Monday, May 14, 2012

New Jersey: “Fair share” OK for Gateway Tunnel

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Amtrak's Gateway Tunnel project, designed to add rail capacity on the Northeast Corridor under the Hudson River, will get its "fair share" of fiscal support from New Jersey, the state's transportation commissioner says.

The Garden State's conditional support of the $14.5 billion Amtrak project contrasts with the state's move to terminate Access to the Region's Core (ARC), a New Jersey Transit-sponsored six-mile "commuter" rail route along the NEC between Secaucus, N.J., and midtown Manhattan. Gov. Chris Christie, citing cost overruns which the state would have to cover, killed the ARC project in October 2010.

ARC supporters claim the governor inflated the state's cost. But many state rail advocates, accepting the governor's move if not his primary justification, noted ARC created a railroad parallel to, but separate from, the NEC. The Amtrak project, by contrast, is designed to be an expansion of NEC capacity, including access to Penn Station in New York.

New Jersey's payment reportedly would be some form of user fee, similar to its payment for use of the existing NEC, owned by Amtrak.

Transportation Commissioner James Simpson, addressing the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey in Voorhees, N.J., would not say what percentage of the cost New Jersey would consider fair. Simpson said he would be meeting with Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman to discuss the matter. Added Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak Friday, "At this time, it would be quite premature to say what New Jersey would commit to in terms of dollars."

The Gateway project has been budgeted for $20 million from the Senate Appropriations Committee for federal fiscal year 2013, which would fund preliminary design and engineering work. Amtrak also has said some (not all) of the previous ARC study material can be applied to Gateway reduce cost.

The Gateway project includes a new Portal Bridge in the Jersey Meadowlands to first augment and then replace the existing structure, which is plagued by mechanical difficulties; work on the Portal Bridge crossing, which spans the Hackensack River, was separated from the ARC project in part to keep overall ARC cost estimates down.

A study by the federal Government Accountability Office, released last month, questioned Christie's conclusions, noting that the last estimate by the Federal Transit Administration was $9.8 billion to $12.4 billion and that no agreement was reached on paying for any cost overruns.