Senate Committee Hears Testimony About Amtrak Tunnels

By Brenda Flanagan

“Amtrak regrets the delays, and again I offer my sincere apologies to all who were affected,” said Amtrak Vice President Steve Gardner.

Gardner began by asking forgiveness for the hot mess of blown circuits and stalled trains that brought NJ Transit riders to the boiling point for days in late July. Politicians heard all about it from constituents.

“As one commuter said, I spend more time commuting than with my children. People aren’t gonna put up with that,” said Sen. Bob Gordon.

But they’ll have to, according to Gardner, who said fried circuits from the July fiasco are getting tested for corrosive salts. He described the 105-year-old twin tunnels as cracked, crumbling and corrupted by ocean flood waters — and wired with failure-prone circuits from the 1930s.

“I need to be clear. Given the age, the ongoing damage from Superstorm Sandy and the intense utilization of these tunnels, issues like the recent disruptions are not likely to be entirely preventable and, in fact, may increase over time until the tunnel can be renewed and modernized,” Gardner said.

“Every time one of these Amtrak tunnels has a problem, NJ transit riders are gonna take the greatest brunt here,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo.

Sarlo picked up on Gardner’s math — that closing a tunnel for repairs cuts rail traffic down from 24 trains per hour to just six during the rush, asking whether Amtrak’s trains get priority since they own the tunnels.

“Trains that will get first priority per hour are trains running on the northeast corridor, not NJ Transit trains, correct?” Sarlo asked.

“What we would do is work with NJ Transit to try to figure out how to accommodate as much service,” Gardner said.

“NJ Transit riders would have a bigger impact?” Sarlo asked.

“Absolutely. That’s pure and simple math,” Gardner said.

Gardner launched into a passionate PowerPoint presentation for the Gateway Project that’d build a new tunnel plus other major infrastructure upgrades, and ease traffic congestion, while allowing older tunnels to be repaired. But it’d cost billions and even with an 80 percent federal/20 percent local funding partnership, Govs. Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo have said they want to see Congress pony up some money first.

Committee members pointed to a pool of federal railroad project loans available — at 2.7 percent interest over 35 years. Sen. Loretta Weinberg noted residents are demanding action.

“Hopefully the governors of both our states, both New Jersey and New York has heard it. We can help move this forward in a positive manner because it is of utmost importance to the quality of life of the people we all represent,” she said.

“It’s going to take a partnership between the federal government, the states and the railroad. There’s no way one entity is going to deliver this program over the duration of time,” Gardner said.

“We need a Panama Canal kind of mentality and just focus our resources and energy and get all the parties together and view this as one of the most important things we can do in the region. Get it done as fast as we can,” Gordon said.

The committee will reconvene in September on the same hot topic to grill NJ Transit executives.