A critical federal component of the politically controversial Hudson Tunnel Project segment of the Gateway Program on the Northeast Corridor—stalled by the Trump Administration but rapidly rescued and advanced by the Biden Administration—has received a Final Environment Impact Statement (Final EIS) and Record of Decision (ROD from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
“Completion of the Final EIS and ROD represents U.S. DOT’s commitment to working with New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, in coordination with other project partners including Amtrak and the Gateway Development Commission (GDC), to advance the Hudson Tunnel Project toward final design and construction,” FRA and FTA said in a joint statement.
The Hudson Tunnel Project is one component of the Gateway Program, on which Amtrak, NJ Transit, Port Authority, and the GDC are working with other project proponents and partners, including the States of New York and New Jersey, to advance numerous components of the overall project.
The current tunnel system is 111 years old (constructed by the Pennsylvania Railroad as part of the New York Improvements Program) and was damaged in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy. About 450 NJ Transit and Amtrak trains use the tunnels every weekday, and before COVID-19 hit there were about 200,000 daily passenger trips.
The ROD represents completion of the Federal environmental review process required under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). “While no federal funding has been dedicated for the project to date, completion of these two steps is a prerequisite for FRA or FTA to direct future federal funding to advance this project through pre-construction activities such as engineering, final design development and property acquisition, as well as construction,” USDOT said.
The Final EIS “incorporated changes made in response to public comments received on the Draft EIS from a broad range of stakeholders,” USDPT noted. “It sets forth a rigorous evaluation of the ‘Preferred Alternative,’ which consists of construction of a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, including railroad infrastructure in New Jersey and New York connecting the new rail tunnel to the existing Northeast Corridor and rehabilitating the existing NEC tunnel beneath the Hudson River, known as the North River Tunnel, once the new tunnel is complete. When the rehabilitation is complete, both the existing and new tunnels would be in service, providing redundant capacity and increased operational flexibility for both Amtrak and NJ Transit.”
FRA officially started the NEPA review for the project in May 2016. FRA was the lead federal agency for the NEPA Review, and FTA was a NEPA Cooperating Agency, that adopted the FEIS and is now issuing a joint ROD with FRA. The United States Army Corps of Engineers was also a NEPA Cooperating Agency, “and if appropriate, will rely on the FEIS to fulfill its NEPA obligations if it issues a Department of Army permit for the project, anticipated to occur this fall,” USDOT said.
The ROD is actually more than two years late. Environmental work was completed under an expedited schedule and submitted in February 2018. The Trump Administration then proceeded to block further advancement on the tunnel project, and the ROD was left on the table. Politics reared its ugly head in yet another way, when Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) repeatedly blocked confirmation of Ron Batory as Federal Railroad Administrator in response to Trump’s attempts to wall off Gateway.
“This is a big step for the Northeast, and for the entire country, as these tunnels connect so many people, jobs and businesses,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. “This decision is also an important reminder that we are still capable of working together to advance ambitious projects that can make life better for people, connect communities and deliver a stronger future. Now we need to make sure to provide the funding America needs to deliver world-leading infrastructure in this region and in every part of the country.”
Many believe President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan will bolster the chances of seeing the Gateway Project through, but on May 27, Senate Republicans released an infrastructure plan that fell well short of Biden’s funding levels.
The FEIS and ROD can be accessed on the FRA webpage for the project and via the project website, as well as select libraries and other publicly accessible locations listed on that website. FRA will request that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) publish a Notice of Availability for the FEIS in the Federal Register in June.
Railway Age Engineering Editor and Railway Track & Structures Editor-in-Chief Bill Wilson contributed to this story.