The more than 200,000 passengers who commute by train in tunnels below the Hudson River every day to get from New Jersey to New York and back are now traveling with a hopeful smile after many years of waiting. The North River Tunnel carrying many as 450 trains to Penn Station in Manhattan each day from the hundred-year-old Portal Bridge is suffering from the wear and tear of time, as well as the flooding in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy that inundated the tunnel’s two tracks with salt water, damaging electrical and mechanical equipment and creating cracks in the concrete walls.
The $16 billion (€16 billion) project to build a new, two-track train tunnel under the Hudson River got the green light in mid-November from the Gateway Development Commission, a joint body comprising the states of New Jersey and New York and the state-owned rail company Amtrak. Construction, according to the commission — which took over the project that had stalled for years — is scheduled to start in 2023 for completion in 2035.
Gateway Program, the importance of the new tunnels
The project has three main components, says the Commission: the new tunnel between the Bergen Palisades in New Jersey and Manhattan; a tunnel below Hudson Yards to travel between the new tunnel and Penn Station; and the rehabilitation of the existing North River Tunnel in need of urgent repairs.
According to the Gateway Development Commission’s website, these three aspects of the tunnel will “improve reliability and resilience for hundreds of thousands of daily passengers crossing the Hudson River” and “eliminate the mobility deficit for the region whose economy determines a sizable portion of the U.S. gross domestic product: the New York regional economy and the Northeast Corridor mega-region contribute between 10% and 20% of the nation’s GDP, respectively.”
In addition, the Commission says the project is expected to create more than 72,000 direct, indirect and related jobs during the construction period, as well as generate $19 billion (€19 billion) in economic activity, and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. According to project data, without the new tunnel, repairs to the existing one would result in the release of an additional 2 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere. According to the commission, it would be “the equivalent of flying 2.6 million people from New York to San Francisco.”
The current tunnel was designed by the Pennsylvania Railroad in February 1903 and went into service in November 1910. At the time it was a model in both design and efficiency of rail transportation, with two parallel lanes, one dedicated “in-out” along the New York-New Jersey route, the other for the opposite direction. Created for what was already a fast-growing commuter community, the tunnel’s flexibility has gradually proved to be limited, especially when accidents occur inside the tunnel. The latest accident this fall kept passengers stranded for hours due to a malfunctioning locomotive.
Stop and go before finally getting the green light
The tunnel, which serves Amtrak intercity trains from Washington, DC, to New York and Boston, as well as NJ Transit commuter trains, has long been the subject of political bickering and lack of financial agreement between the states of New York and New Jersey Promoted by the Obama administration, in 2009 Congress agreed to the $6 billion (€6 billion) appropriation as part of the economic stimulus bill in the wake of the financial crisis, identifying the tunnel as a top-priority infrastructure project. But the following year, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie chose to withdraw the state from the project due to cost overruns, diverting $2 billion (€2 billion) in federal funding to rebuild the Pulaski Skyway elevated highway.
The two states could not agree about state and federal funding. New Jersey believed that New York should cover a greater share of the costs, arguing that Manhattan would benefit more. With no agreement and rejected by President Donald Trump, the tunnel finally found a backer in July through an understanding between New York Governor Phil Murphy, re-elected in 2021, and fellow New Jersey Governor Kathy Hochul, elected in 2021, both from the same party as President Joe Biden, a major sponsor of the project and as well as of investment to improve state-owned Amtrak’s service, which will own the new tunnel.
The arrangement, which calls for a 50-50 split of the project cost, was approved by the Gateway Commission, whose program also includes the replacement of the now unreliable Portal Bridge, which has become the key bottleneck along the Northeast Corridor (NEC). Also constructed in 1910, the bridge earned the name “Portal” because it leads the Northeast Corridor (NEC) rail line to the entrance of the North River Tunnel, located three miles away. Today it is a two-track movable swing-span crossing over the Hackensack River that, with a 10-mile (16-km) siding, carries trains in and out of New York City. The new bridge, called the Portal North Bridge, will be a two-track fixed span, much higher over the water than the current one, allowing boats to pass under it without the need to open and close. Trains will therefore be able to travel at greater speed and capacity.