‘It’s irresponsible. It’s crazy talk’: N.J. leaders rip tunnel report

Call idea of fixing tunnels at night impractical and potential cause of great disruption to commuters to New York City

Say this for everyone and anyone from New Jersey associated with the Gateway Tunnel project: They are not going to settle for anything less than what is needed — two new tunnels under the Hudson River and then the rehabilitation and repair of the two that have somehow survived for more than 100 years.

That’s why you saw a unified late-day reaction following the release of a report from London Bridge Associates in which LBA suggested it was possible to do the repair on the existing tunnels while they were in use.

The report was deemed so farfetched and without a basis in reality that the New Jersey group — Gov. Phil Murphy, U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, New Jersey Transit head Kevin Corbett, Amtrak Chair Tony Coscia and Gateway Development Corp. Trustee Jerry Zaro — debated whether the GDC should release it all.

Jerry Zaro. (File photo)

“We didn’t want to give it any credibility as a viable option,” Zaro told ROI-NJ. “In my view, it’s irresponsible. It’s crazy talk. And I think it might mislead the public and create false hope that we can save billions of dollars.

“I don’t find it credible.”

There are multiple issues with the report. The group of leaders spoke in carefully worded, vague expressions about some of them.

“Many of the proposed activities present very significant engineering and operational challenges, which have not yet been validated,” they said in the late-day news release. “They must be carefully considered and evaluated to ensure existing service is not compromised in any way. NJ Transit and Amtrak have noted these concerns to LBA and the other Hudson Tunnel project stakeholders during the time this report was being prepared.

“While all the project stakeholders are interested in exploring solutions that could expedite the rehabilitation and improve the customer experience as soon as possible, these recommendations require significant further study before they can be characterized as feasible.”

Zaro got specific — especially when it comes to the changing of the track itself. That process would entail the track being laid in concrete (standard today) as opposed to ballast (a mixture of loose sand, gravel and rock that was standard 100 years ago).

“Imagine how this will play out,” he said. “At 8 o’clock at night, they shut down one tube and go in, knowing they can do about 100 yards at a time. They would have to lift up the rail that’s there now and drag it out. They then would need to change the grade of the area and pour fresh concrete, which needs time to cure.

“They then would have to put down the new track, connect it to the old track and get all the equipment out of the tube by 7 a.m., when 200,000 passengers will go through there.

“If one little thing goes wrong, you would have to shut down the whole Northeast Corridor for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit. To me, that’s irresponsible.”

The state’s leaders listed other issues beyond even the feasibility of the idea.

There’s the potential that a problem would crush commuting time. The closure of just one of the two tubes would result in as much as a 75% reduction in weekday train service and have a catastrophic impact on the region’s economy.

Then there’s this: If the project somehow was completed, it would do nothing to solve the capacity issue that is as big a problem as the integrity of the tunnels themselves.

The study was intended to be a second look at the project. There were hopes it could point out something that may have been missed, overlooked or not considered. It was never intended to suggest the tunnels could be repaired before new tunnels were built. And it never was intended to cost more than $600,000 — as it now does.

New Jersey’s top officials, however, made it clear — they are not going to embrace a bad idea.

Murphy called Gateway the single most important infrastructure project in the nation. One we can’t get wrong.

“While all project partners agree that certain rehab work can be completed on the North River Tunnel in the meantime, I am greatly concerned by proposals in this report that suggest more extensive rehab measures that could potentially interrupt the daily operations of NJ Transit and Amtrak,” he said. “Make no mistake — I am opposed to any rehab proposals that could negatively impact the reliability of service for thousands of New Jersey commuters who cross the Hudson each day.”

Booker and Menendez (both D-N.J.) suggested the state — which has waited so long for this project — can wait a few months more.

“We are so close to having a president in the White House who understands the importance of Gateway, and we must stay fully committed and focused on completing the nation’s most important infrastructure project,” Menendez said.

Corbett said the recommendations are highly speculative. Coscia said they make extraordinary assumptions about the feasibility, costs and inherent risks of performing the rehab work entirely on night and weekend outages.

Zaro, as he always does, offered a perspective anyone can understand.

“To me, it’s the 5-year-old child rule,” he said. “If you brought a 5-year-old in and said, ‘We’re going to do all this inside this tunnel every night,’ even they would say, ‘That’s crazy.’”

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