TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Train delays like the ones caused recently by electrical problems in the century-old Hudson River tunnel could become much more common if a new tunnel isn’t built, an Amtrak executive told New Jersey lawmakers Monday.
Even if that anticipated $14 billion project were started now, it wouldn’t be complete until 2025 at the earliest, said Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s vice president of Northeast corridor infrastructure investment.
“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,” he said.
In the interim, there is no viable contingency plan in place if one of the two tubes in the tunnel has to be taken out of service for an extended period of time, which would reduce train traffic during rush hour from 24 trains to six, Gardner told the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee.
He said vintage equipment led to the chaos at Penn Station last month and even showed a piece of obsolete cable, CBS2’s Ilana Gold reported.
“They’re quite an antique and we rely on them every day,” he said.
The huge breaker boxes in Penn Station kept tripping because of failures in a three-mile long, 80-year-old power supply cable.
The electrical problems caused five days of aggravation for thousands of NJ TRANSIT rail riders during the week of July 19, with at least 30-minute delays and cancellations.
“If it rains it’s delayed. If it’s sunny it’s delayed. If it’s windy it’s delayed. It doesn’t matter,” one commuter told CBS2’s Dick Brennan.
Another problem addressed at the hearing was damage from Superstorm Sandy, including salt and chloride from sea water that have destroyed the concrete walls in the train tunnel and haven’t been replaced.
“Given the age and the ongoing damage from Superstorm Sandy, issues are not likely to be entirely preventable and may increase over time,” Gardner said.
“Such extensive demolition and reconstruction of the tunnel can only occur during a complete shutdown, which will last for more than a year,” Gardner added.
Amtrak’s goal is to “keep the tunnel in working order to support the traffic we have today,” Gardner said, adding that the tunnel is structurally sound even though it was built 105 years ago. “Every day we defer is expanding our risk.”
Monday’s hearing came as the major stakeholders in a tunnel project, the governors of New Jersey and New York, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the federal Department of Transportation, grapple with how to pay for it.
It is a steep challenge. Gardner told lawmakers that it would cost Amtrak $1 billion per year just to keep its Northeast corridor infrastructure in a state of good repair, and would cost another $4 billion per year to complete its backlog of projects on the 457-mile corridor, a span that includes numerous century-old bridges and a 142-year-old tunnel.
The program also calls for an expansion of Penn Station, 1010 WINS’ Rebecca Granet reported. Gardner said the improvements are needed to protect today’s service and grow in the decades ahead.
Amtrak gets about $1.4 billion annually in federal funding, he said, of which about $300 million is used for Northeast corridor needs.
In the wake of the delays in July, federal Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx sent a letter to Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York urging them to meet with him within two weeks to put together a strategy for building new crossings under the river.
Cuomo then sent a letter and Christie issued a statement urging the government to come up with more money for the current project, called Gateway. Cuomo’s letter made reference to the government’s alleged offer to provide funding in the form of a loan that the states would have to pay back. The Port Authority also sent a letter to Foxx urging a bigger financial commitment.
“It’s a little like a poker game. Who’s going to show their cards first, who’s going to put their money on the table?” Port Authority chairman John Degnan said last week. “I think clearly that has to be the federal government, and that will serve as an inducement for the states.”
Several years ago, the government pledged $3 billion for a tunnel project initially estimated to cost about $9 billion, with the rest of the cost borne by New Jersey and the Port Authority. Christie pulled the plug on that project in 2010, citing concerns that his state would be forced to pay for billions in cost overruns.
The senate committee is also discussing a long term solution and possibly speeding up financing for the proposed Gateway Tunnel under the Hudson.
Committee chairman Sen. Robert Gordon said Congress needs to step up, WCBS 880’s Jim Smith reported.
“I really think we need a Panama Canal kind of mentality,” he said.
Gordon told Brennan he doesn’t believe things are at a standoff.
“I just learned for the first time that the federal government is willing to put up 80 percent of the funding and that there’s a loan program available at 2 or 3 percent,” he said.
Lawmakers also want to hear from the head of NJ TRANSIT and the New Jersey Transportation Commissioner, who are expected to testify in September.
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