NJ senator: Threatened tunnel would drive growth

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Proponents of a $9 billion rail tunnel say a new link between New Jersey and New York City would cut commuting time, drive economic growth and help protect the region against the crippling effects of a terrorist strike on mass transit.

U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg said building a second tunnel under the Hudson River would save the average rail commuter 16 to 30 minutes a day. He and the independent Regional Plan Association presented the results of a commuter study at Newark Penn Station on Thursday.

Lautenberg helped secure federal funds for the tunnel. Both he and the transit planning group want the tunnel project to continue.

Ground was broken on the project last year and more than a half-billion dollars has been spent on the tunnel, the largest public works project under way in America.

Republican Gov. Chris Christie pulled the plug on it last week because of projected cost overruns, but he gave it a two-week reprieve after meeting with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Friday.

Christie has said New Jersey can’t afford to be on the hook for overruns that he said could run into the billions. Under the project’s financial structure, the federal government and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are each contributing $3 billion and New Jersey is putting in $2.7 billion. The state would be responsible for any overages beyond the $8.7 billion total.

Over the years, the cost projections have nearly doubled. It started at $5 billion in 2005, and federal officials put the price tag in recent months at $9 billion to $10 billion. Christie this month estimated the cost at $11 billion to $14 billion, though Lautenberg said Thursday that figure was likely far too high.

The senator was repeatedly asked Thursday whether a federal or state agency might be asked to pay for overruns. Lautenberg declined to say so, though his staff confirmed that the Democrat had spoken with an unnamed financial firm about possible private funding.

Instead, Lautenberg recited a litany of reasons why it’s crucial to go ahead with the tunnel: It will create 6,000 construction jobs in an industry with unemployment hovering at around 50 percent; it is environmentally responsible to invest in mass transit and get cars off the road; and it gives the region added protection against an act of terrorism disrupting a major commuting route.

“This is a very positive project for New Jersey and the region,” said Lautenberg. “We are already near capacity with the current 100-year-old tunnel, and demand for rail service in New Jersey to midtown Manhattan is expected to double over the next two decades.”

Neither New York City nor Albany have offered to help pay for the project.

Besides expanding rail capacity into and out of Manhattan, the tunnel would create direct service to Manhattan from eight suburban train lines including Bergen County and Pascack Valley. Five additional train lines, including the Northeast Corridor and Morristown lines, would get more frequent trains and more express service if the tunnel is completed.

Christie’s office did not return an e-mail message for comment.