Schumer: New agency should plan, finance Hudson rail tunnels

NEW YORK (AP) — In a bid to create momentum for a massive overhaul of the crumbling passenger rail corridor between New Jersey and New York City, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer on Tuesday proposed the creation of a new nonprofit development corporation to plan and finance the project. He said none of the existing transportation entities operating in the region have the wherewithal to pull it off alone.

Dubbed the Gateway Program by Amtrak, the plan involves the construction of a new, two-tube tunnel beneath the Hudson River, the replacement of a key bridge over New Jersey's Hackensack River and a major expansion of the Amtrak and New Jersey Transit rail hubs in Manhattan.

Costs are expected to top $20 billion, and the enormous price tag has led to a logjam in which neither the government — federal, state or city — nor the two railways has been willing or capable of taking the lead in figuring out how to move the project forward.

Schumer said one solution is to create a new entity, made up of representatives from all the stakeholders, to oversee planning and arrange financing from public and private sources.

"It's the only way this project will get done in a coherent way," the New York Democrat said.

Transportation officials have been complaining for years that the existing Hudson River rail crossing, built in 1901 and now used by 450 trains per day, is an atrocious bottleneck, increasingly prone to breakdowns due to old age.

Both tubes of the existing tunnel flooded with saltwater during Superstorm Sandy, causing damage and accelerating corrosion. Officials have been warning lately that the tunnel's two tubes will each need to be taken out of service sometime in the years ahead for a total overhaul. If no new tracks are in place beneath the Hudson by then, that could mean the capacity of the rail link could be reduced to only 6 trains per hour, down from 24.

A less expensive, less ambitious plan to build a new tunnel had been funded and work had begun when it was canceled in 2010 after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie withdrew state support. He cited concern about its design and complained that New Jersey taxpayers would be responsible for too much of the cost.

It's not clear who would pay for the Gateway project, and officials in New York, New Jersey and the Obama administration have all been staking out tough negotiating positions.

A spokeswoman for Christie, Nicole Sizemore, said in an email Tuesday that the governor is in favor of a project that would increase rail capacity across the Hudson, but "has repeatedly made clear that the federal government and the state of New York must be equally committed to a fair funding solution for any project to move forward."

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman issued a statement calling the proposed development corporation "a good idea." New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statement commending Schumer for "making these tunnels a national priority," without mentioning his proposal to put the project in the hands of a new development agency.