Hudson River tunnel faces long list of obstacles

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Despite signs of progress, a long-delayed new rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey is anything but shovel ready.

From laborious environmental reviews to what's likely to be a bruising fight in Congress and complicated negotiations between the two states over the financial details of their plan, there's no small list of challenges that could derail the latest effort to get the tunnel built.

On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wrote to President Barack Obama to describe their plan. The states and their shared Port Authority would pay half the tunnel project's overall $14 billion to $20 billion price tag, and the federal government would pay the rest.

Cuomo likened it to a "neighborhood" transaction.

"Like the old days when you did business on a handshake and you had a disagreement," he told reporters. "We'll split it fifty-fifty. Now let's go."

Experts say a second tunnel is badly needed to address congestion and chronic delays on the existing tunnel — and to avoid disruption of the Northeast's entire rail system, the busiest corridor in the nation.

The governors' letter was praised by leaders in Washington as a sign of progress. But as Cuomo acknowledged, many details must be worked out and approved before the project — which is expected to take a decade — can even begin.

First, there is the approval of the federal funding. Proponents will have to persuade colleagues from both parties and all regions of the country to support billions in federal dollars for a tunnel between New York and New Jersey.

There will be other big projects competing for the money as well: Los Angeles, for example, needs federal money for an ambitious subway expansion it hopes to complete before a possible 2024 Olympic Games.

Funding for Amtrak has been slashed in recent years, and it's been several years since Congress passed a comprehensive, multiyear transportation plan.

"We need a long-term, sustainable transportation bill which doesn't exist," said Paul Larrouse, director of the National Transit Institute at Rutgers University and an expert in transportation finance. Still, he said, "most people aren't going to argue with the need for this project, given that it's in the economic center of the country."

Closer to home, New Jersey and New York will have to agree on how to cover their half of the price tag. In addition to the tunnel, the project includes new tracks and a replacement for a bridge over the Hackensack River in New Jersey, and an expansion of Penn Station in New York City. Leaders in one state may question how much they should pay for work done in the other.

The two governors want to create a new development agency within the Port Authority to facilitate the project. The agency, which committed roughly $3 billion to a rail tunnel project that was canceled by Christie in 2010, was identified as another potential source of funding.

John Degnan, chairman of its board of commissioners, said recently that it's too soon to know what kind of contribution his agency could make. He said the Port Authority is looking at making changes to its 10-year capital plan, which was released earlier this year and doesn't include funding for a new tunnel or a new bus terminal in New York City, another pressing need.

"We have to build consensus with commissioners and two governors," he said. "... Traditionally these kinds of agreements have been reached between two governors and there's some trading going on. I'm optimistic because these two governors seem to like each other."

Finally, there are environmental reviews, design and engineering studies and permits to complete. In their letter to Obama, Christie and Cuomo asked the government to expedite the work to prevent delays, and Amtrak has already invested $300 million in preliminary work to get a head start.

Despite all that lies ahead, the rough agreement between Cuomo and Christie makes for a good starting point, according to members of both states' congressional delegations.

"It's going to take cooperation, creative thinking and sacrifice from all parties," said U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. "This initial proposal represents a step in the right direction."

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Associated Press writer David Porter in Newark, N.J., contributed to this report.

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