Part 8: The Existing Tunnels May Fail First

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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When we last reported to you about the Gateway Program on Aug. 13, 2019, its proponents were making a best effort to alarm the public about the condition of the existing tunnels between New Jersey and Penn Station New York (officially known as the North River Tunnels), in the hope of stirring up public and political support for spending billions of dollars to build a new set of tunnels before starting repairs on the existing ones. At they same time, they were disparaging an alternative repair method now being implemented on the Canarsie Tunnels under 14th Street in Manhattan and under the East River to Brooklyn on the L-Train line of the New York City subway system, a method that averted a 15-month shutdown of the busiest part of the line.

The same Gateway officials may not be able to resist much longer, though, according to a startling admission by the Vice-Chair of its Board, who has speculated that the existing tunnels may not last long enough for new tunnels to be built and placed into service before the old ones are repaired.

The Gateway Program is a set of massive construction projects along the portion of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) east of Newark and heading toward Penn Station New York. Its total cost is now slated to exceed $30 billion. As we reported previously in this series, it is questionable—indeed highly unlikely under present conditions—whether the program’s proponents could obtain sufficient funding to build all of it as they now plan. The two components currently under consideration are the Hudson Tunnel Project, which would build two new tubes under the Hudson River first and then repair the existing North River Tunnels, and the Portal North Bridge Project, which would construct a high bridge with long approaches in the Meadowlands to replace the existing bridge, which has been in service for 109 years. There are other components, including an additional Portal South Bridge and a southward expansion of Penn Station, known as “Penn South,” two projects that are not even under active consideration for funding at this time.

Gateway was first proposed in February 2011, nearly nine years ago. It rose from the ashes of the old Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) Project, which had degenerated into a deep-cavern, stub-end terminal roughly 20 stories below 34th Street in Manhattan (derided by some advocates as “THE Tunnel to Macy’s Basement”). Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie killed the project in 2010 because it was too expensive, and also because it would have created a totally separate railroad from Amtrak’s NEC, with no connectivity between them or access to the existing Penn Station.

Since Gateway was originally proposed, its costs have risen sharply, and widespread local political support has not been sufficient to secure the local or federal funds that would be needed to pay for such a massive undertaking. As we reported in Part 7, “A Misleading Analysis of Delays, A New Commission, and A New Obstacle to Funding,” the prospect of raising that much money is becoming more remote as time goes on.

Throughout the funding battles, Gateway proponents have pursued a strategy of claiming that it is critical to bite the bullet and commit to spending the billions now, because Portal Bridge opens for river traffic and delays commuters, while the tunnels could also fail at any time and cause an economic and mobility catastrophe for the region. The former problem no longer exists, because Portal Bridge hardly ever opens any more, and never during peak commuting hours. There is still the frequently expressed threat that one of the tunnels into Penn Station will fail, destroying most of the existing capacity, so there would be no more room (or very little, at most) for New Jersey Transit’s commuter trains during busy commuting hours. As we now know, that threat could now undermine Gateway’s schedule itself.

That strategy is trickier than it would appear at first glance. Its objective is to convince politicians and the general public that there is no time to lose, and that it must be a top priority to repair the existing tunnels as expeditiously as possible. Yet, that is not the schedule Gateway officials are actually planning. Instead, they are intent on building two new tubes first, while delaying repairs on the existing tunnels until the new ones are completed, certified and placed into revenue service. Even their best-case scenario calls for a nine-year period from the point when funding is obtained and construction starts in earnest, until the new tunnels are completed. That estimate is a best-case scenario, because there are often delays and cost overruns associated with every project: The bigger the project, the more delays and overruns. At this writing, it has been almost nine years since Gateway was originally proposed, and large-scale construction still appears a long way off.

So Gateway officials must walk a tightrope between alarming the public that the existing tunnels could fail and cause an economic and logistical catastrophe, and simultaneously assuring the public that those tunnels will last long enough for new tunnels to be funded, built and operating before they must be repaired. It appears now that the tightrope is becoming frayed, according to a statement made earlier this year by Anthony R. Coscia, Chair of Amtrak’s Board of Directors and Vice Chair of the Gateway Program Development Corp. Board.

