Can an even bigger cross-Hudson rail plan succeed where the last one failed?

The Gateway Program. (Amtrak)
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The two-track railroad running from Newark to midtown Manhattan is, by Amtrak's estimates, the most heavily used passenger rail in the hemisphere. Yet the Hudson River tunnels upon which both Amtrak and New Jersey Transit rely are a century old and nearing full capacity.

A delay in one tunnel can reverberate for hours (and miles), and there a few alternatives, anywhere.

"Everybody knows that the airports, and the airspace, the capacity's all been used up," said Bob Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, which sponsored a forum on the topic at the Princeton Club on Wednesday morning. "I-95 is a parking lot for most of the day, and most of the year, and almost the length of the entire corridor."

"And we've virtually used up all of the capacity in the Lincoln Tunnel, in the Holland Tunnel, in the G.W. Bridge," he added.

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie squashed what appeared to have been the last, best hope for relieving that bottleneck in 2010, when he killed a similar project known as ARC.

More recently, planners and transit advocates have pinned their hopes on an alternative: The Gateway, two tunnels that would begin somewhere in the Bergen Palisades, burrow under the Hudson River and emerge in Manhattan somewhere between 30th and 31st streets, and 12th avenue.

"Oh, I think the odds are pretty good," said Stephen Gardner, the Amtrak vice president charged with spearheading the program.

It's fair to wonder why a proposal that is actually more ambitious, and somewhat more expensive, than the ARC project might succeed where the previous one failed.

Gardner argues that because this tunnel proposal would benefit more constituencies, "we think that helps us make the broader case for investment and support."

Like ARC, Gateway would double the number of tracks running from Jersey from two to four.

But as Gardner alluded to, there are a couple of substantial differences. First, unlike ARC, Gateway would accommodate not just New Jersey Transit, but also Amtrak. Second, Gateway would connect directly to New York's Penn Station.

The program would also involve replacing the century-old Hackensack River Portal Bridge with two new ones, and Gardner estimates it could be completed by 2025 at a cost of between $13 and $15 billion.

But that all depends on the political headwinds, which aren't moving in the direction of transit funding these days.

President Obama has put little political capital behind his transportation objectives; Congress has yet to hammer out a new transportation bill; the Highway Trust Fund is nearing bankruptcy; Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to take a position on Gateway, and hasn't shown much enthusiasm for transit in general, and Christie seemed to express his position on mass transit with the cancellation of ARC, which has been the subject of a very damaging report by the Government Accountability Office.

There are also a number of open questions surrounding the project.

"One is the allocation of costs," the RPA's Jeff Zupan told me recently. "How much would Amtrak pay? How much would New Jersey Transit pay? And, if Governor Christie gets his way, how much would New York pay?"

And who is there to mount a successful case for funding anyway?

At the Princeton Club on Wednesday morning, M.T.A. chairman Joe Lhota brought up the question of political leadership, or lack thereof.

"There's been an absence of leadership on transportation in this country since the creation of the Port Authority," he said.

"I would imagine you know that both the president and former Governor Romney come to the New York metropolitan area and raise hundreds of millions of dollars," Lhota continued. "Not once is anybody talking to them while they're in New York about the critical need for transportation. We're losing that effort. So we may be losing this entire political campaign. We need to make it a big issue."