Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Digesting the Politics of the ARC Tunnel Successor's

After Gov. Chris Christie killed the ARC tunnel project that would have put New Jersey taxpayers on the hook for anywhere from $1 to $5 billion in cost overruns and built a tunnel project that wouldn't accomplish anything near as much as its boosters claimed, Democrats Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez are hoping to build a tunnel project that would accomplish most everything that the ARC tunnel proponents hoped to achieve, but it will cost.

It's going to cost a minimum of $10 billion and most sources indicate that the cost will be at least $13.5 billion. That's due in part to the alignment of the tunnel to bring trains into a newly expanded cavern adjacent to Penn Station. The tunnel would have access to Penn Station and lead to high speed rail capabilities through New York City. The price tag also apparently includes the $1.8-$1.9 billion Portal Bridge project, which shouldn't have been included in the overall price tag and should have been budgeted separately since that replacement bridge needs to go ahead regardless of what decision is made on the tunnel projects.

Lautenberg and Menendez are pushing an Amtrak solution because it would attempt to cut Christie out of the decision-making process, even though Christie was absolutely right to demand that the federal government and New York pick up additional costs on this interstate project.

NJ Transit and the Port Authority will again be asked to kick in financing to bring the project to fruition, and Gov. Christie can still affect the outcome through his control over those agencies.

Still, no one is asking why this project, which is similar to one of the alternatives under the ARC tunnel design studies is costing so much more than those earliest projections. Lautenberg and Menendez have effective replaced a costly boondoggle with an even more expensive project and still haven't managed to get New York's congressional delegation on board to support jointly requesting and financing the project. That's a huge failure on their part since New York will garner a tremendous benefit while New Jersey continues picking up the costs from the project.

A new tunnel is absolutely essential to the long term growth in the region and rebuilding critical infrastructure. However, the atrocious state budgets on both sides of the Hudson River means that neither New Jersey nor New York can truly afford to put up the funds - either alone or together without significant federal aid. That means getting Congress and the President on board with this project.

You can bet that fiscal hawks in Congress will swarm over the fact that this new iteration of the tunnel plan is even more costly than the canceled ARC tunnel, and they're going to focus on the price tag, rather than the differences in the project that would bring significantly more benefits to mass transit and intercity transportation. Add to the fact that Republicans in Congress dislike Amtrak, and the odds that this project gets off the ground are slim even with the President's backing.

The Star Ledger gives a cautious thumb's up for the Gateway tunnel proposal, but not without first lambasting Christie for killing the ARC tunnel and using monies that were originally devoted to the ARC tunnel to plug the Transportation Trust Fund shortfall.

I'm not surprised by that reading, but the paper ignores that the New Jersey Senators failed to find the funding to make the ARC tunnel work when Christie noted that NJ taxpayers would be on the hook for all the overruns.

The paper claims that the new proposal will result in fewer trains heading into Manhattan than the ARC tunnel, but that's not entirely accurate either. It would result in more Amtrak high speed trains going into Manhattan along with a smaller contingent of NJ Transit trains than the ARC tunnel provided. The capacity is actually likely to be higher than the ARC tunnel and will link to Sunnyside Yards for storage.

Another consideration is that the Amtrak head, Anthony Coscia, is the former head of the Port Authority, so he knows the political machinations at work in both states.

The paramount question, however, is how and when Amtrak and its partners can obtain the necessary funding to make the project a reality. The reports already indicate that the Gateway tunnel can use the ARC tunnel entrance in New Jersey, so there's more than enough evidence that New Jersey wont have to repay the $271 million for canceling the ARC tunnel, when the engineering and construction work undertaken will be utilized in the new project.

Another question is why everyone continues conflating the Portal Bridge project with the tunnel proposals. They can, and should be, independent projects and while both need to be undertaken, the Portal Bridge project doesn't have the rancorous funding problems that the tunnel has.

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