Gateway Tunnel Promoters Keen to ‘Get Word Out’ as Key Funding Decisions Await

The Hudson Tunnel project, part of the wider Gateway Program, would deliver a much-awaited re-construction and rehabilitation of the rapidly-ageing tunnel, its tracks and adjoining infrastructure that serve a key transportation rail-link between New York and New Jersey. Except that so far, amassing political support and funding appropriation for the project has been a labyrinth challenge for its promoters.

It may well become a national emergency if the tunnel’s operations were to completely fail, no thanks to another few years of political indecision.

Aside from ageing since being initially built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1908 to allow its trains to reach New York City before being opened for passenger service in late 1910, the tunnel has not undergone any major upgrades and it continues to serve passengers that have grown many-fold since.

The tunnel’s already fragile infrastructure was severely ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Storm damage and continued saltwater exposure decayed its power system and rail track infrastructure, further reducing its useful life and making operations unreliable.

Yet too many people are “still unaware of the need to rebuild this tunnel,” says Jerry Zaro, board chairman for the Gateway Development Corporation (GDC). GDC is a New Jersey non-profit, incorporated in 2016, to represent Amtrak and the states of NY and NJ in overseeing the multi-phased project.

“We need to generate more support as few people outside the realm of transportation infrastructure are aware of the project. The reason, it dawns on me, is that the tunnel is literally and figurately under water,” he adds.

“If we were to pull this out of the water and make it as visible as say the George Washington Bridge, the public outcry would be deafening, and political action would have occurred long back,” Zaro told Icons of Infrastructure. “We have got to get the word out.”

Awareness aside, the project has also been embroiled in constant political indecision regarding funding and environmental permitting since it was launched in 2016.

Capacity build-up

Specifically, the Hudson tunnel project entails the rebuild and repair of a pair of tunnels – across a 10-mile stretch of the Northeast Corridor (NEC) – that carry Amtrak and NJ Transit rail lines under the Hudson River between New Jersey and Pennsylvania Station in New York City (PSNY), and adjoining infrastructure. Overall, the Gateway Program also includes a new Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River, expansion of New York’s Penn Station, and other ancillary projects. The Portal North bridge (denoted a phase 1A of the program) already has funding commitment from the Port Authority’s Board of Commissioners adopted in Feb 2017.

Together it is understood to be the largest ongoing infrastructure project in the country, with the Hudson Tunnel portion itself estimated to cost $12.7 billion per Amtrak project documents.

To put the need in context, the NEC rail section served by the one-track-in, one-track-out pair of tunnels is the sole-link for operators Amtrak and NJ Transit between the two states. It carries some 200,000 passengers on approximately 450 trains daily.

Overall the entire NEC network serves more than 2,000 trains per day carrying approximately 800,000 daily passenger trips across eight states and Washington DC, according to Amtrak. It contributes about 20% of national US GDP.

“It is remarkable that the tunnels have managed to carry many more passengers over the years, way above the capacity they were designed for. We are forcing people every day to play transit roulette,” says Zaro. “The government is creating unnecessary stress by delaying the project, we need to add to capacity and get this completed.”

While funding has been in question for several years for the project for one political reason or another, in 2018 both the states stood up to the need of the hour. New York, New Jersey and the Port Authority for the two states have together pledged roughly $5.5 billion toward the new tunnel rebuild.

And an originally staunch opponent, President Trump, has also adopted a softening of stance on the project’s financing by proposing measures in a spending bill earlier this year. The spending bill, unveiled on 15 February, contains $650 million in funding that could be used for Gateway projects (allotted broadly to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor). It also clarified that a state could use a federal loan as its share of the cost in a transportation project. That said, no firm funding commitment has been signed-off yet.

Although Federal contribution is to-be firmed, an application for Capital Investment Grants (CIG) program New Starts under the Federal Transit Administration is still pending. “This application has been submitted and updated several times, most recently in September 2018,” an Amtrak spokesperson said. The Port Authority of NY/NJ is serving in the role of CIG grant applicant for the project on behalf of Gateway Partners.

While local state pledges are significant, the project cannot be completed without federal funding appropriation and nor can it move forward without a final record of decision (RoD) that is pending the project’s environmental permitting process.

The GDC team submitted the final draft environmental impact statement in early 2018, which was also made available for public outreach and comment.

“There is no fiscal, safety or transportation argument for why this project is held up by Washington DC. Even New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge, which is 50-years younger than this project, has been replaced,” says Zaro.

A portion of the project is also contemplated to be procured via one or more alternative delivery methods to appeal to a broad cross-section of the infrastructure market. Francis Sacr, interim executive director for the Gateway Program and an infrastructure industry veteran says the team hopes to commence procurement this year. “We have to make sure the timing and information is reliable, and the relentless work that we have been doing is to prepare us for procurement.”

