Christie, feds to discuss new Hudson rail tunnel

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Gov. Chris Christie is scheduled to meet with federal transportation officials as plans to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River have been muddied by uncertain commitments from the major stakeholders.

The impetus for Christie's meeting on Tuesday with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx stems from last month's electrical failures in the existing, 105-year-old tunnel that caused delays on several days and reignited the debate over how to pay for a second tunnel and other improvements estimated to cost at least $14 billion.

Christie, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — which operates bridges, tunnels and airports in the New York area though not the rail tunnel — have said they need a substantial commitment from the government if they are going to pledge their own funds.

Cuomo was invited but declined to participate in a meeting with Foxx, and said recently the tunnel's prospects were "not especially bright."

Meanwhile, rail experts and Amtrak officials say that, while a new tunnel will improve reliability, it won't suddenly double the number of trains between New Jersey and New York. That's because the existing tunnel will be closed for repairs for a minimum of two years once a new one is built.

In addition, two new tracks will need to be added between New Jersey stations Newark and Secaucus, where two currently exist. And, perhaps more critical, New York's Penn Station needs to be expanded to accommodate the increased traffic.

"The tunnel work is like taking a two-lane highway and making it four-lane," said Drew Galloway, Amtrak's chief of planning and performance on the Northeast corridor. "But if it's bracketed by two-lane highways on both sides, you're not really increasing capacity."

On a tour of the tunnel and electrical system at Penn Station Monday that included Amtrak officials and New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, the scope of the problem became more evident — and not only because, as if on cue, a disabled train earlier in the morning had caused an hour's backup.

Inside the tunnel, the 80-year-old electrical cables sit inside walls that were inundated with saltwater from Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Because of the cables' age and configuration, it can take several days to locate the source of an electrical problem, Amtrak officials said. Fixing it is time-consuming and only a handful of companies are qualified to do the work.

Currently, Amtrak workers can perform routine maintenance in the tunnel only for a few hours overnight and on weekends when one of the tunnel's two tubes is routinely taken out of service, said Stephen Gardner, Amtrak's vice president of Northeast Corridor infrastructure investment. If a new tunnel is built, one tube at a time would be closed for a year to 18 months each for a complete overhaul.

"There's a desire to focus on the tunnels first, and get them built, which creates redundancy but doesn't increase capacity," said Richard Barone, director of transportation programs for the Regional Plan Association, a research and advocacy organization. "Then if you want to utilize the capacity of all four, you'd have to make more investment in Penn Station."

Some elements of the project already are in motion. For example, environmental and design work has been completed for a replacement for the 105-year-old Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River, a regular source of delays. And regulatory approval for Amtrak to address adding capacity on the tracks and in Penn Station, a process begun in 2012, could be completed sometime next year, Galloway said.

The rest will be dictated by when, and how much, funding is available.

"We're not asking for anything extraordinary; we're asking for something to correct the problem," Sweeney said Monday. "We can't put this forward as a matter of a wish list, we have to put it forward as a priority."