There is a question hovering around Amtrak’s Hudson River tunnels that no one really wants to ask. Faced with the wake-up call that was Superstorm Sandy and the lingering fallout from Gov. Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC Tunnel, will we act on additional trans-Hudson capacity before it’s too late? Will we even know when it’s almost too late to act? A rational society would have started work on Gateway or a similar project three years ago, but welcome to America in 2015, where only Amtrak seems to be driving forward with eye on a potentially calamitous future.
The backstory is simple: Even before Sandy, Amtrak’s tunnels were nearing the end of their life. The North River Tunnels opened for passenger service in 1910, and the need to supplement them so top-to-bottom overhaul doesn’t severely disrupt Northeast Corridor travel has been a pressing concern for a while. The ARC Tunnel plan was supposed to lighten the load so that most New Jersey Transit traffic would shift out of Amtrak’s tunnels. A few years after Christie’s move, Sandy dumped a load of corrosive saltwater into the tunnels, thus pushing them ever closer to A Problem.
What that Problem — with a capital P — may be is still open for debate. Barring a total catastrophe, the solution will likely require shutting down one of the two tubes for some period of time, thus reducing trans-Hudson capacity from 24 trains per hour to around six. That’s a Problem, and even the threat of such a future — which isn’t exactly too hard to imagine — should spur action.
Lately, it has in fact spurred some action but from an unlikely source. Amtrak is taking the charge, and the national rail agency is using every ounce of political support it can muster to push through Gateway. As a recent piece in Crain’s New York detailed, the agency’s leaders think they just might be able to succeed. Andy Hawkins had more on Amtrak’s Chair Anthony Coscia’s attempts to drag this project from an idea to reality. The story begins with Coscia stating, “We’re doing it” and goes from there:
Mr. Coscia said Amtrak could begin the environmental review process this fall, and has already spent about $300 million on preparatory work and land acquisition, even though the estimated $15 billion needed for the larger Gateway project, which includes the tunnel, has not been lined up.
“We’re taking precious resources and spending it on a project we don’t have all the money to build,” he said. “It’s either a very silly decision or a very critical one.”
He’s betting on the latter. By his reckoning, a tunnel has to be built sooner or later, and sooner is better. The two heavy-rail tunnels connecting New Jersey and New York are more than 100 years old. and are showing their age. Twenty-four trains pass through the tunnels each hour—20 from New Jersey Transit, four from Amtrak—and officials predict that within 20 years, one or both tunnels will need to be closed for repairs. That would reduce capacity to six trains per hour, because trains traveling in opposite directions would need to wait for the lone remaining tunnel to clear…
Mr. Coscia said Amtrak has sketched out a potential financing package that includes federal funds, infrastructure bonds and Amtrak’s own cash. He said it would premature to discuss who might contribute what. However, the project’s numerous stakeholders can be expected to chip in. They include the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New Jersey Transit, New York City, the states of New York and New Jersey, the federal government and of course Amtrak.
As Hawkins notes in his article, Gateway is both incredibly necessary and incredibly daunting. It would increase capacity across the Hudson River at a time when transit absolutely must expand to support growing the East Coast, and without Gateway, the worst-case scenario is pretty bad. Meanwhile, Amtrak has to scope the project and assess the costs of land acquisition on both sides of the river as well as a new or expanded terminal in Manhattan and plan for potential connections eastward and northward.
As we’ve seen, massive transit projects in the East Coast happen in half-decades (or longer) rather than in any sane timeline, and Gateway will be no exception. At a time of major political divides in Congress, Amtrak needs all the support it can get. It’s promising that the agency is going out on a limb to spend money today for something it may not be able to build tomorrow. At least they’re thinking about the future when few other agencies, both local and national, are. Can they deliver? It, of course, remains to be seen, but it’s not particularly hyperbolic to state that New York’s economic future may depend on it.