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What do with the Gateway billions: Make the project useful with more service the moment it opens

This morning, under a hot sun on the West Side of Manhattan, a contract will be signed, called a Full Funding Grant Agreement, where the federal government hands over a big check for transportation construction. Up until now, the biggest FFGA ever was for the next section of the Second Ave. subway, $3.4 billion. Today’s FFGA is worth $6.88 billion, more than twice as much, and it’s for the $16 billion Gateway rail tunnel under the Hudson, part of Amtrak’s full Gateway boondoggle costing $50 billion.

Signing on behalf of Uncle Sam will be Veronica Vanterpool, the acting administrator of the Federal Transit Administration. Signing for the recipient will be Kris Kolluri, CEO of the bistate Gateway Development Commission. The contract is to be attested to by Maria Anderson, deputy general counsel of GDC and the fourth signature line is for GDC’s lawyer, Ed Caulfield, GDC’s acting general counsel and board secretary.

This has been the goal for years for Senate Majority Chuck Schumer and Amtrak and the governors of New York and New Jersey. With the signing, the money is locked in and even should a Gateway foe like Donald Trump return to the Oval Office, it cannot be undone.

Schumer was also instrumental in working with President Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to secure another $5 billion from Washington, bringing the feds’ share to $12 billion. The remaining $4 billion is also financed by USDOT, with loans to the Port Authority of $2.7 billion, New York for $1 billion and New Jersey for $300 million.

But sorry to disappoint everyone at the party today by pointing out for the umpteenth time, that even should this new two-tube tunnel be built and the existing 1910 two tubes be repaired within the $16 billion budget and the 2040 date envisioned by the FTA, there will be no benefit for passengers. None. Even with four tubes, there will not be a single additional train or even a measly extra seat for commuters. In order to realize any of those gains, the rest of the $50 billion must be spent, including a new station south of Penn Station on Block 780 called Penn South, now pegged at $17 billion.

Schumer is a very accomplished guy, but can he find another $17 billion on top of the $12 billion he’s delivered? They must change the plan to bring the new tunnel into Penn proper.

The Boston PBS station has a nine-part podcast on the Big Dig, the project that replaced a notorious elevated highway there with an underground conduit and dug a new harbor tunnel to Logan Airport. The podcast was recommended to us by a Gateway official. Besides the scale of Gateway dwarfing the Big Dig, what struck us was that the day that the Big Dig opened in 2003, Boston drivers saw an immediate improvement. The ribbon cutting meant something.

When the Gateway ribbon is cut in 2040 or whenever it’s done, there will be nothing for all the billions spent except a tunnel to a Penn South that has not a penny budgeted.

Today there are 21 NJTransit trains at the peak of rush hour. Once Gateway opens, there will be four tubes, yet if both 1910 tubes are closed, the new tunnel can’t deliver the same 21 trains per hour into Penn. Why? Because it doesn’t really go to Penn Station.

The last episode of the podcast goes through the history of the word boondoggle, like spending $16 billion for zero new service.


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