Coscia’s admission flew under the radar for several months, because it was not reported by the transportation media at the time, but only by business-oriented publications. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) recently brought it to light. Gottheimer represents the northwestern part of the state, as well as its northern tier. Many rail commuters, and probably many more bus commuters, live in his district. He and Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) from Long Island have expressed deep concern about the effects of a tunnel failure, and have introduced legislation that would call for an official examination of those effects.

Transportation reporter Colleen Wilson reported in the Bergen Record on Dec. 18 that Gottheimer had held “a telephone town hall meeting with constituents” the night before, and that “the conversation veered into the new Hudson River rail tunnels, a looming and likely transportation and economic nightmare if left unaddressed.” Wilson also reported, “Gottheimer repeated a phrase Tuesday night that he often uses, that according to Coscia, the North River tunnels could be partially shut down in four to five years.”

Wilson also reported no consensus (“at least not publicly”) on when the tunnels must be shut down for repairs, and quoted Gateway spokesperson Stephen Sigmund as saying, “Obviously, the longer that we wait and the longer this goes on, the more the risks exist, but Amtrak is always working to shore up the existing tunnel and extend its useful life. It’s structurally sound, but it has a myriad of problems that cause the delays.” According to the source article that Gottheimer cited, Sigmund’s assurances of Amtrak’s best efforts to keep the tunnels going until new ones can be completed may not be enough.

The cited article, entitled “Amtrak Says Gateway Project Will Be Built, Everyone Must Pay” by Mark Niquette and Ryan Beene, was posted on April 4, 2019 on the Bloomberg website. It focused on the political aspects of infrastructure funding, with emphasis on Amtrak’s infrastructure. It quoted Amtrak Executive Vice President Stephen Gardner as saying that the NEC “needs roughly $25 billion in capital expenditures over the next decade,” but did not specifically mention whether that total included the $12.7 billion estimate for the new tunnels.

More significant, Niquette and Beene reported that Coscia had said that Amtrak faces the risk of having to “[drastically] cut back” service in the tunnel, “which would cripple rush hour in the New York Metropolitan Area,” a threat often made by Amtrak and Gateway officials, and one that has some validity, if one of the existing tubes were to fail. The Bloomberg article specifically quoted Coscia as saying: “Do I think it’s going to happen next week? Probably not, but I could not sit here and tell you that five years from now, we will have been operating for five years without the potential of a serious interruption in service regardless of what we do from a maintenance standpoint.” The Bloomberg article was essentially re-posted the next morning in Crain’s New York Business, with the same quote from Coscia.

It appears that Coscia’s statement was drafted either inartfully or over-cautiously, depending on which lawyer you ask. Still, the implication is there and he said, in other words, that the potential exists for a serious interruption during the next five years, and Amtrak’s best maintenance efforts might not be enough to prevent it.

The significance of Coscia’s statement, though convoluted, is nonetheless startling. As recently as Aug. 23, 2019, the latest application to the FTA for a New Starts grant amounting to $6.3 billion under Section 5309 listed February 2029 as the date for the start of revenue service for the proposed new tunnels and March 2032 as the date for restoring the existing North River Tunnels to service after repairs are completed. So, rounding by one month, Amtrak and Gateway officials expect that it will take nine years to build new tunnels and three more years to repair the existing ones, even under their most-hopeful scenario.

Now, Coscia has acknowledged, in effect, that Amtrak and the riding public can no longer count on the tunnels lasting for nine more years. They could fail within five years, which would trigger the specific catastrophe that the Gateway Program was designed to prevent, and which it is being promoted as the sole means of preventing, despite the fact that alternate plans exist and have been reported here and disclosed to some New Jersey legislators and to Gateway officials themselves.

