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Governor Christie scuttled the "Access to the Region's Core" tunnel, and the chairman of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority this month effectively quashed an idea to extend the No. 7 subway to Secaucus.
But Amtrak's Gateway Project — the third of three multibillion-dollar proposals to construct a new pair of rail tunnels under the Hudson River – continues to simmer.
Although it has nowhere near the $14.5 billion needed to ultimately propel high-speed and commuter trains along the Northeast Corridor and into New York Penn Station, Gateway is gaining momentum as a project Amtrak is pitching as an answer to the region's need for rail congestion relief.
On Thursday, the project got a boost when the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $20 million for Amtrak to continue preliminary design and engineering work on the proposal. It still must be approved by the full Senate and House, but its survival in committee at a time when transportation programs are at risk for large funding cuts or elimination has encouraged backers.
"It's the most promising rail project at the moment," said Veronica Vanterpool, associate director at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a transportation watchdog group that advocated for the ARC tunnel project that Christie shut down in October 2010.
Among other things, she noted, Gateway calls for a second pair of rail tunnels that would provide backup for Amtrak's existing 100-year-old tunnels, which have been plagued with recent infrastructure breakdowns that have caused delays and left commuters stranded under the Hudson for hours. Amtrak shares the tracks with NJ Transit, which relies on it to get commuters into and out of New York Penn Station.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said the project is critical to the region, while MTA chairman Joseph Lhota said earlier this month that Gateway — rather than Mayor Bloomberg's idea to extend the No. 7 subway into New Jersey — was the best option for cross-Hudson commuters.
Still, transit advocates say enthusiasm should be tempered with reality.
Beyond Congress, there has been no financial support for the project, and even if it does happen, Gateway will provide little relief for today's commuters.
What was announced in February 2011 as a $13.5 billion project that would be completed by 2020 has been amended to cost $14.5 billion with a completion date of 2025.
Joe Clift, director of planning for the Long Island Railroad and advocate for improved regional rail, said in addition to funding obstacles, Gateway still needs to address commuters' need to access the East Side of Manhattan. And he worries that Gateway is tied more to Amtrak's vision for high-speed rail, rather than commuter service.
"It may be the only game it town, but it's an Amtrak game," he said. "It's really about high-speed inter-city rail."
Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole, however, said NJ Transit would benefit from the project.
He said that while Gateway would not double peak-hour service, or give North Jersey commuters a direct ride into Manhattan without having to transfer trains — the most appealing features of the ARC project — Cole said it would allow NJ Transit to get 36 trains into New York Penn Station every hour, compared with 20 today.
ARC had been more than 15 years in the planning and was a year into construction when Christie terminated the project. He said he did not want New Jersey taxpayers bearing the responsibilities for as much as $5 billion in cost overruns on what was supposed to be an $8.7 billion project.
However, a report released last week by the U.S. Government Accountability Office raised questions about Christie's claims of cost overruns. Congressional investigators with the non-partisan GAO said NJ Transit never expected the project to exceed $10 billion and that there was never any agreement between NJ Transit and the Federal Transit Administration, the federal sponsor of the project, on which agency would shoulder the burden of cost overruns.
NJ Transit declined to comment on the project, deferring to the governor's office. Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said that when Christie canceled the ARC project, he recognized that the need for cross-Hudson rail capacity remained and that he supported Gateway because it was an opportunity for multiple parties to share in the cost.
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