No, Really, the Time to Build the Gateway Tunnel is (Again) Now, New Cost Estimate Shows

New York's economy would be paralyzed if the 110-year-old Gateway Tunnel were to collapse.
New York's economy would be paralyzed if the 110-year-old Gateway Tunnel were to collapse.

Hey, Amtrak Joe — it’s time to live up to your nickname.

Officials behind the Gateway tunnel project — literally the nation’s most important infrastructure proposal — have cut the construction cost projections for the essential Hudson River rail plan, and say the project is now ready for funding by the federal government, which had been denied by the Trump administration.

Despite four years of delay, the pricetag for building the new railway tubes between New Jersey and New York, plus completely rehabilitating the existing (and crumbling) 110-year-old tunnels, is pegged at $12.3 billion, down from $12.7 billion. Part of the savings is due to Amtrak acquiring a key parcel just south of Hudson Yards for much less than the rail system had originally budgeted. Other savings appear to be the result of simply concluding that the project simply won’t cost as much [for the very technical reasons for this, see the letter embedded at the bottom of this story].

Supporters say the lower cost of the project now makes it ready for funding by the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Grants program; when the program was part of the Trump administration, Gateway never received a high-enough rating to earn federal funds, which will cover 44 percent of the project, with the rest coming from the states of New York and New Jersey, the Port Authority and Amtrak.

“As the financial plan indicates, the time to build the Hudson Tunnel Project is now,” said Brian Fritsch of the Build Gateway Now Coalition, an advocacy umbrella that is affiliated with the Regional Plan Association. “We hope the FTA will upgrade the rating of the Hudson Tunnel project quickly to keep the project moving forward. This will avoid future delays.”

The Gateway project is so essential because even a partial shutdown of the aging tunnels — which were badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy, yet represent the only way for trains to get through the region — would cost the national economy $16 billion, RPA reported. Failure of the tunnels would effect an estimated half-million commuters (the 200,000 rail passengers, but also hundreds of thousands of people in cars and delivery trucks) every day. Meanwhile, constructing new tunnels would dramatically increase rail capacity up and down the Eastern seaboard, which would create $19 billion in economic benefits.

Gov. Hochul was not quoted in the press release about the new financial project put out on Friday by the Gateway Program Project Partners, though her New Jersey counterpart was. The absence of Hochul was initially alarming because ex-Gov. Cuomo had long used Gateway as a whipping boy, signaling his concern about New York’s share of the cost and even seeking a new design for the tunnel that he believed was better. Cuomo also said in 2015 that he objected to New York paying for any of the tunnel construction because, “It’s not my tunnel.”

But the Cuomo administration did set aside the state’s $1.75-billion share earlier this year.

Nonetheless, Streetsblog reached out to Hochul’s office and confirmed that the new governor is not making any objections like her predecessor:

“New York’s economy will depend on how quickly we get this project completed [and] I am pleased that we have cleared another important hurdle,” Hochul said in a statement. “[I] look forward to working with our partners to get this done and to show the world that we not only dream big, but act big.”

Fritsch was pleased by Hochul’s support.

“Cuomo really wanted to tinker with this project and have it done his way,” he said. “If this administration is willing to let everyone do their jobs, the project will get done and it will be great.”

Final numbers are not available until the official filing on Monday or Tuesday, but here is the basic fiscal split among the project participants (numbers may not be exact because of rounding. Also New Jersey’s share is expected to be a bit lower than New York’s share because of its funding of an adjacent bridge that is part of the project):

The Gateway Project_ Federal and Local Share

It’s not the first time supporters of the project have said they deserve federal funding. The idea for new tunnels has been pushed since 2011, and re-pushed after Hurricane Sandy damaged the existing tunnels in 2012. But funding questions limited the forward progress on the project through the end of the Obama administration. New York and New Jersey eventually agreed to fund part of the new tunnel project with Amtrak, but President Trump then refused to release federal funds for tunnel construction in 2018.

Now the project is headed back to the White House, this time led by President Biden, himself a rail user. In the past, he has been an explicit supporter, saying in 2017 that there was “no greater infrastructure priority in the country than the Gateway Project.” And since taking office, he made it clear to localities that they could borrow money to cover their Gateway costs, something the Trump administration had blocked.

Gateway Financial Plan 2021 Submittal Letter by Gersh Kuntzman on Scribd

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Five years after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie spiked the ARC transit tunnel to redirect money to roads, politicians are finally discussing how to go about upgrading rail capacity between Jersey and Midtown Manhattan, currently limited to a pair of century-old tunnels under the Hudson River. But just about every announcement related to the proposed Gateway Project comes with a […]