Rail tun­nel project scram­bling as fund­ing dead­line looms

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - NEWS - By David Porter

NE­WARK » A $13 bil­lion project to build a new rail tun­nel into New York is scram­bling to stay in the run­ning for key fed­eral fund­ing as a July 14 dead­line looms.

Ac­cord­ing to the fed­eral De­part­ment of Transportation, the tun­nel project, the largest com­po­nent of the Gate­way rail project that plans to re­place cen­tury-old rail in­fra­struc­ture in New York and New Jersey, is lack­ing some key com­po­nents to re­main el­i­gi­ble for bil­lions in fed­eral grants.

On Fri­day, of­fi­cials sent a let­ter to DOT re­quest­ing an ex­ten­sion past the July 14 dead­line, when the twoyear project de­vel­op­ment phase is sched­uled to ex­pire.

Fail­ure to get an ex­ten­sion could put the project’s al­ready ten­u­ous fi­nan­cial prog­no­sis in fur­ther jeop­ardy and send of­fi­cials back to square one. It also would de­lay the start of con­struc­tion, ten­ta­tively planned for late 2019.

The ex­ist­ing cen­tu­ry­old Hudson River rail tun­nel op­er­ates at ca­pac­ity dur­ing rush hours and suf­fered ex­ten­sive salt­wa­ter dam­age in 2012’s Su­per­storm Sandy. Am­trak of­fi­cials have said ei­ther of its two tubes could fail in the next 10-15 years, which would par­a­lyze train travel be­tween Bos­ton and Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

A new tun­nel would al­low the ex­ist­ing tun­nel to be re­paired, with the even­tual goal of hav­ing both in op­er­a­tion and greatly in­creas­ing ca­pac­ity.

Part­ners in the project, in­clud­ing New Jersey Tran­sit and the Port Au­thor­ity of New York and New Jersey, “con­tinue to do ev­ery­thing we can to ad­vance the most ur­gent in­fra­struc­ture need in the coun­try, re­plac­ing an in­creas­ingly fail­ing 108-year-old ‘one track in, one track out’ rail sys­tem that links 10 per­cent of the GDP with mod­ern, re­li­able 21st cen­tury transportation in­fra­struc­ture for over 200,000 rid­ers a day,” Craig Schulz, spokesman for the Gate­way De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion, said Fri­day.

Even if it re­ceives an ex­ten­sion, the project can’t ad­vance to the next, en­gi­neer­ing phase of the grant process un­til the DOT gives final en­vi­ron­men­tal ap­proval, Schulz said. The project sub­mit­ted its en­vi­ron­men­tal report to the DOT sev­eral months ago.

That ap­proval process has been de­layed by ques­tions over whether the Gate­way De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion, a non­profit en­tity formed to over­see the project, has the au­thor­ity to ap­ply for fed­eral grants, ac­cord­ing to the DOT.

While that mat­ter is be­ing hashed out, the Port Au­thor­ity has stepped in to act as project spon­sor.

The tun­nel project has been at the cen­ter of a bit­ter de­bate be­tween of­fi­cials in New York and New Jersey and the DOT over fund­ing.

In De­cem­ber, both states un­veiled plans to pay back fed­eral loans for half of the project, un­der an un­der­stand­ing reached with Pres­i­dent Barack Obama that the gov­ern­ment would pay for the other half.

Of­fi­cials in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion have said no such agree­ment ex­isted, and if it did, it doesn’t now. In re­cent months they have said the two states’ use of fed­eral loans doesn’t count as a lo­cal con­tri­bu­tion to the project, even though the states will be pay­ing back the loans.

In March, Sec­re­tary of Transportation Elaine Chao told a House com­mit­tee that Trump was mov­ing to block fund­ing for the project be­cause New York and New Jersey weren’t putting up enough of their own money.

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