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Hudson River train tunnel hinges on pricey plan



Hudson River train tunnel hinges on pricey plan

JANUARY 17, 2015, 4:32 PM    LAST UPDATED: SATURDAY, JANUARY 17, 2015, 11:36 PM

As talk heats up again about building tunnels under the Hudson River, Amtrak is hanging its hopes on constructing a new station that will consume more than a block of midtown Manhattan, a site already rejected by other planners who thought the land would be prohibitively expensive.

Proponents of the new station say that whatever the cost, it’s the only way to complete a project that officials on both sides of the river say is needed.

The number of commuters using Pennsylvania Station is growing every year, and the current pair of century-old tunnels face a protracted shutdown for repairs to ensure they don’t become unsafe. While the new tunnels and station are years from opening, under Amtrak’s plan they would carry hundreds of thousands of commuters into Manhattan daily, relieving pressure on the region’s aging bridges and motor vehicle tunnels.

If new tunnels are built without a new station, Amtrak officials say there will be no room at Penn Station to place the additional trains.

“You cannot take advantage of the additional capacity of new tunnels without expanding the physical capacity of Penn Station,” said Drew Galloway, Amtrak’s deputy chief of planning for the Northeast Corridor.

But to get that done, the nation’s rail agency may have to spend more than $1 billion just to buy the land.

“They’re delusional. I don’t think they can build it,” said David Widawsky, who directed the planning to build the Access to the Region’s Core, or ARC, tunnel from New Jersey to New York. The project was killed by Governor Christie in 2010.

Widawsky’s team had considered building a train station at the same site, now called Penn South, but almost immediately realized the property was so expensive that the project could not be done.

“It was eliminated in the first cut,” Widawsky said. “The real estate on that block is just prohibitively expensive.”

The price of land — and getting Congress to pay for it — isn’t Amtrak’s only hurdle. The agency also must deal with two notable, longstanding buildings on the block, including a church. And it must assemble and maintain political support for a 20-year project that will outlast nine sessions of Congress and cover terms of at least three presidents.

Amtrak’s leaders say they understand the high costs of Penn South, but with money from Congress, they believe it can be built.

“We all know it is a huge challenge,” said Galloway. “But there is recognition that some investment in capacity is necessary, and nowhere is that more critical than Penn Station.”

At today’s prices, Amtrak would spend somewhere from $769 million to $1.3 billion just to buy the block bounded to the north and south by 31st and 30th streets, and to the east and west by Seventh and Eighth avenues. That figure is based on development guidelines from the New York City Planning Commission, recent nearby sales figures provided by Ariel Property Advisors, and a rough estimate of the block’s buildable square footage.

Costs are rising fast, however. In just the last three years, the neighborhoods around Penn South went from ghost town to boomtown. Real estate prices are 2½ times higher now than they were just three years ago, said Bob Knackal, chairman of New York investment sales for Cushman & Wakefield.

By the time Amtrak is finally ready to buy land, prices will be even higher, real estate experts said.

“Clearly, values in the area are skyrocketing, and many of the properties are underbuilt relative to their potential,” said Knackal, a Maywood native. “People are selling these properties more for the value of the land potential, as opposed to the value of the existing bricks on the site. So that makes it very, very expensive.”

Whatever is eventually built, all sides agree that Amtrak and Congress must act quickly. The two existing Hudson River tunnels are 104 years old, and both suffered extensive flood damage during Superstorm Sandy. At most, the tunnels can operate only until 2034 before one must be shut down and entirely rebuilt, Amtrak officials said in October. Unless new tunnels are built and operating by then, trans-Hudson traffic will drop from 24 trains an hour to six, causing massive congestion across the region, officials said.

Timing is also important because Penn Station is full. Opened in 1910 to serve 200,000 travelers a day, the station now handles half a million a day, according to Amtrak, and that number is growing 2.5 percent to 3 percent every year.

“If you continue that growth into the future, it’s a pretty sobering number,” Galloway said.

Others saw the same problems looming two decades ago and came to different conclusions about the solutions.

The ARC project originally included planners from all three major transportation agencies in the region: NJ Transit, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The MTA pulled out of the project in 2001.

For that project, planners decided to build a new station under 34th Street. The station was so deep underground that it had only limited pedestrian access to Penn Station and no capacity for trains to transfer between the two stations. The plan eventually was dubbed the “tunnel to Macy’s basement” by Christie, who cited the station’s depth as one of his reasons for canceling the project in 2010.

But the tunnel to Macy’s basement had two big advantages: It was cheap and would have been relatively quick to build. By fitting the entire station inside 34th Street’s wide right-of-way, planners said they knew they could avoid paying top-dollar for prime Manhattan real estate and also avoid protracted legal battles with landowners and tenants.

“We were looking under 34th Street because you can do it without taking a lot of properties,” said Tom Schultz, who ran the planning process for NJ Transit for five years after Widawsky retired.

But for Amtrak, the issue of connecting the new and old stations is paramount, Galloway said. That’s why the agency’s planners decided to go the more expensive, time-consuming and risky route — bulldozing an entire city block to build a station at ground level.

“Unlike some of the other programs that looked at standalone facilities, we think an integrated campus is the right idea for this location,” Galloway said.

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Rep. Scott Garrett calls new Hudson River train tunnel vital



Rep. Scott Garrett calls new Hudson River train tunnel vital

OCTOBER 23, 2014, 11:35 PM    LAST UPDATED: THURSDAY, OCTOBER 23, 2014, 11:42 PM

Rep. Scott Garrett said Thursday that a new train tunnel should be built under the Hudson River “sooner rather than later” because the potential closing of one or both of the existing tunnels owned by Amtrak “would be a nightmare.”

But Garrett, in a meeting with the editorial board of The Record, said leaders in New Jersey and New York should reach an agreement first on what share of the cost they would bear if they want Washington to become involved.

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