Gateway tunnel and bridge Amazon’s NYC goals add urgency to 20 billion infrastructure project

2019 Forecast Issue: Transportation

Tony Coscia, Gateway Development Program Corp. trustee and chairman of Amtrak, said Amazon’s selection of New York City and Arlington, Va., for its next North American headquarters confirms the need to repair New Jersey’s crumbling transportation infrastructure.

Tony Coscia, Gateway Development Program Corp. trustee and chairman of Amtrak, said Amazon’s selection of New York City and Arlington, Va., for its next North American headquarters confirms the need to repair New Jersey’s crumbling transportation infrastructure.

Amazon says it will hire 25,000 employees at each location. This influx of new jobs and commuters next to New Jersey increases the urgency of investing in the transportation system, Coscia said.

“We think Amazon’s decision validates what we strongly believe,”  that the opportunities for growth and creating lifestyle choices have much to do with people’s ability to move from one place to another, Coscia said. He noted that both locations are served by Amtrak. “We do not think that is the reason [for the move] but we think it is a contributing factor.”

The good news, Coscia said, is that Amazon’s choice is consistent with Amtrak’s vision. The bad news is that the system is at capacity and will not be able to handle growth unless there is significant investment, he said.

The nonprofit Gateway Development Program Corp. is responsible for planning an estimated $20 billion to $30 billion infrastructure project that includes the construction of a new two-track Hudson River rail tunnel from New Jersey to Manhattan that will directly serve New York Penn Station; the rehabilitation of the 108-year-old North River Tunnel, which sustained damage during Hurricane Sandy in 2012; and the replacement of the 108-year-old Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River.

The need to invest is immediate, Coscia said. “Every day we hear about problems in the system…. It is so fragile and so at capacity that the smallest problem can create exaggerated results.”

Proponents of building Gateway want to eliminate a single point of failure of the train system that carries New Jersey Transit and Amtrak riders. The Portal North Bridge carries about 206,000 passengers on an average day and opens to allow ships to cross the Hackensack River. The bridge occasionally gets stuck in the open position, which halts trains between Washington, D.C., and Boston. Amtrak employees use sledgehammers and heavy equipment to return the bridge to the closed position.

“The first misconception people have about Gateway is that it is just about protecting the status quo,” Coscia said. “It is not about protecting the status quo. It is about making it better. In a way we have to stop a calamity in order to make something much better. The second misconception is we are sitting around waiting for some global financial agreement to be reached. In the meantime, lots of work is happening.”

Optimistic on funding

In seeking federal funding under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act on the Portal North Bridge, Kevin Corbett, New Jersey Transit’s executive director, said he is operating under the assumption that Congress will approve it.

“All documentation has been submitted to the Federal Transit Administration,” Corbett said. “It comes back to the Congress.” He added that the agency is waiting to see if the money that has been appropriated can be allocated by bipartisan support. “We are working with FTA Washington to review the additional data and are going ahead on the assumption that we will get a significant grant,” Corbett said.

Coscia said he is similarly optimistic.

“From Amtrak’s perspective, we are encouraged by the fact that different partners at both the state and federal levels have done a substantial amount to try to advance this project,” he said. “We recognize that a fundamental agreement on how this project will be funded has not yet been achieved. We would want all the partners to work together collaboratively toward achieving that agreement on full funding.”

Coscia said he has seen businesses make decisions to move to New Jersey based on the proximity to rail service, and he predicts more migration to cities, with people using the train to commute between home and workplace.

“The success of the Northeast Corridor is proof that this kind of product is in very high demand,” Coscia said. “By connecting population centers to each other, we create transportation centers that are very viable and consistent with what people need today relative to congested highways and congested airports.”

Amtrak is monitoring the Hudson River tunnel through rigorous inspection with safety being the priority, Coscia said.  “We do not send trains into that tunnel if we believe there is any chance that there could be harm to passengers, crew, or anyone else,” he said.

Positive train control

In other transportation affairs, New Jersey Transit finished installing “positive train control” prior to a federal mandate of Dec. 31, 2018. Positive train control is an emergency braking system that uses a series of sensors that automatically stop trains in the event of operator error. Transit must conduct training of its employees and on the PTC software by Dec. 31, 2020.

Gov. Phil Murphy ordered an audit of Transit one week after taking office in 2018.  His administration inked a $1.3 million contract with the Atlanta-based consulting firm North Highland Co. Murphy appointed Corbett, Transit’s executive director and New Jersey Department of Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti to their respective posts.

“We start with our staff and look at how we can be more efficient with what we have today,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. “The real goal in 2019 is to make sure the organization is right sized based on the purchasing we do. We need to make sure we have the right skilled people in the right areas, and certainly not too many, not too few.”

She called the agency’s procurement process “extraordinarily long.” While the process has been reduced at some level, it has not been optimized, she said. “That is how we correct a lot of our operating costs and make stronger this business so that when we go to the Legislature and ask for financial assistance we know our financial house is in order.”

Transit has been plagued recently by a lack of engineers, resulting in a slew of cancellations. It has responded by increasing the number of training classes to four per year from one.  The transit system has also hired more than 300 bus operators and taken delivery of 145 new buses.

“Between now and the first quarter of 2020 you will see continued improvement in terms of the number of engineers who are graduating and joining our workforce,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. “We have also brought in a consultant to streamline our training program to make it not only faster but stronger.”

Corbett said he wants to increase the locomotive engineer graduation rate from 50 percent to 90 percent.

David Hutter
David Hutter grew up in Darien, Conn., and covers higher education, transportation and manufacturing for NJBIZ. He can be reached at: dhutter@njbiz.com.

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