It’s hard to believe that it’s been over three and a half years since New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie unilaterally canceled the ARC Tunnel. Yet, it’s a decision that keeps coming back to haunt the entire region. Amtrak has proposed picking up the slack with their Gateway Tunnel, but that’s decades off. Now, questions have emerged concerning the region’s ability to cope with aging infrastructure and no replacement plans in place.
The latest comes to us from Amtrak. As the two Hudson River tunnels creep up there in years, the national rail agency has warned that age will become a major issue sooner rather than later. Amtrak’s chief put their life expectancy at “less than 20 years” and urged everyone involved to start funding — and then building — Gateway.
Dana Rubinstein had more:
The end may be near for the New York region’s cross-harbor rail tunnels, with no good alternative in sight. “I’m being told we got something less than 20 years before we have to shut one or two down,” said Amtrak C.E.O. Joseph Boardman at the Regional Plan Association’s conference last week at the Waldorf Astoria. “Something less than 20. I don’t know if that something less than 20 is seven, or some other number. But to build two new ones, you’re talking seven to nine years to deliver, if we all decided today that we could do it.”
Tom Wright, the Regional Plan Association’s executive director, described Boardman’s remarks as “a big shock.” “I’ve been hearing abstractly people at Amtrak and other people at New Jersey Transit say for years the tunnels are over 100 years old and we have to be worried about them,” he said. “To actually have Joe put something concrete on the table, less than 20 years … Within my office, there was a level of, ‘Wow, this is really serious.’”
In addition to age, as Rubinstein notes, Sandy damage is going to play a big role in this tale. The Amtrak tunnels, by some accounts, suffered approximately half a billion dollars in damage during the storm surge, but unlike, say, the Montague St. Tunnel, Amtrak can’t just take one of their cross-Hudson out of service for a few months to make repairs. That would reduce capacity from 24 trains per hour to just six, and as Amtrak owns them, the people who would suffer the most from single-tracking would be New Jersey Transit riders. Thus, it all comes back to ARC as without ARC, New Jersey Transit is beholden to Amtrak’s whims.
An Amtrak spokesman later tried to walk back Boardman’s comments. “As you know the Hudson River Tunnels are more than 100 years old and were filled with salt water during Super Storm Sandy, which can be very corrosive,” Craig Schultz said. “Amtrak is working with an expert to assess the condition of the tunnel structures since the storm, and that work is ongoing. I think the point Mr. Boardman was making in his comments at the RPA Assembly is that damage from Sandy accelerated what was already an urgent need for additional tunnel capacity between New York and New Jersey. We expect that the tunnels are going to need major rehabilitation, which can only happen with prolonged service outages permitted by a new tunnel.”
So where do we go from here? As with all of these major infrastructure projects, Gateway needs a champion, and right now, it doesn’t have one. It needs money, and right now, it doesn’t have it. Will we wait to fund it until it’s too late or will someone come to their senses before we have to live in an era when six trains per hour can cross the Hudson River? The clock is ticking.