Coscia is an attorney practicing in the fields of corporate, finance and real estate law with a New Jersey firm, and is admitted to practice in New Jersey and New York. He has received many awards in those fields, and is well-known in local business and political circles. As Chair of the Amtrak Board and Vice Chair of the Gateway Board, he is in a position to know what is happening concerning those enterprises, and to speak authoritatively about them. In that regard, his “scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge” about Amtrak and Gateway would probably qualify him as an “expert” under Rule 702 of the New Jersey Rules of Evidence. So, while Coscia’s statement last April is not necessarily a warning of imminent doom, it remains a credible statement that he cannot be sure that the existing tunnels will last long enough to remain in service until new ones are completed. It is important to the public interest to have reliable transit, so we note that, if Coscia cannot be sure that the existing tunnels will last long enough, neither can the region’s transit riders or anybody else.

Earlier in this series, we raised the issue of the need to repair the existing North River Tunnels as soon as possible, and as quickly as prudent construction practices will allow (Part 3: “Is This Tunnel Really Necessary?”). With Coscia now acknowledging that it is possible that the tunnels could fail within the next five years, he appears to be raising the same issue, even if not intentionally. It is reasonable to conjecture that he was underscoring the urgency of building new tunnels as soon as possible, but his own expression of uncertainty about the remaining life of the existing tunnels now renders the current Gateway construction schedule obsolete and possibly dangerous. It now reveals an unreasonable risk of a specific peril, and now renders it imperative that the existing tunnels be repaired immediately. In other words, the region and its economy no longer have nine years or more to wait.

There is a means for repairing the existing tunnels quickly and cost-effectively. That method is now being implemented on the New York City Transit Canarsie Tunnels, and it appears that the project is coming along well. As we reported here last Jan. 24 (“NYCT Canarsie Tunnel Shutdown Reversal May Produce Ripple Effects”) and subsequently on May 17 (“L-Yes, It’s Running—But Still a Work in Progress”), New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on the deans and other senior faculty from the engineering schools at Columbia and Cornell Universities to render a “second opinion” about repairing the Canarsie Tunnels.

The former plan had called for demolishing and rebuilding the bench walls inside both tubes, with service on the line in Manhattan and into Brooklyn to be suspended totally for 15 months, beginning last April 26. The Columbia and Cornell engineers instead recommended leaving the bench walls intact, covering them with state-of-the-art fiber reinforced polymer (FRP) for protection and waterproofing, and abandoning the cables that were built into them during the early part of the past century. Instead, new signal and power cables would be installed and hung on racks (the Snake Rack™ system, developed and manufactured by Bay Shore, N.Y.-based Snake Tray®) on the tunnel walls. That method was adopted, and is now being implemented successfully. There was no need to demolish he bench walls, and the project is expected to be completed next April (we will have more to report on that later). The shutdown that many residents had feared never happened. Instead, service was reduced, but only on weekends and part of the evening on weekdays. As of Sept. 4, the MTA reported that work on the project was proceeding ahead of schedule.

We conjectured in Part 3 of this series that a similar solution could work for the North River Tunnels, and that the work could also be done on weekends and late at night on weeknights, with little or no disruption of service on the NEC. The affected portion of the railroad has been operating with only one tube and track open on weekends for several years, although current track work only requires single-track operation about one weekend every three months. So, there would be plenty of time to repair the tunnels. It seems reasonable to expect that, if the Columbia-Cornell method would also work in the North River Tunnels, they could be rehabilitated in two years or less. After those repairs are completed, there would be plenty of time to build whatever new tunnel capacity will be needed for the future, with no fear of the potential disaster about which Rep. Gottheimer and others are so concerned.

Still, Gateway officials continue to resist that idea, and have claimed that it will only solve 35% of the current problems with the tunnels. Can they continue to resist the Columbia-Cornell plan while retaining some semblance of credibility as they spread their message of alarm about the tunnels failing? Now that Coscia has acknowledged that a failure is possible within the next five years (now closer to four), it does not appear (to this writer, anyway) that they can.

