More Pain for N.J. Commuters: Tunnel Repairs Could Cause Big Delays

By 

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Feb. 27, 2020

The tunnels beneath the Hudson River carry 70,000 commuters between New Jersey and Manhattan during rush hours. 

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Commuters who travel by train between New Jersey and New York already have to cope with a seemingly endless cycle of delays and cancellations. During the evening rush on Thursday, for example, New Jersey Transit trains leaving Manhattan were delayed by up to an hour.

The pain may be about to get worse.

With the Trump administration showing no signs of endorsing a plan for a second set of rail tunnels under the Hudson River, Amtrak has decided to start repairing the two existing tunnels before one of them fails completely, according to a company official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plans were still being developed.

The 109-year-old tunnels, which operate at full capacity during peak periods and are the only route for trains moving between New York City and New Jersey, have been crumbling at an accelerating pace since Hurricane Sandy flooded them with salt water in 2012.

But the repairs that Amtrak is contemplating would almost certainly create enormous upheaval, disrupting the schedules of both Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, which is the nation’s third-busiest railroad and carries about 70,000 commuters to Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan during rush hours.

For Amtrak, the work could cripple its service throughout the Northeast, a vital network that is relied on by many business people.

With the repair plans not yet finalized, it was unclear exactly how service would be affected. But the decision to proceed with the project quickly became a cause for concern.

“I think everybody should be very worried about what kind of disruptions we’re going to see because of this,” said Thomas K. Wright, the chief executive of the Regional Plan Association, an urban research and policy group. “But I don’t think Amtrak has an alternative.”

The revelation that Amtrak planned to repair the old tunnels was confirmed on Thursday by Elaine Chao, the transportation secretary, in testimony to the House Appropriations Committee.

“Given the time, the cost, and the complexity of building an entirely new tunnel, the department is working with Amtrak to design and validate a faster and more cost-effective method to improve safety and functionality in this tunnel as the first order of business,” Ms. Chao said.

Amtrak executives and elected officials in New York and New Jersey have implored Ms. Chao and President Trump to make building new tunnels a priority. They argue that the failure of one of the old tunnels would badly damage the U.S. economy.

But Mr. Trump has shown no interest so far in helping the two states, and the tunnel has become an element in the souring relations between his administration and local leaders.

The federal Department of Transportation has not rated a proposed $11 billion project to build new tunnels highly enough for it to qualify for federal financing. New York and New Jersey have agreed to cover half of the project’s cost, but federal officials have questioned where that money would come from.

Amtrak officials have warned that they would eventually need to take the old tunnels out of service, one at a time, for two years each to fix them. Without new tunnels in place by then, they said, peak service would be cut by 75 percent, leaving thousands of commuters with no way to get to work.

But Amtrak, which owns the tunnels and Penn Station, has given up hope that new tunnels will be built before the old ones must be repaired. Even if an agreement with the Trump administration were to be reached, it could take another eight to 10 years to complete the new tunnel project.

Amtrak has been studying ways of repairing the interiors of the tunnels with minimal disruption to service since last fall, the company official said. The repairs are expected to cost more than $100 million, which Amtrak would divert from other improvements it had planned.

Inside the tunnels, the tracks are flanked by concrete bench walls that protect power cables. One improvement that has been suggested is to rack the cables along the sides of the tunnels, as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority opted to do in the tunnel that the L subway line between Manhattan and Brooklyn under the East River.

That approach, which has been tried in Europe and was favored by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, averted a full shutdown of the L train tunnel.

Mr. Cuomo said on Thursday that he had discussed the method with Ms. Chao.

“I’ve been speaking to Secretary Chao about it,” he said. “I’ve been speaking to the president about it. I’ve been speaking to everyone about it. There has been no desire to fund the new tunnels.”

During her testimony on Thursday, Ms. Chao seemed open to the idea of finding ways to expedite repairs.

“Beginning rehab work in the near-term is the right move; and not waiting years for the construction of a new tunnel,” Ms. Chao testified, adding that “new and innovative methods” for making the repairs could allow Amtrak to start on them “ten years ahead of schedule.”

The new tunnels are part of a larger project known as Gateway that would increase rail capacity across the Hudson. The first phase of the Gateway plan calls for replacing the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River in New Jersey, another troublesome bottleneck that is more than a century old.

Some Gateway supporters welcomed the plan to repair the old tunnels, but they emphasized that fixing them would not reduce the need for new tunnels.

“We agree with the view that rehabbing the existing tunnels is vital to more reliable service for passengers, and must take into consideration all available technology and methods, including racking,” said Stephen Sigmund, a spokesman for the Gateway Development Corporation, which is overseeing the project.

“We stress that the notion of a ‘rehab in service’ plan to extend the useful life of the 109-year-old tunnels does not obviate the need to finally build new, 21st century Hudson tunnels that meet the needs of the region and the nation,” he said.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic majority leader, echoed that sentiment.

“Amtrak had no choice but to go forward with its second-best solution because of the administration’s intransigence at refusing to move forward on the Gateway project,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement.

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