Federal transit officials say they have a new plan to fix the 109-year-old rail tunnel under the Hudson River.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao testified before a House Appropriations subcommittee Thursday that instead of waiting for the Gateway tunnel project to earn federal funding approval, the Department of Transportation is working with Amtrak on a plan to rehab the existing tunnel – without taking it out of service.
“Right now, the plan is to build the second tunnel – which will take 7 to 10 years – and then go back and rehabilitate the current tunnel. And what we are suggesting at the department is, can we not do this concurrently? Take a look at the existing tunnel, repair that, while we are preparing for the second tunnel,” she told lawmakers.
The train tubes, which were already crumbling due to age, were inundated with corrosive saltwater during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, further accelerating their deterioration.
Chao cited New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to repair the similarly damaged Canarsie Tunnel without taking the L train out of service as their guide.
That project involves “racking” new power and communication wires high up on the tunnel walls rather than burying new lines in concrete, as a way to keep them accessible for future repairs and out of the pathway of future floods.
The work, which began last April, takes place during nights and weekends.
A spokesperson for the Gateway Program Development Corporation said the group, which includes Amtrak, is on board with the plan to repair the existing tunnel using the racking method, but added “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.”
Chao agreed that a new tunnel is still needed in order to increase capacity, but said the project first needs to earn a higher rating from the Federal Transit Administration.
“They’ve got to get their rating up to at least a ‘medium-high’ for us to be able to talk about further financing,” Chao said.
Last month, the FTA stamped the project with a “medium-low” rating, citing concerns over local funding sources.
But state officials say the federal government’s ranking doesn’t take into consideration a revised funding application for the project, which trimmed $1.4 billion from the total cost and decreased the project’s reliance on federal dollars.
The $1.7 billion Portal North Bridge project – a key component of the Gateway Program – recently earned a “medium-high” rating that makes it eligible to receive federal funding.
According to Amtrak, the latest cost estimate to build a new rail tunnel is $9.5 billion, while a rehabilitation of the existing tunnel would cost $1.8 billion.
The plan to fix the existing tunnel ahead of building a new one got major pushback from members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation, who have urged the Trump administration to prioritize funding for the Gateway tunnel.
Rep. Tom Malinowski called the proposal “dead on arrival.”
“We know that’s not a feasible idea, to be repairing a tunnel while it’s in use,” he said. “That’s going to lead to more delays.”
Sen. Bob Menendez said Chao’s plan is another example of the Trump administration’s unwillingness to fund the Gateway Project.
“We will get there despite her obstacles and the obstacles the president has created,” he said. “But God forbid one of those tunnels closes, you will see how dramatically the administration will come running to endorse Gateway.”