Amtrak Takes Lead on Gateway – Applies for HSR Funding

According to a press release today, Amtrak has formally applied for $1.3B in funding for the Gateway and HSR on the Northeast Corridor.  Amtrak’s move was not unexpected, since just three weeks ago, the Federal government designated the NEC as a HSR corridor, making the line eligible for HSR funding — including the recently rejected funds from Florida.

The request inclues money for three Gateway-related projects:

In addition, Amtrak is planning $450M investments on the NEC from Philadelphia to NYC, its busiest stretch of track on the corridor. Investments include upgrades to the signaling system and overhead catenary wires to support speeds up to 160mph (up from the stretch’s current maximum of 125mph). Investments in the catenary wires are critical, especially since a catenary failure in December 2010 between Newark, NJ, and NYC caused major regional and local delays.

What’s most interesting is that the Portal Bridge request includes a $150M request to the state of NJ. Chris Christie’s recently announced transportation budget for FY2012 includes no such funding, nor does the recent funding proposals by the Port Authority. The move on the Portal Bridge project comes after almost a year of virtual dormancy on the project. The last dollar spent on the project was $38.5M on final design in January 2010, back when the ARC tunnel was still under construction.

Christie’s 2012 Five-Year Capital Plan for NJ Transit does not explicitly earmark any funds for the Portal Bridge project (though the project is eligible under the funding category Transit Rail Initiatives which is set to receive only a paltry 28M over five years).

NJ’s commitment aside, Amtrak’s plans would be good news for trans-Hudson commuters. In a speech at MIT on March 11, 2011, Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman argued that improving commuter operations between NY and NJ is essential to its vision for High Speed Rail on the NEC. Boardman argued that, “when commuter services get investment, high speed services get operational fluidity.” He explained that the Gateway project and investments associated with Moynihan station will improve movements for NJ Transit trains underneath Penn Station. The result will be less congestion and more reliable service for NJT and for Amtrak’s increased HSR services – not to mention an increase for NJT from 25 to 38 trains per hour in the peak period.

Despite Amtrak’s commitment to breaking the NY-NJ bottleneck, numerous questions remain. While the Feds designation of the NEC for HSR suggests a good likelihood of the proposal receiving some funding, continued arguments about federal transportation spending obscure a bigger picture of the future. In the mean time, Boardman’s nod to regional commuters is more than welcome, since local support will be necessary to get Gateway in the ground.

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