Two long-delayed New York-area rail projects received mixed reviews from federal officials Monday, as a plan for a replacement for a century-old bridge earned high enough marks to finally qualify for federal funding but a larger project to build a new tunnel under the Hudson River remained mired in a dispute over how much New York and New Jersey will pay.
The $11 billion-plus tunnel plan received a rating of low in the category of local funding commitment, guaranteeing more delays for a massive project touted as essential by lawmakers and transit advocates but viewed skeptically by federal officials.
The Federal Transit Administration released its ratings late Monday night for infrastructure projects around the country as part of President Trump's proposed budget. Under FTA guidelines, projects rated below medium are ineligible for Capital Investment Grants, a critical source of funding.
Supporters of the $1.6 billion project to build a new bridge over New Jersey's Hackensack River received good news as the project was upgraded to a medium-high rating, making it eligible for federal grants.
Federal rail officials had said last summer that the bridge project, which has completed environmental and design work and is awaiting federal dollars to begin construction, was likely to receive a higher rating. The bridge, like the current Hudson River tunnel, is more than 100 years old and prone to malfunction.
New Jersey has committed $600 million to the bridge project through a bond issue backed by the state's gas tax.
"Today's decision by USDOT puts us one step closer toward our ultimate goal: replacing this unreliable, century-old bridge and reducing delays for NJ Transit customers," New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement.
The Democratic congressional delegations from New York and New Jersey have accused the Trump administration of holding up funding for the tunnel for political payback. The federal Department of Transportation has denied the allegations and has said the project needs more financial commitment from the states.
"This is a good first step, but of course we have to do much more," Democratic New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said in an email.
The project partners — Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — submitted a new plan last summer that whittled down the tunnel price tag, originally more than $13 billion, by about $1.5 billion using design and construction savings. It wasn't known at the time how that would affect the proposal, since federal transportation officials had said the low ratings are justified because of the total cost of the request — the largest of any similar project in the country — and because the states' plan to fund their half of the project, between $5 billion and $6 billion, with federal loans. New York and New Jersey officials have argued that the practice is in line with what other states have done.
The tunnel is more than a century old and operates at peak capacity, accommodating roughly 400 trains and 200,000 passengers each day. An already aging electrical system and crumbling concrete walls were damaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, leading Amtrak, the tunnel's operator, to estimate one of the tunnel's two tubes could fail within the next decade or so.
Last week, an electrical problem near the entrance to the tunnel left one train stranded inside that had to be towed into Penn Station and caused numerous cancellations and hours of delays for evening commuters. Incidents like that reinforce fears of what would happen if one of the two tubes had to be taken out of service for an extended period for repairs. Rail officials have said that would reduce peak service by 75% and cause significant delays up and down the rail corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.
Last year, an analysis commissioned by the Amtrak and New Jersey Transit found that passengers traveling between New Jersey and New York have experienced rail delays of two hours or more 85 times between 2014 and the end of 2018.
"Along with the Hudson Tunnel Project, the Portal North Bridge is a critical part of replacing a 109 year-old unreliable system," said Steven Cohen, head of the Gateway Development Corp., which oversees the overall project. "Now we need the new tunnel to also move forward to finally provide 21st Century rail transportation into and out of the nation's economic heart."