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Gateway Project: NJ Transit takes lead on environmental permits

Newark Transportation officials took the first step in getting the Gateway Project (Hudson River tunnel) off the ground, tasking NJ Transit with taking the lead on a major permit required for construction. NJ Transit’s board of directors authorized negotiations with Amtrak with the goal of drawing up a memorandum of understanding that would put the environmental permitting process in NJ Transit’s hands.

“That is the first step to advancing a trans-Hudson tunnel program. Clearly, it’s an exciting day for NJ Transit and for our region,” NJ Transit executive director Veronique Hakim told reporters after the board’s Wednesday meeting. Once an memorandum is prepared, NJ Transit will hire a consultant to oversee the National Environmental Policy Act studies. Acquiring a NEPA permit takes two to four years from start to finish.

Amtrak is currently performing preliminary engineering on the tunnel project, Hakim said. “This is a necessary precondition to getting this project moving forward,” NJ Transit vice chairman Bruce Meisel said. “It’s a first step, but it’s a nice first step.” The current, 106-year-old Hudson River tunnels are dying, after years of overuse never anticipated by their architects. Superstorm Sandy dealt the fatal blow, soaking millions of dollars of utilities and materials with salt water.

Transportation experts say the tunnels have only 10 to 20 years of viability remaining before they must be closed — one at a time — for necessary repairs. But the project comes with an expected price tag north of $20 billion, less than 2 percent of which Amtrak has accounted for in Sandy relief funds. The only funding option on the table is a proposal from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that calls for the federal government to fund half of the project’s cost with a grant, leaving the states to figure out the remainder.

“We believe the public is frustrated by the perception that government effectively accomplishes too little,” the governors wrote in a letter to U.S. transportation secretary Anthony Foxx. “With a viable financial plan, we can finally get this critical project moving. We assure you that, if we have the funding, we will get it done. Our shovels are ready!”

Though experts have called for new Hudson River rail tunnels for years, a series of delays and cancellations — often spurring from issues in the tunnels — have brought them to the top of lawmakers’ and policymakers’ agendas.

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