Clock ticking on Hudson crossings, Amtrak warns

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Railroad tracks leading to New York City’s Penn Station from under the Hudson River. (AP Photo/Peter Morgan)
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The end may be near for the New York region's cross-harbor rail tunnels, with no good alternative in sight. 

“I’m being told we got something less than 20 years before we have to shut one or two down,” said Amtrak C.E.O. Joseph Boardman at the Regional Plan Association’s conference last week at the Waldorf Astoria. “Something less than 20. I don’t know if that something less than 20 is seven, or some other number. But to build two new ones, you’re talking seven to nine years to deliver, if we all decided today that we could do it."

Tom Wright, the Regional Plan Association’s executive director, described Boardman’s remarks as “a big shock.”

“I’ve been hearing abstractly people at Amtrak and other people at New Jersey Transit say for years the tunnels are over 100 years old and we have to be worried about them,” he said. “To actually have Joe put something concrete on the table, less than 20 years … Within my office, there was a level of, ‘Wow, this is really serious.'”

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New Jersey governor Chris Christie spiked plans to build two new rail tunnels under the Hudson, likely leaving the metropolitan region for the next quarter century with all of two rail tunnels to carry New Jersey commuters into Midtown Manhattan. Those two tunnels are more than a century old and carry more more than 160,000 passengers a day. Hurricane Sandy flooded them and caused a lot of damage. They are also a dangerously narrow chokepoint on the one of the busiest rail corridors in the world.

The state and federally financed project called Access to the Region’s Core would have doubled the number of cross-Hudson tubes and relieved that bottleneck. Construction had already begun when Christie pulled the plug, a putative cost-saving measure that was also meant to demonstrate his state's political independence, and rededicated some of its funding to repairing the Pulaski Skyway.

Senator Chuck Schumer last year called Christie’s decision "one of the worst decisions that any governmental leader has made in the 20th century, or the 21st century.”

Amtrak has since come up with a new, still-unfunded plan called the Gateway Program. Like A.R.C., it would build two new tunnels under the Hudson River. Amtrak's literature puts the target completion date at 2030, but Boardman, recounting a panel discussion he'd attended earlier that day, said the panel's consensus was “25 years if you’re lucky.”

By his lights, that’s not nearly soon enough, particularly with what he describes as at least a half-billion dollars' worth of Hurricane Sandy-related damage. That could pose some very big problems for the New Jersey commuters and regional rail travelers who rely on those tunnels to get from New Jersey to New York, and back again.

“Today those two tunnels carry 24 trains per hour, 24,” he said. “If you take it to one tunnel, typically you’d assume 12. Not so. Six trains per hour. Six. Because you gotta get 'em in and get 'em out. Six trains per hour. Amtrak does four. So if Amtrak’s selfish and owns the infrastructure and says we’re gonna do our four, well it doesn’t matter whether New Jersey Transit gets two or not, because with two they’re dead anyway. You can’t deliver what we were gonna deliver.”

“Sorry, we are going to have to decline comment across the board,” said William Smith, a New Jersey Transit spokesman, when asked to respond.

When I asked Craig Shultz, an Amtrak spokesman, who told Boardman that the tunnels had 20 years, tops, he said he wasn’t sure.

“As you know the Hudson River Tunnels are more than 100 years old and were filled with salt water during Super Storm Sandy, which can be very corrosive,” he said. “ Amtrak is working with an expert to assess the condition of the tunnel structures since the storm, and that work is ongoing.”

“I think the point Mr. Boardman was making in his comments at the RPA Assembly is that damage from Sandy accelerated what was already an urgent need for additional tunnel capacity between New York and New Jersey,” he continued. “ We expect that the tunnels are going to need major rehabilitation, which can only happen with prolonged service outages permitted by a new tunnel. “

Christie's office didn't respond to a request for comment on Boardman's remarks.