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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Commuter tunnel under the Hudson won’t be finished until 2035

A worker sets a barricade during a media tour on a train tunnel in New York, on Oct. 17, 2018. The crucial Gateway transit link from New Jersey to New York will now open three years later than expected and is likely to cost $2 billion more to construct.

By Dana Rubinstein

Eight years ago, the head of Amtrak warned that the century-old rail tunnel connecting New Jersey to midtown Manhattan would have to be shut down in some form by 2034 to address the ravages of age and Hurricane Sandy.

It was hoped that the Gateway infrastructure project, which had then already been unveiled, would lead to the construction of a new tunnel before the estimated deadline.

But on Wednesday, the commission managing the project announced that the new tunnel would not be completed until 2035, three years later than expected, and a year beyond the deadline envisioned by Joseph Boardman, that former Amtrak CEO. And the old tunnel — owned by Amtrak but more heavily used by New Jersey Transit — will not be fully rehabilitated until 2038, also three years later than planned.

Not only is the new tunnel experiencing delays but the project is also expected to cost more: $16.1 billion, up from a previous estimate of $14.1 billion. Both estimates include the cost of financing the project.

In an interview, Kris Kolluri, the new CEO of the Gateway Development Commission, a public authority created by New York and New Jersey, said he believed that price tag would remain unchanged, within “an acceptable margin of error.” He attributed at least $1 billion of the cost escalation to “market volatility and inflation.”

“This is a massive tunnel with various component parts, and it is important to also know that it is a long project from a duration standpoint, and it’s also complex in scope,” Kolluri said.

The commission hopes to make up much of the cost difference with funding from the federal infrastructure law passed last year. The remaining cost overrun will be split among New York and New Jersey and the federal government.

In a statement, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul touted the new cost analysis as “an important step in moving this transformative project forward.”

Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey also expressed support for the project in a statement. “In light of the impact of inflation and other market factors on Gateway’s cost, we remain unwavering in our commitment to affordable and accessible transportation for all New Jersey residents, commuters, and visitors,” he said.

Critics of the region’s infrastructure projects have long questioned both the cost of the tunnels and Amtrak’s reluctance to enhance the usefulness of the new tunnel by running commuter trains from New Jersey through Penn Station and east to Grand Central Terminal or Long Island.

Eric Goldwyn, director of the Transportation and Land Use program at the NYU Marron Institute, has studied subway construction costs both here and abroad and said the project was emblematic of the region that built the most expensive subway line, per mile, on earth.

“U.S. infrastructure costs, from our subway work, are the most expensive, and the Northeast is more expensive than the West Coast,” Goldwyn said.

The 4.5-mile rail project will burrow beneath the New Jersey Palisades, the Hudson River and the Hudson Yards into Penn Station.

The need for a new rail connection between New Jersey and Manhattan, the most congested rail link along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, is well-established. In 2010, Chris Christie, then the governor of New Jersey, killed an earlier project to build a cross-Hudson River rail tunnel known as ARC, or Access to the Region’s Core, even though construction had already begun. Completion had been expected in 2018.

At the time, Christie said the project risked cost overruns that New Jersey would have to bear, though a subsequent report by the Government Accountability Office cast doubt on the claim.

Christie ultimately steered $4 billion of the funding toward the state’s highway trust fund.

In the aftermath of the project’s cancellation, Amtrak took ownership of the issue and cobbled together the Gateway program. It includes a new rail bridge over the Hackensack River — an element that has also seen significant cost escalation — and a southerly expansion of Penn Station.

The Gateway tunnel plan, in turn, contains three main elements: a new two-track rail tunnel to replace the deteriorating one still in use; repair of that existing, 112-year-old tunnel, and concrete casements to preserve the tunnel’s right of way under Hudson Yards.

The Gateway plan suffered years of delays under the Trump administration.

At the time of the original tunnel’s construction in the early 20th century, the railroads serving New York City from the west terminated on the New Jersey shore, and passengers boarded ferries to travel the final leg to Manhattan. Underwater rail tunnel construction technology was new, and, by today’s standards, primitive.

That cast-iron tunnel continues to operate today.

Before the pandemic, the tunnel averaged 200,000 riders a weekday. Should Amtrak have to close half of the existing tunnel, only six trains would be able to use it per hour, compared with 24 when it is fully operational.

Gateway Development Commission officials estimate current weekday ridership at 50% to 80% of the pre-pandemic average. But officials expect it to rebound. A recent report by the Regional Plan Association concluded that “trans-Hudson travel demand on the heaviest travel days is likely to be at or above pre-COVID levels by the time the Hudson Tunnel Project is fully completed.”

“We’re building a project for a century,” Kolluri said. “We’re not building for the next four years.”

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