Aging Amtrak tunnel is a reminder of crumbling America

Penn Station, New York.
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Penn Station, New York.

It's a Hollywood disaster movie waiting to happen.

For the fifth time in a week of breakdowns and electrical failures, thousands of passengers were left stranded on both sides of the 105-year-old Hudson River tunnel that provides a vital transit gateway between New Jersey and New York for millions of passengers and hundreds of freight trains every year.

On Tuesday, an Amtrak train headed to New York's Penn Station stalled inside one of two tunnels, stranding passengers for over an hour and backing up commuter trains that share the two-track passage.

"It isn't just these cables that need to be repaired. It's the track, it's the ballast, it's the signals, it's the catenary, it's all the things that need to be done," Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman said Friday, according to the Associated Press. "So we have to juggle on a constant basis what we take down in order to get the work done."

Located in the middle of the Amtrak's busy 450-mile Northeast corridor, the tunnel is a bottleneck for the 2,220 passenger trains and roughly 70 freight trains that travel the route every day. Some 720,000 people ride along some part of the corridor every day; more than 14 million car-miles of freight travel across it every year. The region served by the line generates roughly one-fifth of U.S. gross domestic product, according to the Department of Transportation.

While the recent outages have been a major frustration for commuters, a longer-term outage would have a much wider economic impact.

Replacement of the aging underwater pathway has become a contentious political issue, after the 2010 cancellation by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie of an $8.7 billion project started a year earlier called Access to the Region's Core. Christie said he balked at the potential cost overruns and complained that New Jersey was bearing more than its fair share of the financial burden. He has since said he favors a new tunnel if the cost can be shared more equitably.

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Like much of the nation's infrastructure, funding for capital improvements has been starved for years. This week, Congress is bickering over replenishment of the national Highway Trust Fund, which is expected to run out of cash in a few months because gasoline taxes have lagged inflation for 20 years.

In May the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut Amtrak's budget for next year by a quarter-million dollars to $1.1 billion, and voted down a bid by Democrats to funding by an additional $1 billion.

Amtrak has proposed a new Gateway project that would triple capacity to allow 15 of its Northeast Corridor trains to pass through every hour. The new tunnel would also allow 33 NJ Transit trains an hour, up from the current 20.

But until the tunnel can be expanded, increased passenger traffic will continue to squeeze through the passage.

"The problem is here, it's this station and its tunnels that are at capacity, and they've been at capacity," said Amtrak's Boardman.