Gateway Tunnel Tops Agenda at Transportation Conference

By Briana Vannozzi

It’s hard to argue against public transportation as one of New Jersey’s most pressing issues: 100-year-old tunnels and bridges in need of repair, hundreds of thousands of commuters relying on them to keep things flowing.

“It is critical going forward that we’re able to prove ourselves and demonstrate effectiveness and efficiency,” said New Jersey Department of Transportation Commissioner Richard Hammer.

Even in a room full of business, labor and government leaders, ensuring the future resiliency of New Jersey’s mass transportation is common ground. Industry insiders got an update on the state’s most critical projects at the NJ Alliance for Action‘s annual transportation conference. Top of the list? The estimated $24 billion Gateway Tunnel to replace the deteriorating train tunnel under the Hudson.

“These tunnels have to get built. We’re putting all of our available funding to work. There is nothing that we are not doing at the moment,” Hammer said.

“You will see pre-construction activity in July of this year getting ready for construction which will take place at the end of this year, beginning of next year if we get the federal funding,” said John Porcari, interim executive director of the Gateway Program Development Corporation.

There’s a 10-year time span until one of the tubes will need to be taken out of commission to be rehabilitated for 18 months, causing major disruptions. And with funding in limbo, transportation advocates are on edge.

“I am concerned, and we need to have some answers as to what the critical timeline is to meeting the demands of rehabilitating the existing structures. When do we need to have funding locked in place? When do we need to have construction started so that there are no issues with taking out the tunnel and there is minimal disruption?” asked Janna Chernetz, NJ policy director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

Despite recent investments, particularly through the reauthorized Transportation Trust Fund, New Jersey still received a D+ infrastructure grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. NJ Transit riders, after dealing with two derailments and a stuck train in a one month span, wouldn’t be surprised.

“The time has come for New Jersey to be more than just a tenant participating in the discussions with the landlord, Amtrak. The time has come for us to have much more of a voice in these matters, not just at Penn Station New York but along the entire Northeast Corridor through New Jersey,” said NJ Transit Executive Director Steven Santoro.

Santoro assured the crowd Amtrak’s plans to repair and replace systems at New York Penn are moving along on schedule.

“We have all the ingredients in place to make progress. I think everybody is just hoping that progress happens faster,” said New Jersey Chamber of Commerce President Tom Bracken.

“We’re going to have to have structural changes, we’re going to have a major overhaul with an intensive look into how we fund transportation,” said former Gov. Jim Florio.

Gov. Christie took a slightly different route in addressing the crowd, first criticizing gubernatorial front-runner Phil Murphy’s promises to fix the infrastructure problems. Then adding that he came through in his promise to renew the TTF and get the money the state gravely needs. So why not trust him on his proposal to use lottery funds to aid a badly bleeding pension system?

“The lottery proposal we’re making is a gift to all of you to expend the last political capital we have before we leave the improve the system for the next person,” Christie said.

This was the governor’s third and final time addressing the alliance. And while some transportation advocates noted it’s been five years since his last visit when critical transportation issues have reached a peak, with the Transportation Trust Fund now authorized, this was more of a victory lap.