Readers Write: Gateway Tunnel progress overhyped

Readers Write: Gateway Tunnel progress overhyped

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s most recent joint announcement, with New York Sen. Charles Schumer along with New Jersey senators Bob Menendez and Corey Booker, outlining his cheerful outlook for progressing the proposed new Gateway Trans Hudson River tunnel is not worth the paper the press release was written on.  
The Gateway Development Corporation proposed earlier this year is still many months away from becoming a legal entity.  
Management of this project on an interim basis by a simple Memorandum of Understanding between New York, New Jersey, U.S. Department of Transportation and New Jersey Transit may go on into 2017.  
Just how will the future Gateway Development Corporation manage to finance the proposed $24 billion new Hudson River Tunnel?  
The tunnel would connect New Jersey with Penn Station.  
Moody’s Investor Services has questioned the ability of New Jersey to come up with its $6 billion share of the project cost.  
Others question how New York can find $6 billion for its share as well.  
Interesting to note that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is not a party to this memorandum of understanding.  The Metropolitan Transportation Authority Metro North ongoing West of Hudson Regional Transit Access Study is looking at this and other potential new services for Rockland and Orange County residents into New York City.   
Finding $70 million earlier this year between Amtrak and the Pennsylvania of New York and New Jersey to begin preliminary engineering was a drop in the bucket.  
Preliminary engineering followed by completion of final design and engineering up to 100 percent can average between 5 percent and sometimes even closer to 10 percent of a total project cost.  
You may need between $1.4 to $2.8 billion just for this task alone!
Recently finding $55 million to replace the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River is just a down payment toward the full $1.34 billion dollar cost.  
Promises by the DOT to “commit resources and accelerate environmental reviews” is difficult. 
New Jersey Transit staff and consultants will continue to be in the process of preparing detailed documents in conformance with the National Environmental Protect Act for another one to two years.  
At a minimum, the department of transportation will require a full blown Environmental Impact Statement. 
Based upon past history for other far smaller DOT Federal Transit Administration New Starts projects, this process alone easily averages several years.  
Too many transit agencies come before DOT Federal Transit Administration asking to expedite the environmental review process for their respective projects. 
“Fast Tracking” is rapidly becoming a cliche in the transit industry. 
Schumer earlier this year suggested that actual construction can begin by 2018. 
Now he has backtracked to 2019.  Even this new date is unrealistic. 
The environmental review process would have to be completed resulting in a finding from the DOT.  
Then you would need completion of design and engineering, a Full Funding Grant Agreement from DOT FTA for New Starts funding, secure the full $24 billion and complete the procurement process  for construction contractors.  
Don’t forget resolution of any real estate issues including obtainment of easements, relocation of businesses or acquisition of property.  
Past history for progression of the ill fated Access to the Regions Core, along with Second Avenue Subway and Long Island Rail Road East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal reveals that far more time will be required.  
Relief from some DOT “Buy America” requirements will play a role to both speed up this project and contain cost growth. 
Is DOT in a position to waive any of these requirements?  
Anyone in the transit industry knows that compliance with federal Buy America frequently adds both time and cost to a project.  
You can count on one hand the number of Buy America waivers issued by DOT to transit agencies in recent years.
Foxx, Booker and Schumer ($12 billion),  governors Cuomo ($6 billion) and Christie ($6 billion) all fail to identify or secure the specific source(s) for their financial contributions to the project. 
There are no significant dollars programmed in the new Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act for Gateway. 
This legislation now affords rail along with mass transit eligibility for DOT FTA New Starts funding.  
Foxx previously commented that up to $4 billion in FTA New Starts funding might become available to help fund the proposed $24 billion Gateway Tunnel project.  
This would still leave a shortfall of $8 billion in federal and $20 billion toward the overall project costs.  
There is no guarantee that these funds will actually be authorized and appropriated by future sessions of Congress and signed into law by future Presidents.  
The project would have to complete a competitive DOT FTA New Starts process, which takes several years before being approved under a Full Funding Grant Agreement.   
There are dozens of other potential DOT FTA New Starts projects being championed by many of the other 98 Senators and 435 Congress members. 
The requests far exceed any available current or future New Starts funding.  
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, New Jersey Transit, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New York City Department of Transportation and others from the Metropolitan New York Region all have their own respective projects competing against each other and the Gateway Tunnel for billions in New Starts funding over coming years.  
The largest FTA New Starts FFGA was $2.6 billion for MTA LIRR Eastside Access to Grand Central Terminal.  
Federal Railroad Administration Financing Loans have never exceeded $1 billion.    
Language contained within the FAST Act affording Amtrak the ability to use some of the $200 to $400 million in operating surplus profit it makes on the Northeast Corridor toward the new Hudson River Tunnel is not assured.  
This needs future approval by Congress.  
Schumer believes that Amtrak will contribute 10 percent or $4.4 billion toward the $24 billion total project cost.  
Amtrak still requires billions to fully implement real high-speed Rail on the northeast corridor between Washington and Boston.  
This doesn’t include billions more for routine state of good repair, safety, fleet equipment replacement and upgrades to bridges, stations and the East River tunnels.  
Even if Amtrak programmed $200 million yearly toward the Gateway Tunnel, it would take 24 years to come up with 10 percent or $4.4 billion for the project!   
The MTA, Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Transit all need billions more in coming years, just to reach a state of good repair.
Larry Penner
Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office.

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