If Amtrak’s Gateway tunnel is too big, it will fail

Amtrak has big plans to build two new Hudson River tunnels and six new platform tracks at Penn Station as part of a project called Gateway, now estimated to cost $24 billion. It is hard to believe, in today’s political climate, that elected officials in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., will be able to fully fund this project. That’s a problem because new tunnel capacity has been urgently needed since Hurricane Sandy severely damaged the existing pair of 105-year-old tunnels in 2012.

The longer we wait, the greater the risk of losing the existing tunnels to the next hurricane or Nor’easter, which could cut off the Northeast Corridor—an essential rail route for our economy—at Penn Station for two or three years. To protect ourselves from such a doomsday event we need to take a lesson from the Second Avenue subway and break up the project into affordable phases.

We need to also consider a fundamental change in the way commuter rail services (which dominate 90% of the passenger and train movement at Penn Station) operate through Manhattan.

Our top priority today, however, must be to respond to Amtrak’s October 2014 report which outlined damage done by Hurricane Sandy to the existing 105-year-old tunnels. The report said e

Phased development of Gateway starting with a new single-track tunnel would allow for repair work to occur without draconian cuts in service. The cost of a single new tube would be much more affordable—approximately $5 billion to $6 billion—based on the experience with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s mega-tunnel projects (East Side Access, Second Avenue subway and the No. 7 train extension to Hudson Yards).

While the first phase of Gateway is underway, we should examine how other cities such as London, Paris and Philadelphia have streamlined regional rail operations and expanded service. Emulating those cities’ commuter systems would mean changing the way the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit operate through Penn Station, linking them across the region and opening up more service for consumers.

We’ve known for years that 35% of NJ Transit riders want access to Grand Central Terminal. Linking the Gateway project to the LIRR’s East Side Access could also eliminate the need to build six new terminal tracks at Penn, cutting upwards of $6 billion from Gateway’s cost.

Gateway is vital but at $24 billion is too ambitious to build all at once. We need a more affordable plan that adds some capacity under the Hudson River and encourages commuter-rail services to extend beyond their traditional territory. We already see this cooperation for Jets and Giants football games, so we know it can be done. A phased plan would ready us for the moment when Congress provides only partial funding, and allow us to make repair of the aging Hudson River tunnels the priority it should be.

ach existing tube must be taken out of service for a year for major rehabilitation within the next five years. Without new tunnel capacity, that would cut rush-hour capacity to six trains per hour from 24, which would be a disaster for Amtrak and NJ Transit customers.

The Second Avenue subway project provides a practical model for Gateway. The cost of Second Avenue (in 2000 dollars) was expected to exceed $17 billion. And while the full environmental impact statement was completed from lower Manhattan to the Bronx, only the section from 63rd Street to 96th Street was funded. That will relieve worst congestion along the Lexington Avenue line.

An innovative funding strategy is needed for this crucial project to come to fruition

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