Alternative delivery

The broader Gateway Program not only envisions replacing and updating rail infrastructure assets but also increasing track, tunnel, bridge and station capacity. The main elements that are being considered for alternative delivery comprise:

  • Construction of a new two-track Hudson River rail tunnel from New Jersey to New York City that will directly serve PSNY
  • Rehabilitation of the existing 106-year old north river tunnel
  • Hudson yards concrete casing – completion of third section of a concrete casing on the West side of Manhattan to preserve right-of-way for the future tunnel to PSNY

The GDC team has made a consistent effort to engage in dialogue with the private sector, Sacr explains.

“One of the things we are doing is studying how best to package this – in-terms of the size and budget –to tender out to the market,” says Sacr. “The hope is for infrastructure market participants to help us consider what is the most suitable contract packaging, delivery method, cost and construction schedule.”

“This exercise will help us in ensuring that the project is well received by the market,” Sacr adds.

GDC launched a request for information (RFI) in August 2017 as a first step to seek private sector feedback on both innovation on the financing elements as well as techniques or approaches to construction and delivery for the above mentioned portions of the project.

This was followed by another RFI in July 2018 to follow-up on feedback received during the initial RFI and to seek further private sector dialogue from the infrastructure market on risk allocation, early works, contract packaging, lifecycle maintenance. These RFIs have been followed through with industry information sessions, as well as various public outreach meetings on both side of the Hudson river.

The procurement planning is being keenly watched and attended by the industry, with some 100 infrastructure companies present at the industry day in July 2018.

“We need to generate more support as few people outside the realm of transportation infrastructure are aware of the project. The reason, it dawns on me, is that the tunnel is literally and figurately under water.”

— Jerry Zaro, board chairman for the Gateway Development Corporation (GDC)

Geotechnical landscape

As part of its outreach to the private sector, the GDC team is also interested in making sure key geo-technical risks are assessed beforehand for their nature and magnitude.

In February 2019, GDC launched a pre-procurement Virtual Data Room to provide private sector firms access to geotechnical data with a goal, it said, of expediting schedule and reducing costs of the project. The data room would be a bank for information for review prior to start of formal procurement, which would give the private sector a ‘jump start’ says GDC.

Sacr notes that geotechnical risks related to tunneling projects is one of the significant challenges they face. “There are no great surprises so far, the market is concerned about geo-tech risk and whether we have sufficient funding. We have had a lot of dialogue around ground condition risk, project packaging solutions and interface risk,” he says.

“The industry has provided positive feedback with respect to the depth and quality of the geotechnical data we are including in the data room” Sacr adds.

While these two existing NEC railroad tunnels that sustained hurricane damage and flooding in 2012, were pumped out and repairs were made to quickly restore railroad operations, it became apparent that more extensive rehabilitation will be required to provide future reliable service.

Closing one tunnel at a time for rehabilitation would reduce operational throughput capacity by 75%, deemed unacceptable for this busy transportation link. The decision was made to construct two new tunnels before rehabilitation of the existing tunnels would be undertaken.

The Gateway trans-Hudson Partnership (GTHP) comprising WSP, AECOM, and STV, have helped advance design of the tunnel to 30%. And although there are challenges with any tunneling project, none of those are unsurmountable, says Dale Moeller, vice president – geotechnical & tunneling at WSP.

The project, Moeller explains, will include complicated sections; connection of both new tunnel tracks to Allied Interlocking in New Jersey and the A Yard Interlocking at Penn Station in New York, designing rail alignment to avoid sharp curves and steep grades as well as incorporation of modern fire/life safety measures into the new tunnels.

“We have the Palisades (line of steep cliffs along the west side of Hudson River) on one end and then we have to get underneath the Hudson River.”

This, he adds, “involves hard rock tunneling through the Palisades, soft ground tunneling under the Hudson River, then sequential excavation methods for tunneling in Manhattan. This combination of hard rock and soft ground tunneling requires tremendous amount of specialized engineering work.”

Underground work typically has risks that are not encountered with above-ground work, says Moeller, “and the engineering challenge is identifying those risks and developing solutions to mitigate them while still providing contractors with opportunities for innovation.”

Moeller says plans would include building the new tunnels without disrupting or impacting current rail operations.  Once the new tunnels are complete, tie-ins on both sides will switch train traffic to the new tunnels.

Engineering risks notwithstanding, what currently poses a true risk to the project is federal standstill on its funding and environmental permitting aspects. Once these key decisions are out of the way, the GDC team and other promoters hope to advance procurement on the tunnel.

“Federal tools have to be brought to bear on this project, there are tools in the tool box that can help move this forward,” says Sacr.

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