The countdown to the Gateway project’s customary shovels in the ground — more like tunnel boring machines under the Hudson River — has begun.
The project’s new “medium-high” priority ranking, announced last week by the Federal Transit Administration, makes the project eligible for the federal Capital Investment Grants (CIG) program. But first, a lot of housekeeping must take place.
The FTA said the agencies and officials overseeing the $12.6 billion first phase of the Gateway program, which includes constructing two new tubes and repairing the two existing ones, need to finish several CIG program requirements before moving to the next stage in the process.
Here is a look at some of what needs to get done next before construction can begin.
Short-term Gateway goals
Figuring out the funding
The first order of business is firming up how to pay for this $12.6 billion project.
Construction cannot begin until the project partners sign a full funding agreement, which is subject to a review period by Congress.
Former President Donald Trump's administration said multiple times to the Gateway project partners, specifically the states of New Jersey and New York, that they needed to firm up how they planned to pay for their shares of the project. The new rating document reiterated the issue, highlighting that "no funding is currently available to cover unexpected capital cost increases or funding shortfalls."
New York would be on the hook for $2.6 billion and New Jersey $1.8 billion. (New Jersey would pay less than its peer because it is fronting money for the Portal Bridge replacement, a complementary project.)
The rating document also said NJ Transit "did not demonstrate access to funds via additional debt capacity, cash reserves, or other committed funds to cover annual system wide operating expenses in excess of the current forecast."
Stephen Sigmund, a spokesman for the Gateway Development Commission — the bi-state agency created to oversee the project — said it is in the process of discussing these issues with the FTA.
"What happens next is you basically have a discussion about the things in the rating that they were still looking at," Sigmund said, adding that once local commitments are shored up, you "go into the next phase, which is engineering, and once you get into the engineering phase you have the discussions about the full funding grant agreement."
Meanwhile, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and state Treasury Department are negotiating a deal to dedicate $81 million annually for Gateway project loans, according to NJ.com. Those payments would not begin for 10 years, but Sigmund said dedicating those funds now is demonstrating “the state’s commitment.” He added that New York put its share in the capital budget.
That agreement should get signed in about a year, Sigmund said, then a construction team will be assembled, and after that, digging can begin.
Checklist for the FTA
Here are the items that can be submitted to the FTA now that the project has received the updated ranking:
Soil samples. Amtrak collected soil samples from 100-foot holes in 13 locations on Manhattan property where the ventilation shaft for the tunnels will be. These samples will give engineers an idea of the underground conditions.
Designs. Thirty percent of the design work for the tunnels is completed and will be submitted to the feds. This, Sigmund said, is about "as far as you can take it before procurement."
Project management plan. This plan, according to Sigmund, “basically says how you’re going to manage the project and who’s going to do what.”
Longer-term work behind the scenes
The project partners got the OK to begin acquiring the land needed for the Gateway project when the Federal Railroad Administration signed off on the environmental review in May.
Amtrak purchased property on 30th Street and 12th Avenue in Manhattan in August for $351 million (though the property owners are arguing in court that they should receive more). That area will be the site of the emergency tunnel exit and ventilation shaft, where fans will be housed to circulate air through the tunnel.
Amtrak is now seeking an easement for the area next to that recently purchased property so it will have a space for construction staging and storing equipment.
On the New Jersey side, NJ Transit will take the lead on acquiring about a half-mile of land through the Meadowlands where track will be built from Secaucus Junction to the entrance of the new tunnel. Along that route are mainly warehouses and other storage facilities, Sigmund said.
Race against corrosion
Deterioration within the two original 112-year-old tunnels accelerated after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and it is now affecting Northeast Corridor commuters more acutely because trains are increasingly becoming stuck due to signal failures or power outages.
The tunnels need significant rehabilitation that officials say can be completed most efficiently if the tunnels can be fully shut down. The plan is to transfer those trains to the new Gateway tubes once they’re completed, fix the old tunnels and then open all four corridors.
In the interim, Amtrak launched a substantial capital program to stave off a shutdown of one of those tubes before the new ones are built. These repairs mainly take place on nights and weekends, to limit disruption during times of the day when trains are using the tubes.
This work includes repairing water leaks in the bench walls and tunnel lining, replacing ballasts, clearing out mud and debris in drains under the tracks, fixing high-voltage power cables, and fortifying the tubes against more water. Amtrak also identified the “hot spot” areas where outages occur most frequently and is targeting those spots for fixes.
“These are Band-Aids on a patient that really needs open-heart surgery,” said Craig Schulz, an Amtrak spokesman. “What we hope to do is, to the extent that we can, to preserve some of these interventions in the full tunnel comprehensive rehab, but the priority really is in improving service and improving the conditions in the near-term.”
Colleen Wilson covers the Port Authority and NJ Transit for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering the region’s transportation systems and how they affect your commute, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Gateway project: What needs to happen before construction begins