February 27, 2020 / 4:35 PM / a month ago

U.S. transportation chief backs rehabilitation of key NYC rail tunnel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Transportation supports the rehabilitation of a century-old New York City-area rail tunnel that was damaged in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy flooded parts of the city, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told lawmakers on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao speaks during a press conference on the One National Program Rule on federal preemption of state fuel economy standards at EPA Headquarters in Washington, U.S., September 19, 2019. REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger

The Trump administration and Democrats in Congress have been at odds over whether the federal government should largely fund a series of improvements to the key northeast rail corridor, which runs from Washington, D.C., through New York to Boston and carries more than 800,000 passengers a day, on both Amtrak and commuter trains.

Chao told a panel of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee that the department is working closely with Amtrak to advance rehabilitation work on the existing Hudson Tunnel.

The Hudson Tunnel, also known as the North River Tunnel, spans the Hudson River to connect Manhattan and New Jersey.

Along with rehabilitation of the existing tunnel, the building of a second Hudson River Tunnel — and the logistics of scheduling the two projects — has been an issue.

Amtrak said Thursday it has been in “constructive discussions with the Transportation Department about ways Amtrak is seeking to advance some elements of tunnel rehab prior to the construction of a new Hudson River Tunnel, given current conditions and the need to ensure reliably.”

Chao told lawmakers that repairs should begin on the existing tunnel “while we are preparing for the second tunnel.”

“Beginning rehab work in the near-term is the right move, not waiting years for the construction of a new tunnel beforehand,” she added.

New methods “could allow Amtrak to commence repairs in this tunnel as much as ten years ahead of schedule,” she said.

21ST CENTURY TUNNELS

The construction of a new Hudson River tunnel is part of Amtrak’s proposed “Gateway” project that encompasses a number of projects along the Northeast Corridor. The new $13 billion Hudson River tunnel would double the number of tracks in the tunnel from two to four and permit the rail agency to close the existing tunnels one at a time for critical repairs.

Representative Nita Lowey, who chairs the House Appropriation Committee and whose district includes parts of New York’s Westchester and Rockland counties northwest of New York City, said at the hearing that even a partial shutdown of the Hudson River tunnel could cost the U.S. economy $16 billion and urged Chao to back funding a replacement.

Chao said the department was working to advance other northeast rail infrastructure projects.

The Federal Railroad Administration will release an environmental assessment for the replacement of the Sawtooth Bridges in northern New Jersey in the near future, which is a “key chokepoint for the northeast corridor, transiting about 350 trains each day,” Chao said.

The Trump administration recently awarded the Portal Bridge Project proposal a medium-high rating that “makes it eligible to advance” and the Federal Transit Administration was “working to resolve final details in order to move the project into engineering,” Chao said.

The Portal Bridge is a century-old, swing-span bridge over the Hackensack River in northern New Jersey. The nearby Sawtooth Bridges span over other rail tracks.

The White House this month proposed cutting federal funds to Amtrak by more than 50% over 2020 levels. President Donald Trump has proposed similar cuts in prior budgets and been rejected, and Democrats are not likely to go along.

The Gateway Program Development Corporation said Thursday it agrees rehabbing “existing tunnels is vital to more reliable service for passengers,” but emphasized that repair does not “obviate the need to finally build new, 21st century Hudson tunnels.”

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Leslie Adler

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