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Rail News: Federal Legislation & Regulation

FTA lowers grant ratings for Amtrak tunnel, bridge projects

The Gateway Hudson Tunnel project calls for a new rail tunnel to be build under the Hudson River.
Photo – Amtrak


The Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) downgrading this week of two critical "Gateway" projects in the Northeast Corridor will further jeopardize the projects from receiving federal funding, supporters of the passenger-rail corridor said yesterday.

In its annual funding recommendations report to Congress on the Capital Investment Grants (CIG) program, the FTA this week rated both the Hudson Tunnel and the Portal North Bridge replacement projects as "medium-low" in priority for federal grants. Medium-low is second-lowest rating on a five-point scale that helps determine whether federal funding is warranted.

The projects are key elements of the Amtrak Gateway program. The FTA's latest ratings indicated the Trump administration's shift away from the Obama administration's support for federal help in paying for the projects, Gateway program supporters said.

"In case it wasn't clear before, President Trump today tried to land another death blow to Gateway, by having his Federal Transit Administration vindictively and inexplicably downgrade the project in order to cut off critical federal funding," said U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) in a press release.

Michael Friedberg, executive director of the Coalition for the Northeast Corridor Executive Director Michael Friedberg said the FTA's decision means the corridor's stakeholders need to "raise their voices and work harder" to show the administration and Congress that the Gateway program is necessary to support the region's economy.

"This is not just about the region's thousands of businesses and millions of commuters who desperately need the new transportation infrastructure that Gateway would provide – it is about making our country more competitive and addressing a widely known threat to our national economy," said Friedberg. "If left unaddressed, that economic threat could quickly become a crisis that slows productivity and harms businesses and other stakeholders throughout the Northeast Corridor and across the nation."

The existing Portal North bridge is a two-track moveable swing-span structure located between Kearny and Secaucus, New Jersey. It is a critical link on the corridor for New Jersey and intercity commuters heading into New York Penn Station. Built in 1907, the bridge is a major bottleneck and source of delays for the nearly 474 Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains that use it daily to travel over the Hackensack River east of Newark.

Amtrak, NJ Transit and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have agreed to fund half of the $1.5 billion cost to build the new bridge. In July 2016, the project was accepted into the FTA's CIG project development pipeline.

The Hudson Tunnel project calls for a new tunnel to be build under the Hudson River, as well as rehabbing and modernizing the 106-year-old North River Tunnel, which currently accommodates two tracks under the river between New York Penn Station in Manhattan and New Jersey.

Not only is the existing tunnel's infrastructure antiquated, the tunnel was severely damaged during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Although Amtrak claims the tunnel is safe for use, emergency maintenance continues to interrupt service. A permanent fix can occur only through construction of a new tunnel — a belief Amtrak executives have asserted over the past several years.

In July 2017, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the $12.9 billion project, which would include $1.8 billion to rehab the existing structure. The DEIS' preferred alternative calls for building two new rail tubes in a single tunnel beneath the Hudson River, as well refurbishing the existing structures. The new tubes would be designed to maintain the current level of train service while the North River tubes are removed from service one at a time for rehabilitation.

To learn more about the Amtrak Gateway projects, read this feature in the December 2017 issue of Progressive Railroading.