Despite Coscia’s admission last spring, Gateway officials are sticking to their story that the existing tunnels could fail, but with no mention of the more-expeditious Columbia-Cornell plan. A statement released by Gateway on Oct. 7 and attributed to Interim Executive Director Frank Sacr said in part, “We must move to full construction as soon as possible on these critical infrastructure improvements before it’s too late.” What Sacr did not mention is that, according to Coscia, it may already be too late.

There is no indication that Gateway officials will change their tune, but Gov. Cuomo can do something about the situation. Now that New York is an equal partner with New Jersey in the Gateway Program, he has the authority to call the Columbia and Cornell engineers back to evaluate the North River Tunnels, just as they did with the Canarsie Tunnels last year. To this writer, it seems unlikely that they would find that the same method would not work in the trans-Hudson tunnels. The traction power system is different; 12,000 volts AC catenary as opposed to 625 volts DC third-rail for the subway, but the Crossrail project in London is using a similar method to mount cables carrying 25,000 volts AC. Still, it takes experienced civil engineers who owe their loyalty to their universities, rather than any engineering or consulting firm, to make an unbiased evaluation. This should be done without delay, and this writer hopes that Cuomo can and will prevail on the Columbia and Cornell engineers to evaluate the tunnels over the upcoming spring break.

Wilson’s article that reported Gottheimer, quoting Coscia, also mentioned a report by the Regional Plan Association (RPA) that warned the impact of a tunnel shutdown would amount to $16 billion over four years, the equivalent of 33,000 jobs per year. Nobody is seriously disputing that, if one of the tunnels should fail, the results would be severe, for both mobility and the region’s economy. Still, Gateway officials and local elected officials continue to resist any suggestions to avert such a disaster, even to the point of denying that any such suggestions exist. As we reported in Part 6 of this series (“We Have a Plan B. Do We Need a Plan C?”), New Jersey advocate Greg Bender has proposed a “Plan C” in the event that one or both tunnels should fail.

Other advocates, including former Long Island Rail Road Planning Director Joseph M. Clift have proposed a “Plan B” that includes repairing the existing tunnels using the Columbia-Cornell method and building additional capacity later, as it is needed and money becomes available to fund it, as well as a low-cost method for replacing the existing Portal Bridge. Nonetheless, Gateway officials deny that there is such a thing as a “Plan B” simply because they did not propose it themselves, and maybe because it would cost only a fraction of the $30 billion or more that their entire Gateway program would cost.

This is not the only development in the Gateway saga, but it is the most startling, and has the most potential as a game-changing event. Other things are happening, too. The Coast Guard is considering a permanent rule that Portal Bridge must stay closed during peak commuting hours, with very limited exceptions. The FTA is also reviewing new applications for grants for the Hudson Tunnel Project and the Portal North Bridge Project. It remains highly questionable whether either will be approved, since they may not be sufficiently different from former applications that flunked the funding tests in previous years to pass this time, even though Gateway reduced the cost of the Hudson Tunnel Project to $11.3 billion. We will report on these developments soon, in Part 9 of this series. In the meantime, we call on Gov. Cuomo to arrange for the Columbia and Cornell engineers to evaluate the North River Tunnels, and we ask those engineers to keep their Spring Break available for the purpose.

David Peter Alan is Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent non-profit organization that advocates for better service on the Morris & Essex (M&E) and Montclair-Boonton rail lines operated by New Jersey Transit, and on connecting transportation. In New Jersey, Alan is a long-time member and/or board member of the NJ Transit Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee and Essex County Transportation Advisory Board. Nationally, he belongs to the Rail Users’ Network (RUN). Admitted to the New Jersey and New York Bars in 1981, he is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and a Registered Patent Attorney specializing in intellectual property and business law. Alan holds a B.S. in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1970); M.S. in Management Science (M.B.A.) from M.I.T. Sloan School of Management (1971); M.Phil. from Columbia University (1976); and a J.D. from Rutgers Law School (1981).

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