Amtrak Tries Picking Up the ARC Pieces With “Gateway Project”

Amtrak's proposed "Gateway Tunnel" would increase capacity for both NJ Transit and Amtrak.

This morning, NJ’s Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez joined Amtrak President Joseph Boardman to make the exciting announcement that Amtrak will try to take the lead on a new trans-Hudson rail project, the “Gateway Project.” The agency has proposed a $50 million engineering study that will take advantage of the work done for the ARC Tunnel. It says the project can be completed as early as 2020, at an estimated cost of $13.5 billion (which includes the cost of replacing the Portal Bridge).

The project includes two new tunnels that would accommodate an additional 13 NJ Transit trains and 8 Amtrak trains into New York City per hour, compared to the 25 NJ Transit trains/hour ARC would have. Its new tracks would go into the planned Moynihan Station and a new Penn Station South in shallower tunnels than those planned for ARC. As currently proposed, the project does not include ARC’s Secaucus “loop tracks” that would have created one-seat rides for riders of the Pascack Valley, Port Jervis, and Main/Bergen County Lines. However, it would allow for one-seat rides from the southern end of the North Jersey Coast Line and other places which currently face a two-seat ride because of limited NJ-NYC tunnel capacity. The project also includes improvements which are part of Amtrak’s plan to eventually run high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor.

In a statement, Tri-State, Environment New Jersey, and the Sierra Club’s NJ chapter called the new study “exciting news” and applauded NJ’s Senate delegation for “stepping into the breach and standing up for transit riders and the transportation needs of our region.” They also said improved bus service across the Hudson was needed now, and called on Gov. Christie to get behind both near-term bus improvements and the new Gateway Tunnel.

An increased federal role has jump-started transportation projects in the past. Connecticut’s New Haven-Springfield Rail Line was boosted after ConnDOT reworked the project so it could be positioned to take advantage of federal high-speed rail funds.

Whether an Amtrak-led trans-Hudson tunnel project will fare any better than ARC may come down to Congressional politics. On the one hand, Republicans in the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee are pushing high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor. But those Republicans are no friend of Amtrak, having previously said the agency should get out of the fast train business and leave it to private firms. Meanwhile, the GOP’s deficit hawks have taken direct aim at transportation spending.

If the tunnel is to open to trains by 2020, as Amtrak suggests, funding commitments would need to be lined up in the next few years. The federal agency will reportedly “take a lead in finding ways to pay the cost and will look for contributions from local, regional and state governments including New Jersey, New York State, New York City,” the Port Authority, the MTA, and private investors.

Image: via Amtrak.

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