It’s the on-again, off-again infrastructure drama that for years has left New York-New Jersey commuters anxious over whether the majority Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor rail line would become inaccessible. After the Trump administration stonewalled all hope of funding the much needed $11.6 billion Gateway rail tunnels under the Hudson River (to punish Democratic leaders in the two affected states), last week the Biden administration explicitly set aside money for the project in the blockbuster infrastructure bill currently being negotiated in the Senate.
The current pair of 110-year-old tunnels that connects Weehawken, New Jersey, and Penn Station in Manhattan by rail, the North River Tunnels, regularly accommodated 200,000 daily riders pre-pandemic, making them one of the most heavily trafficked commuter corridors in the U.S. Touted by the Obama administration as one of the nation’s most important transit arteries, the two existing one-way tunnels were flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and heavily damaged. Saltwater has been eating away at the structure and electrical systems of both tunnels, but closing them one at a time for repairs and running traffic across one tube would reduce the number of hourly trains by 75 percent, crippling the regional economy.
The alternative, building two new sets of tunnels while the originals undergo repair, would not only prevent further degradation but also alleviate projected growing demand—only $1.8 billion of the $11.6 billion required would go towards those repairs. If approved, the new tunnels could be built in the next eight years.
The Gateway tunnel reconstruction is only a relatively small part of the $30 billion Gateway Project, which, if fully realized, would modernize and build new bridges to connect Newark, New Jersey, with New York, and fund Penn Station improvements and train access. An earlier version of the program, Access to the Region’s Core (ARC), was floated in the early years of former President Obama’s first term, but, even with construction on the New York side underway, was canceled by former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. At the time, Christie cited the project’s rising cost as too much of a burden on the state of New Jersey, and directed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who had pledged $3 billion, to direct that money to other projects in New Jersey.
Now, both New York and New Jersey will each fund 25 percent of the tunnel reconstruction costs through the use of 35-year, fixed-interest loans from the federal government. While this had been common practice (and agreed upon by the Obama Administration) pre-2016, the Trump Administration refused to agree to funding the project this way, calling it an “unserious proposal” in 2017 that would use no local funding.
On Friday, May 25, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told lawmakers that the Gateway tunnel project had “national significance” and that environmental review was on track to wrap up as soon as possible.