Part 9: Chao Calls for Expedited Hudson Tunnels Repair. Could USDOT Be Listening to Us?

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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When we last reported to you about Amtrak’s Hudson River Tunnels, known officially as the “North River Tunnels” between New Jersey and Penn Station New York (Gateway: The Series, Part 8: The Existing Tunnels May Fail First, posted here on Dec. 30, 2019), we had discovered that Anthony R. Coscia, Chair of the Amtrak Board and Vice Chair of the Gateway Program Development Corp. Board, expressed his concern that the tunnels could fail within five years. That was a time frame far shorter than the ten years or more that it would take to build new tunnels before starting to repair the existing ones.

Now it seems that the long-needed repair job on the existing tunnels has taken a giant step closer to fruition, as U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao called for it at a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday, Feb. 27.

Chao said, “I’m pleased to report that the Department is working closely with Amtrak to advance rehabilitation work on the existing Hudson Tunnel[s], also known as the North River Tunnel[s]. Given the time, the cost and the complexity of building entirely new tunnel[s], the Department is working with Amtrak to design and validate a faster and more cost-effective method to improve safety and functionality in [these tunnels], as the first order of business. So, beginning rehab work in the near term is the right move; and not waiting years for the construction of new tunnel[s] beforehand.”

The Pennsylvania Railroad opened the Hudson River Tunnels as part of its massive New York Improvements Project in 1910. Wall Street Journal photo.

Chao did not mention the Columbia-Cornell plan that’s being used to repair New York City Transit’s Canarsie “L” Line subway tunnels by name in that part of her statement, but she appeared to endorse it by implication: “New and innovative methods for repairing the North River Tunnels]; the Hudson Tunnel[s], while still in operation, could allow Amtrak to commence repairs in [these tunnels] as much as ten years ahead of schedule” (starting at 24:21, according to C-SPAN’s timing).

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.)

South Jersey Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) referred to Chao’s announcement as “new thinking as it relates to the Hudson Tunnel[s]” (starting at 56:05) and expressed concern about how the tunnels could be repaired while still in service. She asked for a briefing for the New York and New Jersey delegations, which Chao agreed to provide, and complained that action on the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the tunnel project was taking so long.

Chao replied, “We wanted to be responsive on the Hudson Tunnels, even though the [project team], despite a lot of discussion, has not been able to amend work on the plan so that it meets a ‘medium-high’ rating. This is not a rating that the non-career people do; it really is a ‘career’ process.” She reiterated (starting at 58:05): “We need to increase the capacity, but not right now. That plan is to fund the [new] tunnel[s], which would take seven to ten years to build, assuming good conditions—and we know that projects are always delayed—then come back and fix the existing tunnel[s].”

Chao continued, this time mentioning the Canarsie Tunnel Project specifically: “We took a page from [New York] Governor [Andrew] Cuomo’s plan. He has a project called Canarsie, and he asked the deans of the Schools of Engineering of Cornell and Columbia. We want to piggyback on his idea: get those experts to come and look at the Hudson Tunnel[s] to see how we can, in the interim, repair [them], because safety is a major issue.”

Chao referred to the ongoing project to rehabilitate the Canarsie Tunnels under the East River between Brooklyn and 14th Street in Manhattan on the NYCT Canarsie Line (NYCT Canarsie Tunnel Shutdown Reversal May Produce Ripple Effects, posted here on Jan. 24, 2019 and L-Yes, It’s Running – But Still a Work in Progress, posted on May 17, 2019). Cuomo had summoned members of the engineering faculties at Columbia and Cornell Universities to render a second opinion about how to repair the Canarsie Tunnels, which, like Amtrak’s Hudson Tunnels, had been damaged by flooding from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. That project began on April 26, 2019 and is moving toward completion now expected late this April, about one year after it began.

The prior Canarsie plan had called for a total shutdown of the section of the L-train linking Manhattan and Brooklyn for 15 months, which would have resulted in significant inconvenience for the roughly 200,000 daily riders on that line. Service was curtailed on weekends and late in the evening on weeknights, but only about 10% of the line’s riders felt any inconvenience, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Peak-hour, mid-day and early-evening weekday service is being maintained at prior levels.

The plan now being implemented on the L-train line calls for covering the bench walls in the tunnels with fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP), a state-of-the-art protective covering, abandoning the cables that were originally mounted inside the bench walls, and mounting new cables on racks inside the tunnel wall. The original plan called for demolishing and rebuilding the bench walls completely, a much more expensive and time-consuming procedure that would have shut the line down entirely while the work was done. In Article 8 of our Gateway series, we recommended that Cuomo call on the Columbia and Cornell engineers to evaluate their method for use in the Amtrak tunnels. It now appears that Secretary Chao has promised to do that.

The Hudson Tunnel portals from which this Amtrak Siemens ACS-64 Sprinter electric locomotive is emerging were built more than 100 years before the locomotive.

The FTA gave two component projects of the Gateway Program new ratings on Feb. 10, based on grant applications submitted last year. Chao praised the first: The Portal North Bridge Project received a passing grade, based on 2018 ridership numbers submitted by New Jersey Transit that this series considers questionable, because it under-counts the number of seats into Penn Station that should be available during the busiest part of the morning commute period. Despite the boost for Portal North, the Gateway Hudson Tunnel Project received a failing grade again, due to the lack of local funding for that project. Chao praised the FTA for approving the Portal North project, but said that the recent failure of the Hudson Tunnel Project to pass muster requires that something be done, sooner than later.

Ironically, Chao echoed the concerns that Coscia expressed last year, and which we previously reported. Despite his stated concerns, Coscia did not call for the Columbia-Cornell method to be used on the Amtrak Hudson Tunnels. Instead, he and the rest of the Gateway team have strenuously resisted that suggestion, and are continuing to maintain that the tunnels must be completely rebuilt, much as the now-discredited and abandoned proposal for the Canarsie Tunnels had recommended.

The original Gateway timetable called for new tunnels to be completed and placed into service before any repair work would commence on the existing tunnels. Gateway had called for a nine-year construction schedule to build new tubes, beginning at the time funding is approved. (We note that it was more than nine years ago that Gateway was originally proposed.) With the FTA’s latest decision to flunk the grant application for that project again this year, it is now impossible to have new tunnels ready for service within the next ten years, and the cost overruns and delays commonly associated with projects of this magnitude could delay completion for several years beyond that. Coupled with Coscia’s expression of concern last spring that the existing tunnels could fail within five years (which actually means four years from now), new circumstances now render the Gateway time schedule untenable. It seems reasonable to conjecture that Chao had tacitly acknowledged that in her statement.

Rendering of Portal North Bridge. Amtrak illustration.

We will soon have Part 10 of this series, an update on the Portal North Bridge Project and its recent (for now, at least) grant approval from the FTA. In that report, we will examine the numbers that NJ Transit submitted and the issues raised by those numbers. After that, we will turn to Gov. Cuomo’s proposal for a “Penn South” project that will look like Gateway’s, but serve a completely different purpose, and its implications for access to New York City, for New Jerseyans, and for New Yorkers who live outside the City.

A Pennsylvania Railroad DD-1 electric hauling a through train out of the Hudson River Tunnels and into Penn Station, 1910.
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