NEW YORK - Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg toured the century-old rail tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey Monday and offered his support for an $11 billion project to build a new tunnel that has endured years of political squabbling and funding disputes.
Buttigieg accompanied members of the two states' Congressional delegations including New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and fellow Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey on a ride through the 111-year-old span, the site of regular delays that ripple up and down the rail corridor between New York and Washington, D.C.
"What we saw were building techniques and transportation technology representing the absolute state of the art ... of 1910," Buttigieg said from Amtrak's concourse in Penn Station. "It was the best construction you could possibly get 110 years ago. Now, it's time to upgrade and secure this infrastructure for the 21st century."
The federal government gave the tunnel project key environmental approvals last month. That had been a sticking point during the Trump administration, as Schumer, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and others had accused Trump of purposely delaying the environmental approval for political reasons, a charge administration officials denied.
The approval will smooth the process for the project to secure federal funding as part of a 50-50 split between the federal government and the two states. The project has languished for so long — it began in earnest 10 years ago — that plans announced in late 2017 by Cuomo and then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to fund the states' share need overhauling.
Assuming a funding deal is worked out, primary construction wouldn't begin until 2023, Schumer said, though he added that he hopes to push that up to sometime next year. Once that begins, it will take about six or seven years to complete.
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Schumer sounded a positive tone.
"Today we can announce that the hostage that was the Gateway tunnel under the previous administration has been set free," he said.
The project will benefit in part from $49 billion set aside for transit and $66 billion set aside specifically for rail projects contained in the bipartisan infrastructure plan being considered in Washington, he added.
The existing tunnel is prone to problems and delays due to aging infrastructure. Saltwater intrusion from Superstorm Sandy in 2012 accelerated the tunnel's deterioration and forced Amtrak, which owns the tunnel, to embark on costly repairs to keep it functioning reliably.
Hundreds of trains and hundreds of thousands of passengers pass through the tunnel per day during normal times.
A new tunnel would allow the old tunnel to be overhauled, a process that would take roughly two years, and then returned to use.
That could significantly increase rail capacity into and out of New York, though it likely would require additional tracks at Penn Station. Cuomo and transit officials announced plans to redo Penn Station in April, but those are expected to take years to be implemented.