» New rail tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan, left for dead a few months ago, comes roaring back as the Gateway Tunnel. Yet it now faces competition for limited funds.
Amtrak will not allow itself to miss the train for President Obama’s effort to “win the future.” Two weeks after the State of the Union address, in which Mr. Obama announced his intention to promote a high-speed rail system that connects 80% of the country’s population, the national railroad has made its first move.
This morning, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman and New Jersey Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez headlined a press conference in which the railroad articulated a basic framework for a new rail tunnel into Manhattan. The connection — named the Gateway Project — would generally follow the alignment of the Access to the Region’s Core project, a $10 billion link that would have carried New Jersey Transit commuter trains into a new terminal before it was cancelled last October by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who cited state budget concerns for his decision.
In connection with the replacement of the moribund Portal Bridge just west of Secaucus Station, the Gateway Tunnel would represent the first, $13.5 billion, step in Amtrak’s $117.5 billion plan to upgrade the entire Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston to 220 mph speeds. Completion of this stage is proposed for 2020.
Though the necessity of a new rail link between New Jersey and Manhattan has been evident for years because of increased passenger traffic and decaying infrastructure, the decision by Mr. Christie appeared to have put any such project on hold for a decade or more, since funds committed to the project — $3 billion from both the Port Authority and the Federal Transit Administration — would be redistributed. But this announcement from Amtrak changes the equation significantly. In light of the President’s active support of high-speed rail and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica’s excitement about the Northeast Corridor, it may well be a viable program.
No funding is currently available for the project, even the $50 million necessary to kickstart engineering studies. In addition, the Gateway Tunnel faces competition that has arisen since ARC was cancelled: A potential extension of the New York Subway’s 7 Train, a project that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has endorsed in recent months.
That project could arguably be constructed for fewer funds, since it would require little new tunneling under expensive Manhattan real estate. In addition, the Subway link would have the serious advantage of direct service to Grand Central Terminal and Queens, 24 hours a day — something neither New Jersey Transit or Amtrak will be able to offer. (Amtrak proposes to loop the 7 Train east along 31st Street to serve the station, a questionable proposition.)
Nonetheless, the Gateway Tunnel would service to reinforce the Northeast Corridor intercity rail system far more significantly, and even more than ARC would have. That’s because, unlike ARC, the Gateway Tunnel would be connected to Penn Station, allowing Amtrak trains running from Washington to Boston to use the link. Several new dead-end platforms would be constructed just south of the existing station, forming a new terminus for New Jersey Transit and opening up more space in the existing Penn Station for Amtrak and potentially Metro-North trains from Upstate New York and Connecticut.
ARC would have dead-ended into a cavern far underground, making it both incompatible with the existing rail network but also deeply inconvenient to its riders, who would have had to ride long escalators to the top.
The new tunnel’s capacity would be split between Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, with 8 intercity trains and 13 commuter trains per hour (added to 12 and 20, respectively, today). This represents a decrease from the 25 additional hourly commuter trains ARC would have provided. The plans to connect the Bergen and Passaic lines to ARC to allow for direct service to Manhattan have been abandoned.
Yet the advantages of allowing through trains to use this facility ultimately mean Amtrak will not have to build yet another link under the Hudson in the coming years, as it had planned. In addition, the Gateway Tunnel would provide a vital backup in case something goes wrong with the 100-year-old tunnels currently serving trains between Manhattan and New Jersey.
Amtrak will have to construct a very careful case for its project in order to assemble the necessary funding, especially in the context of a Republican Congress that has made cutting national investments its major priority. Unlike ARC, Gateway would serve intercity as well as commuter traffic, so it is unclear whether the Federal Transit Administration would agree to sign up to aid in sponsoring it. On the other hand, the Federal Railroad Administration, which administers high-speed rail funds, might want to get involved — but this project would do nothing to speed up trains, since it would simply duplicate a service that already exists.
Ultimately, the national railroad’s best argument for the project is that it would serve national economic growth objectives, providing just the sort of infrastructure repair that the President has so forcefully recommended. It would be difficult even for conservative Republicans to argue that this project does not fulfill Washington’s mandate to improve the nation’s transportation systems, since it is of course at its core a connection between two states.
Images above: Amtrak Gateway Project Maps, from Amtrak