How delay in EIS approval may impact Hudson River rail tunnel

Register now

WASHINGTON – The nation’s top federal railroad official is predicting regulatory approval for a proposed new passenger rail tunnel under the Hudson River won’t be ready until the first or second quarter of 2019.

The final environmental impact statement was submitted to the federal government for review in February and originally was expected to be completed by March 30.

Extended delays in constructing the tunnel for passengers using NJ Transit and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor increases the possibility that the existing tunnel could close before the new one is ready, according to experts.

“This is an issue of national importance,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Wednesday at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing where he asked Ron Batory, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, when the final approval of the tunnel’s EIS will be granted.

Batory said the process has taken 28 months so far and the legal issues have been resolved, leaving the agency “in the final chapters of final EIS.”

“Does that mean it will be done by the end of the year?” asked Blumenthal.

“I think that you could see something probably forthcoming during maybe the first or second quarter of next year,” Batory responded.

“That’s a long time and very vague answer,” Blumenthal said. “And with all due respect, I would like a more definite answer if that’s possible from you in writing. The second quarter of next year is a long time away.”

John Byers, a spokesman for Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., said he hopes the delay in approving the EIS is not a stalling tactic by opponents of the project.

“The Gateway Tunnel project is critical to the economies of 20 states and this major infrastructure project will help keep the national economy booming,” Lance’s spokesman wrote in an email.

Philip Howard, founder and chairman of the New York civic advocacy group Common Good, said an interview Friday that the Trump administration is stalling.

“So long as it’s not approved, people are not as apt to ask, where’s the funding?” Howard said. “That EIS is done and they did it within two years. It’s just sitting on the desk of the secretary of transportation.”

Common Good estimates the delays are adding $1.7 billion annually in lost opportunity costs and additional construction costs to the larger Gateway Development project, which includes a new Portal North Bridge in New Jersey.

The delays also contradict President Trump’s announced policy of granting federal approval of infrastructure projects as soon as possible.

And the delays increase the chance that the existing rail tunnel, which is more than 100 years old, and sustained damage in 2012 from flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy, could close for safety reasons before the new tunnel is ready.

“That will have dramatic deleterious effects on getting in and out of New York City,” Howard said.

Proponents of Gateway say the existing tunnel needs to be closed for extensive rehabilitation once the new tunnel is operational.

The new two-tube tunnel is part of a larger Gateway project that include a new Portal North Bridge, a high-level fixed span over the Hackensack River that would be capable of supporting NJ Transit and Amtrak trains at speeds of up to 90 mph.

Preliminary construction work on the bridge already is underway while all the design work and government permits have been issued.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
Infrastructure Transportation industry State and local finance Government finance New Jersey Transit Amtrak DOT Washington DC New Jersey New York
MORE FROM BOND BUYER