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Hudson Tunnel Gains Federal Approval

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

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The Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Transit Administration have issued the final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision for the $11.6 billion Hudson River Tunnel Project.

Announced at the end of May, the EIS and Record of Decision are “a prerequisite for [the agencies] to direct future federal funding to advance this project through pre-construction activities such as engineering, final design development, and property acquisition, as well as construction,” according to a statement by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Project History

Part of Amtrak’s massive Gateway Program, developed in 2017 to overhaul parts of New York’s and New Jersey’s transportation infrastructure, included plans to build the Hudson Tunnel from 2019 to 2026.

The tunnel was thought as one of the most important transportation projects in the nation, in part because it would allow for the reconstruction of the North River Tunnel. Completed in 1910, the North River Tunnel was already well into its prime when in 2012, Super Storm Sandy inundated it with millions of gallons of salt water, which left behind corrosive chlorides.

An engineering report from 2014 claimed the Amtrak tunnels would require $689 million to repair the corrosion and cracking caused by Superstorm Sandy. The 57-page report, "Structural Assessment of the Amtrak Under River Tunnels in NYC Inundated by Super Storm Sandy," found that chlorides and sulfates caused, and were continuing to cause, significant damage to key tunnel components.

In addition, the report recommended a phased process to take individual tubes out of service for extended periods to perform repair work—ultimately underscoring the urgency to advance the Gateway Program.

Hudconia, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Transit Administration were recently reported to have issued the final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision for the $11.6 billion Hudson River Tunnel Project.

To investigate the possibilities of the Amtrak Gateway Program, among other projects in the country, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reviewed the cost of mass-transit infrastructure projects in 2018. As part of its investigation, the GAO oversaw factors including how contracts are written and carried out, and whether regulatory barriers are driving up costs on transit projects, particularly in New York City.

The investigation arose at a time when Congress and President Donald J. Trump attempted to move forward on an infrastructure funding plan that would include $200 billion in spending to spur $1.5 trillion in state, local and private infrastructure investment over the next 10 years.

But funding for the project had been plagued with question marks from the start as a key funding option became unavailable in April 2019 as the Hudson Tunnel and associated rail bridge project in northern New Jersey received low ratings from the Federal Transit Administration, deeming them ineligible for federal grant funding.

In terms of actual project plans, there were question marks there as well with how exactly to move forward. Even after significant saltwater damage, rehabilitation attempts during overnight and weekend hours, deterioration still stands as the biggest issue for the existing tubes.

Though still managing to transport more than 400 trains and 200,000 passengers each day, Amtrak Chairman Tony Coscia said: “In the interim, we have to deal with the reality that we may have to consider some other options that are available to ensure the tunnels are durable for as long as possible.”

Previously approved by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority were plans to remove damaged concrete from the Canarsie tunnel that lines and encases power cables—followed by replacing the cables and rebuilding the concrete walls.

Looking at new ideas, another plan was brought to the table that advised the installation of cables on racks that would run along the inside of the tunnels, abandoning the old cables where they are. The surrounding concrete would also be rehabilitated and encased with a protective fiber-reinforced polymer.

While debates on how the repairs will be carried out continue, urban research and advocacy organization, Regional Plan Association (New York), noted that cables used in the Canarsie tunnels run on 625 volts, while Hudson River’s use 12,000 volts, making them much larger and requiring more protection.

In September of last year, the cost of the project was reported to have climbed in cost and time, increasing $275 million to its current estimation of $11.6 billion, and its start delayed to 2022. According to a statement released by the Gateway Program, the project was submitted in response to the Federal Transit Association’s annual call for projects for the Capital Investment Grant Program.

In April, USDOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg received a letter from the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials, in addition to three New York-based contractor groups, requesting that he waive the state's Scaffold Law for the Hudson River Tunnel construction project.

In the letter to Buttigieg, the coalition is again requesting that the regulation be waived, citing the same claims to cost increases regarding the Hudson River Tunnel and Mario Cuomo Bridge made just four years prior. This time around, however, the group suggests that the law be replaced with a comparative negligence standard, where NYDOT would mandate the comparative negligence standard for any project receiving federal grants.

In reporting from their perspective on the matter, the NYCOSH points out that contractors only have liability for fall injuries if they do not provide the proper safety equipment or violate safety and health regulations, suggesting that companies should allow insurance providers to allow an evaluation of their records so that it can be determined if the Scaffold Law is really behind rising policy prices.

Although Buttigieg recently reported that the tunnel replacement and repair project between New York and New Jersey would be a priority for President Joe Biden's administration, he has not issued a response to the letter at this time.

The following month, New York Representative Ritchie Torres (D, NY-15) introduced bill H.R. 3002, requiring that Amtrak adopt a repair-in-place method for track maintenance, rehabilitation and other purposes. While the legislation aims to target rehabilitation projects on East River train tunnels, according to Torres and other government officials, if passed, the legislation could have a ripple effect on other projects in New York as well, such as the Hudson River Tunnel.

Recent Approval

Upon reaching two key milestones for the Hudson Tunnel Project, reports indicate that while the FTA is working with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and other project partners to move forward, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is still questioning whether the tunnels could be upgraded more cost-effectively using an approach that would allow ongoing train service.

“I’m not going to pay unless it is a smart, efficient, effective process, period,” Cuomo said at a May 27 press conference. The questioning continues as project officials were also previously noted to acknowledge that the project’s that approach wasn’t feasible based on the scope of work.

Currently, New York and New Jersey are slated to split project costs with the federal government, although no federal funding has been dedicated for the project at this time. In the meantime, FTA and the Port Authority, along with other project partners are looking to advance the Hudson River Tunnel project through the Capital Investment Grants Program.

To do so, the Port Authority is working to complete several grants program requirements before the project is eligible for funding, which includes identifying all funding sources and obtaining funding commitments; applying for and being approved for any USDOT loans assumed; and developing a firm and final project cost, scope, and schedule.

According to FTA spokesperson, after the non-profit agency is made a project sponsor, the FTA will provide technical support to the Port Authority and the Commission as those agencies complete transferring the role.

For the project, crews intend to construct a new Northeast Corridor rail tunnel under the river connecting to the Penn Station rail hub in New York City and rehabilitate the existing North River Tunnel. According to Amtrak, about 450 trains use the Hudson Tunnel daily, including those operated by New Jersey Transit. Before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, more than 200,000 daily passenger trips took place.


Tagged categories: Department of Transportation (DOT); Federal Railroad Administration; Mass transit; NA; North America; Ongoing projects; Program/Project Management; Project Management; Public Transit; Transportation; Tunnel; Upcoming projects

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