Monday, February 07, 2011

Sens. Lautenberg and Menendez Attempt To Resuscitate Trans-Hudson Tunnel Project

After Gov. Chris Christie killed the ARC tunnel project because New Jersey taxpayers would be on the hook for all cost overruns, and it was already estimated to go $1 billion over the $8.7 billion budget, Sen. Frank Lautenberg was among Christie's harshest critics. He complained about how commuters would be harmed by the loss of a key project.

Never mind that Christie was absolutely right to protect taxpayers from a project that would benefit New Jersey and New York, but put the entire risk of overruns on New Jersey while New York contributed no funds to the project. Even federal efforts to keep the project on track amounted to nothing more than additional loan guarantees to cover a portion of cost overruns.

The project, which was originally proposed as a $5 billion project, had already ballooned to $8.7 billion, and the most conservative estimate for overruns was $1 billion beyond that amount. Other estimates could have pushed the New Jersey share to $5 billion.

So, now Lautenberg and Menendez are back touting that they've got another plan to build a trans-Hudson river rail tunnel.

This time, they've got Amtrak on board with the proposal, and it would lead to an expanded Penn Station, rather than a dead-ended annex under Herald Square.

The cost of the project is still huge, and they expectation is that the tunnel will run $10 billion or more, but the issue will be who will cover what costs. With Amtrak involved this time, there will be additional cost sharing, and this proposal shows that the NJ Transit claim that the new tunnels could not be built to Penn Station were nothing but bureaucratic domain protection. It wasn't based on anything but NJ Transit trying to expand its own infrastructure at tremendous cost even though the agency's operating budget is incapable of handling the existing traffic.
The Gateway tunnel would allow 13 additional NJ Transit trains per hour — from 20 to 33 — and eight more Amtrak trains. The ARC project would have allowed 25 extra NJ Transit trains per hour.

"I’m in my late 60s, and I was just hoping and praying I’d see the day when there would be another Hudson River tunnel," New Jersey transportation expert Martin E. Robins said. "My hopes have been rekindled."

Many hurdles will have to be overcome, including finding federal and local funding for a project that could cost upwards of $10 billion. But Amtrak officials say they believe the tunnel fits in well with President Obama’s vision for infrastructure improvements in America and high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C.
gateway-tunnel-project.jpgView full size

The hope is to have the Gateway tunnel built in a decade.

News of the announcement was first reported today on, The Star-Ledger’s real-time news and information site.

Amtrak this week is expected to ask the federal government to fund a $50 million engineering study on the Gateway plan. The project also could benefit from the engineering work done previously for ARC.

Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman, Amtrak board member Anthony Coscia, Lautenberg and Menendez are expected to present the alternative tunnel plans during a news conference at 11 a.m. Monday at the Hilton Newark Penn Station.

Amtrak had intended to build another tunnel to improve capacity in the nation’s most congested rail corridor, but not until 2040. The killing of the ARC tunnel expedited the Gateway tunnel plans.

Citing projected cost overruns that would leave New Jersey taxpayers on the hook, Christie pulled the plug on the nation’s largest public works project on Oct. 27.

Lautenberg immediately began working with Amtrak to revive the trans-Hudson rail tunnel project, which he says will benefit New Jersey’s commuters by giving them transfer-free train rides to prosperous jobs in Manhattan, increase property values along the rail line and put contractors to work.

"New Jersey is facing a transportation crisis," he said. "Our commuters are fed up with train delays that make them late to work and endless traffic that traps them on our highways when they want to be home with their families. When the ARC tunnel was canceled, it was clear to me that we couldn’t just throw up our hands and wait years to find another solution."

New Jersey always rises above challenges, Menendez said in a statement tonight. "While some choose to do nothing and accept delays, the people of New Jersey cannot, will not, and must not wait. We are moving full steam ahead with this strong investment in New Jersey and the region. We are on a path to create good-paying jobs and move people and goods more quickly."

Some transportation officials think the Gateway plan makes more sense than expanding the No. 7 subway line from New York City to Secaucus Junction, an idea floated over the last three months by the staff of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Under Amtrak’s best-case scenario, the No. 7 line would also be extended to Penn Station, between 31st and 33rd streets, two blocks west of the Empire State Building.

