A delayed transportation infrastructure project moves forward in the Northeast Corridor

It's been called the most urgent infrastructure program in America — but for decades, the Gateway Program has been on hold. The $30-billion project would see a dramatic upgrade to transportation infrastructure in the most heavily used section of the Northeast corridor rail system.A new tunnel under the Hudson River is a key element. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Congress is still stuck on consideration of new infrastructure spending legislation. But infrastructure projects are not all tied to that decision. The gateway program; a proposed $30 billion project would provide a major upgrade to transit systems that serve eight states and more than 50 million Americans. It is a vital transit corridor between Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. The project, under consideration for decades, includes many transit infrastructure elements. Earlier this week, as part of the project, New Jersey approved a $1 billion-plus contract to build and replace an outdated bridge. But the biggest piece of this infrastructure puzzle is the plan to build a new tunnel under the Hudson River.

    Before the pandemic, about 200,000 people every day rode through the tunnel under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey, but almost none of them got this view. I'm in the rear of an Amtrak train to see how a tunnel built in 1910; 111 years ago, is holding up. My guide is Craig Schulz from Amtrak. Am I still seeing some of the damage from Superstorm Sandy on the ceilings and the sides?

  • Craig Schulz:

    Millions of gallons of saltwater inundated the tubes. The salts and chlorides really left behind by that saltwater have infiltrated the concrete and are essentially eating away at the infrastructure from the inside out. And so what we have to do basically is essentially gut the tunnel right down to the concrete liner and essentially rebuild it from the inside out.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Climate change is real and this project would add some resiliency to the infrastructure. We also sat down with the chairman of Amtrak, Anthony Coscia. Amtrak is funded by the government but is a for-profit.

    It also owns all of the ten-mile project site and the current tunnel into New York's Penn Station. How urgent is it to fix the tunnel today? And what happens if you have to stop service to try to fix these tunnels because they're too dangerous?

  • Anthony Coscia:

    We spend an incredible amount of time carefully inspecting those tunnels in very constant intervals to assure their safety. And we are 100 percent comfortable that they are safe, but they're safe because we also spend millions of dollars repairing them and maintaining them and keeping them operable until we can build a new tunnel.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How much time do we have until your engineers say we can't keep this up or did they say that 40 years ago?

  • Anthony Coscia:

    So I would say honestly that, you know, the clock is expired every day that we wait, every period of time that goes by, we put ourselves at greater risk.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The approximately $30 billion project is not just for updating the old tunnel and building a new one – which alone would cost more than $12 billion. It would also expand the rail line from two to four tracks and refurbish and build new bridges along the 10-mile corridor, adding reliability for commuters.

    The bottlenecks today are frequent, as we saw during rush hour. So how many trains go back and forth per morning, per hour?

  • Craig Schulz:

    So 450 trains a day through this territory before COVID, 350 of those are New Jersey transit trains, about 350 or so. A hundred or so Amtrak trains. Most of the northeast corridor is four or five, six tracks. Here at the busiest section it is just the two tracks.

    And you can see we are really just creeping along now.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The reason we're slow right now is because of this logjam?

  • Craig Schulz:

    Absolutely.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In 2019 a study done by the Regional Plan Association — a research, planning and advocacy organization — found that closure of just one of the two tracks in the tunnel could cut service by up to 75% and cost the area $16 billion over a four year period. The Gateway Project on the other hand would double train capacity into Penn Station and create up to 72,000 jobs, according to Amtrak.

    Keep in mind that the Northeast is responsible for 20% of the nation's gross domestic product.

    Tom Wright heads the Regional Plan Association and has spent 20 years advocating for a revamp of the transportation corridor.

  • Tom Wright:

    The entire Boston to Washington economy depends on the free flow of people and goods and commerce across the Hudson River. And this is the weak point in the entire chain.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What do you think the chances are, given that the political climate is uncertain at best? I mean, you feel like you have kind of tailwinds going into this process, but right now it's just, you know, if I'm a betting man, I wouldn't bet on anything right now.

  • Tom Wright:

    First of all, I think the entire nation understands the need for infrastructure investment. This may be the highest priority for us here in New York and in the tri-state metropolitan region. But every part of the country, every metropolitan region and large city has similar projects. And so we're talking about a national program here, not just something focused on the Northeast. So I'm optimistic that this is going to happen

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    His optimism is in part because transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg saw what I did earlier this year.

  • Pete Buttigieg:

    This time, for the first time in a long time, we have total alignment between the president of the United States, the Biden-Harris administration, leadership in the House, the Senate, and importantly, the American people.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    He's making a reference to the fact that the project was delayed three years under the Trump administration.

    But in May, with Biden in office, the federal government completed the environmental review of the more than $12 billion tunnel project, a key approval that signaled funding was close.

    $30 billion projects also come with critics.

    Some point to Europe and the fact that similar underwater rail tunnels cost a fraction of what the Hudson tunnel will cost.

    And a report released last year found that instead of waiting for a new tunnel to be built to shift ridership, the current Hudson Tunnel could be refurbished sooner — during nights and weekends and at a lower price tag.

    But Amtrak Chairman Coscia insists they've looked at all the options.

  • Anthony Coscia:

    People have listened and people have vetted different concepts. And what is being proposed for the Gateway program, the design that was approved by the federal government for this project is one that we think represents the best option, that presents the strongest possibility for creating the kind of mobility enhancement that will make a significant difference.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The infrastructure bill currently stuck in congress contains money that could be used to help fund the Gateway Project, though the entire project is not dependent on its passage. The key is to increase the priority rating or justification for the project, which would free up federal funds. Under the Trump administration, the project was given a low rating.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, infrastructure is inherently unsexy. People can't see the result right away. Right. And it's, how do you convince people to make a 10-year investment to prevent a problem that might come, right?

  • Anthony Coscia:

    Will infrastructure ever be a sexy topic that I really couldn't comment on? But I have to tell you that people who wait on delayed trains, people who sit in traffic, people who are concerned about the quality of the air we breathe, I think that number has grown to a point where it's a pretty loud audience that I think right now is pounding its fist and saying, we want to see these things get done.

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