Environmental statement reflects more accurate cost of proposed Gateway Tunnel

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WASHINGTON – A few months ago, news media widely cited Amtrak officials on the cost to build a new tunnel under the Hudson River – around $7.7 billion. Earlier this week, Federal Railroad Administration and NJ Transit released a draft environmental impact statement that increases the estimate to $12.9 billion.

That's a major increase, but $11.1 billion to construct a new tunnel into New York's Penn Station complex, and $1.8 billion to rehabilitate the existing century-old tunnel is closer to reality, according to Craig Schulz, Amtrak spokesman.

Schulz says that the original estimate was “highly conceptual.” It was made before planners determined the preferred route and factored in the cost of security and real estate, plus a 3.5 percent factor for inflation.

“The number will continue to fluctuate as engineering and design advances – this is to be expected,” Schulz says.

The project partners, including Amtrak, NJ Transit, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, along with the FRA are still working on a finance plan. The plan will determine what the Gateway Program will ask the federal government to grant.

The preferred tunnel route would be 12,365 feet long with two tracks in separate tubes. It would follow “the horizontal alignment of the former ARC Project.” The Access to the Region's Core Project, known as ARC, was a plan to build a new tunnel into Penn Station for commuter trains only. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie canceled the project when cost estimates approached $15 billion.

“We're going out to industry and getting feedback from the experts in the different ways to structure the procurement,” Schulz tells Trains News Wire. The project could be a form of design-build, or a public-private partnership.

The unanswered question is whether or not the Trump administration will support the project. On one hand, the 2018 budget proposal provides no funds for new starts under the Federal Transit Administration Capital Investment Grant program. The tunnels would be funded by a core capacity infrastructure grant under FTA's program.

However, administration officials, led by Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao, have acknowledged in congressional testimony that the Gateway Program, which includes the tunnels, is a project of greatest importance.

“We have been in very close contact with USDOT. We've gotten tremendous technical assistance from them. We would not been able to expedite the environmental process without their extraordinary cooperation and collaboration,” Schulz says. “We have done, and continue to do everything we can to emphasize the importance and urgency of this project. I think they understand that.”

Sometimes overlooked is another part of the tunnel project, replacement of the Portal Bridge, a swing span across the Hackensack River in Newark, N.J., built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1910. With 450 trains a day, several sources declare it the busiest railroad bridge in the Western Hemisphere. The bridge clears the river by just 24 feet, so it must be opened for barge traffic. The replacement “North Portal Bridge” would be a two-track fixed span high enough to clear water traffic. In the future a second bridge at the same location would add two tracks to access Penn Station.

Schulz calls the bridge “Phase 1a” of the project that includes tunnel construction and rehab. He said the bridge has the permits, and could begin construction immediately. The estimated cost is $1.5 billion. Half of that has been raised among local partners, Amtrak, NJ Transit, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

They are now waiting for a federal funding commitment.

Failure of the bridge or tunnel could cripple 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product – generated in the region around New York City.

“These are projects of national significance that don't move forward without a federal funding partner,” Schulz says.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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