Along with the Gateway project would be a plan to raise and replace the decrepit, century-old train Portal Bridge between Kearny and Secaucus over the Hackensack River. The condition of the bridge limits train speeds and the span is so low that it often has to be opened to allow commercial boats to pass under, causing more delays.

When the ARC project was being considered in the 1990s, Amtrak was in a fight for survival with the federal government and couldn’t assist New Jersey. The Gateway tunnel represents a historic change of direction for Amtrak, Robins said.
The $1.3 billion Portal Bridge project should be going ahead regardless of what happens with the tunnel project, because it is one of the worst bottlenecks on the entire Northeast Corridor, and that work isn't contingent on what happens with the tunnel project.

NJ Transit's dealing with an aging infrastructure and an operating budget that can't cover the existing schedule. I have serious doubts over its scheduling claims from North Jersey when there have been a reduction in train service, and debt service on the Secaucus Transfer continues to be a drain all while the proposed tunnel would include a Transfer bypass allowing trains to travel directly into Manhattan from North Jersey. That would severely limit the ridership that would utilize the Transfer unless the existing parking facilities are greatly expanded.

What remains to be seen is who will be paying for what and what the New Jersey share will be. Moreover, the key questions will be whether New York actually ponies up any funds to cover construction costs, and who will bear the risk of cost overruns.

This new project is already starting at a much higher price point, and it's more than double the original ARC tunnel cost projection.

I wonder if the costs for the new tunnel project are including the Portal Bridge costs, which at last check was a totally separate and distinct project that was scheduled to cost $1.344 billion. Construction is scheduled to begin next year and run through 2017 in building two new bridges and five tracks to handle traffic on the Northeast Corridor as well as reconfigure about 10 miles of track between Newark and Secaucus Transfer to handle high speed rail (80-90 mph, from the current 60 mph limitations). That work has to be done regardless of what happens with the tunnel project, and monies were already set aside by Amtrak, the ARRA of 2009, and other funding sources to get the project underway.

It's notable that there isn't any mention of where the money is coming from under the new proposal, and it's further notable that neither of New York's senators, including Chuck Schumer were around to agree on a joint New York/New Jersey plan to fund the project. That would once again suggest that New York is not going to be putting up monies to get the project done.

There's a further question of how exactly this new proposal (which actually is a step back to the original intent of the ARC tunnel when first proposed) will take the sails out of the study by New York City to extend the 7 Line to Secaucus.

Reuters is reporting that the cost for the project would be $13.5 billion. That would put it significantly above the costs for the canceled ARC tunnel, and more than double the original cost estimate for the ARC tunnel when first proposed despite being little different from the original design and scope. Even if the $13.5 billion includes the $1.344 billion for the Portal Bridge, we're talking about the upper range from the cost estimates that led Christie to kill the project.

As a reminded, when the ARC tunnel was first proposed years ago, it was seen as a $5 billion project. By the time Christie killed it last year, it was up to $8.7 billion but widely expected to go at least $1 to $5 billion over that budget.

Now, we're looking at a $13.5 billion to achieve the same goal as the original budget and it's riding on the hope that President Obama's Amtrak capital initiatives get adopted.

The one question that seems to be missing from the reporting is how and why this latest attempt to build new capacity is costing so much more than the original project? Those are the unanswered questions that reporters have yet to ask in any critical fashion.

Digging through the Amtrak Northeast Corridor master plan, Amtrak and NJ Transit believe that as of May 2010 that the cost of the Portal Bridge will cost $1.8 billion (page 29) or $1.9 billion (page 101 overall/page 28 of Part II), which is significantly above the $1.344 billion as per the Portal Bridge site information. There's a further backlog of $214 million to rehabilitate the existing two Hudson River tunnels and rehabilitation of the overhead catenary system and replacing electrical substations would cost another $350 million. That's despite a $453 million infusion of federal stimulus monies. Overall, Amtrak says that they're short $5.2 billion to bring the system into a state of good repair.

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