President Joe Biden touted the $11.6 billion Hudson River Gateway tunnel proposal and current aging tubes as one of many “critical jobs” needed to modernize the nation’s infrastructure and kick-start the post-COVID economic recovery, raising already high hopes that his administration will make an effort to begin construction for the long-awaited tunnel.
“[T]here’s still a huge backlog of deferred maintenance; a huge need to modernize our trains, our stations, our bridges, our tunnels,” he said at Amtrak’s 50th-anniversary celebration this past Friday in Philadelphia. “We’re talking about critical jobs like the Hudson River Tunnel, the Baltimore Potomac Tunnel, the Susquehanna River Bridge.”
Under Biden’s $1.9 trillion infrastructure plan, Amtrak could get upward of $80 billion, and likely approval for long-awaited financing and permit approvals for the massive Hudson River tunnel repeatedly blocked by President Donald Trump.
Some economists have characterized the president’s latest plan as the largest federal economic intervention since President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal nearly a century ago, and contend that it’s just what the nation needs to kick-start the post-COVID economy recovery.
“We feel very lucky,” Amtrak Chair Tony Coscia said in an interview hours before the ceremony. “We spent the last decade becoming a strong company for this moment in time when there’s a president who puts a very high value for what we do and is willing to put a significant amount of support behind it.”
The tunnels are over a century old and proponents of the two new tubes warn that they are in dire need of repairs. This has been a point reiterated by Gov. Phil Murphy and the state’s Democratic congressional delegation for years.
And it was a point that Biden agreed with during the April 30 event, estimating that a “single day without the Northeast Corridor … would cost the economy $100 million.”
The Northeast Corridor connects Boston to Washington, D.C., running through the population mega-centers New York City and Philadelphia, creating one of the world’s largest megalopolises. It’s largely considered one of the most heavily traveled passenger rail lines in the country.
But the aging tunnels under the Hudson River have become a checkpoint for the entire NEC, and for New Jersey Transit, which carries passengers between Manhattan and the rest of New Jersey.
The tunnels were heavily damaged during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Coscia said that Amtrak, which owns the tunnel, has been making repairs during the off hours and reduced demand during COVID-19 just to keep the tunnels running.
“If you shut down all passenger service on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the projects that compensate for the loss — you’d have to add seven new lanes of highway on [Interstate 95],” Biden continued. “And consider that cost — average of $30 million for a linear mile on I-95.”
Trump’s opposition to the tunnel came through efforts to block its funding and slow-walk approval of the project’s environmental impact report. That was despite agreements between Amtrak, New York, New Jersey and the Obama administration on how to pay for the antiquated tunnels, which advocates say are dangerously in need of repairs.
Amtrak put the current price tag for the new tunnel and the rehabilitation of the existing tubes at about $11.6 billion.
Just south of the tunnel entrance is the Portal North Bridge, which is being replaced at a cost of $1.8 billion. Murphy was able to secure a 50% financing commitment from the federal government during the final days of the Trump administration.
In the very best-case scenario, the bridge could start as soon as this year, Coscia suggested. The bridge also remains a choke point in New Jersey, as it frequently gets stuck and snarls rail traffic.