Jackson: N.J. lawmakers present a united front for new rail tunnel

Jackson: N.J. lawmakers present a united front for new rail tunnel

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With both houses of Congress about to be controlled by Republicans, whose hard-liners denounce expensive federal projects as wasteful pork and have banned lawmakers from earmarking funds for pet projects, a bipartisan delegation from New Jersey is gearing up to win support for a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River.

Both Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat, and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican, said they are hopeful they can get a commitment at least to start Amtrak’s Gateway project when Congress takes up a multiyear transportation financing bill next spring.

Frelinghuysen, of Harding, said he thought the chances of some success are “pretty good.” Menendez, of Paramus, said he was “cautiously optimistic.”

“I’m not saying it’ll be the whole kit and caboodle … but once we are committed to the project, then we have a better chance to ensure its totality,” Menendez said.

Rail access to New York City has taken on a new urgency following Amtrak’s revelation last year that the existing two-track tunnel, built 104 years ago, will fail within 20 years because of damage from Superstorm Sandy flooding. Before then, delays will become common for Amtrak and NJ Transit, which uses Amtrak’s Hudson tunnel, because of periodic closures to stabilize it.

Gateway calls for a new two-track tunnel under the river and other construction, including new or rebuilt bridges in the Meadowlands, to provide four tracks between Newark and New York City. The next few months will be critical in determining whether the project moves off the drawing board, because Congress faces a May deadline for a new transportation bill.

Governor Christie won praise from fiscal conservatives, and criticism from many planners and commuters, more than four years ago when he gave up a $3 billion federal funding commitment by halting NJ Transit’s construction of a new tunnel, known as Access to the Region’s Core, or ARC. At the same time, he has said he supports a new tunnel, under the right conditions.

“The governor is open to a plan that is well-engineered but also fair and equitable to New Jersey, with costs shared among all benefiting jurisdictions,” said Steve Schapiro, spokes­man for the New Jersey Department of Transportation.

But it is not clear if, as a possible presidential candidate, Christie will be as forceful in pressuring Republican congressional leaders for financing as he was in 2013, when he bitterly denounced House conservatives who had temporarily blocked disaster aid for Sandy recovery. Much will depend on details that have yet to be decided.

Top officials of Amtrak and the U.S. Department of Transportation voiced support for Gateway at a Senate hearing last month, and noted that about $185 million in federal Sandy aid was used to preserve the right of way for two new tracks on the New York side before the foundations of new office towers in the Hudson Yards development, now under construction, filled in land that would be needed for them.

“But we are at a point now where we really need to attack the bigger question about who’s paying how much, when and how,” said Peter Rogoff, the third-highest ranking official at the federal DOT.

There are new signs of movement on that question.

Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo cited the need for additional capacity to cross the Hudson in the report they released just after Christmas directing the Port Authority to refocus its priorities on transportation.

The report noted existing bridges and tunnels for vehicles and trains are operating at capacity while, according to one study, passenger demand is expected to double by 2030.

“The congestion created by the limitations on trans-Hudson access creates a ripple effect,” the report said. “The future development of the region thus ultimately hinges on the development of new trans-Hudson transportation capacity.”

The Port Authority had committed $3 billion toward the NJ Transit tunnel that Christie canceled. After the cancellation, some of that money went to rebuilding the Pulaski Skyway and raising the elevation of the Bayonne Bridge, while Christie used New Jersey money meant for the tunnel for state projects that otherwise might have required an increase in state gas taxes.

Christie had said one of his reasons for canceling ARC was that NJ Transit would have been responsible for cost overruns. In past supportive comments about Gateway, he noted Amtrak’s involvement would demonstrate the project was a federal priority. Christie has also been supportive of extending a New York subway line under the river into Secaucus.

The Port Authority’s new focus on trans-Hudson capacity could make that agency the coordinator for joining Amtrak with New Jersey and New York transportation agencies and officials.

But numerous questions need to be resolved, starting with whether federal and state governments have any money to spend for new projects in coming years.

New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund is nearly depleted, with existing revenues nearly all needed to pay the debt on past projects. The federal government is in a similar situation, with the gasoline tax that primarily finances projects no longer raising enough to pay for projects Congress wants.

While agreement in Congress on a funding source will be difficult, members of the New Jersey delegation pushing for the tunnel are expecting it to be solved somehow and are preparing for the fight over how proceeds are spent.

“Once you get over the funding hump, it’s basically working out the apportionment,” Menendez said. “This will be one of those things that we’re going to have to put our chits on the table for and do the type of negotiations you do on things. It’s going to be one of my bigger priorities, because I realize the highway bill is up.”

Every few years, Congress spells out priorities for transportation in a massive highway and transit bill, and there are indications this year’s bill could cover the next six years. A short-term measure, passed in July when the House and Senate could not agree on a larger one, expires in May.

NJ Transit’s commuter trains account for about 75 percent of the traffic going through Amtrak’s existing tunnels, but those arguing for a new tunnel are trying to expand the picture beyond New Jersey by focusing on the potential disruption along the entire Northeast Corridor if service to and from New York is disrupted, and the national economic importance of getting workers into and out of the New York financial sector.

“This corridor is important to national security and important to the whole Northeast,” Frelinghuysen said. “So it’s not just our own New Jersey transportation needs, it’s the whole rail corridor here we’re talking about.”

Though a junior member of the Senate, Sen. Cory Booker, a Newark Democrat, sits on the two Senate committees that will write major parts of the transportation bill, and he argued the national economy could suffer if the tunnels fail.

Though a junior member of the Senate, Sen. Cory Booker, a Newark Democrat, sits on the two Senate committees that will write major parts of the transportation bill, and he argued the national economy could suffer if the tunnels fail.

“This is what frustrates me: We have one of the most productive economic regions on the globe and we have an economic squeeze,” Booker said. “This is not only an investment that will create greater economic activity for the region and the nation, but also, the longer we wait on doing something like this, the more it’s going to cost in the long run. One day, this is going to have to be done. So do we do it now, with interest rates low?”

 

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