

It's for that reason that NJ Transit and Amtrak need to work together on building the new Hudson River tunnels. The shared costs are critical to building infrastructure that can benefit both agencies without bankrupting either them or the New Jersey taxpayers who would have borne the majority of the costs for the project and its overruns.

There is an argument to be made that coordinating HSR with commuter rail on the same right of way is difficult and defeats the purpose of building HSR. Yet, any alternative proposal would involve building new tunnels, and there are ways to join the tunnel costs so that neither Amtrak nor NJ Transit would take the hit of building the tunnels on their own. Indeed, the new proposed tunnels could have been designed as a 4-track tunnel - two 2-track systems that would lead to a new/expanded Penn Station with the back-end space in Sunnyside Yards for through traffic and vastly expanded capacity. That clearly didn't come up in the talks. Nor did the talks to work on the Portal Bridge first, which remains the single biggest problem on the entire Northeast Corridor outside the Hudson River tunnels. In fact, the Portal Bridge is an even bigger problem since track problems at the bridge result in incessant delays and Amtrak and NJ Transit have dragged their feet to get that project done. Instead of expediting the replacement of this major source of commuter and Amtrak delays, NJ Transit instead spent a billion dollars on the Secaucus Transfer (which would be made all but obsolete by the ARC tunnel and its one-seat ride from North Jersey). That's money that would have replaced the Portal Bridge years ago and provided greater speed access along the Northeast Corridor.

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