A race between two tunnel projects may be starting after Congress sent an appropriations bill that includes $15 million for engineering work for Amtrak’s proposed Gateway Tunnel under the Hudson River to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The appropriation means that Amtrak’s proposed tunnel, which would be used by NJ Transit, could be in competition of sorts with plans to extend the No.7 New York City subway line to Secaucus, being championed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

U.S. Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, all Democrats, announced Thursday night that the joint House and Senate “Minibus” conference report provides a minimum of $15 million for Amtrak to begin design and engineering work on the Gateway Tunnel project.

“This is really important for our region, the cross-Hudson bottleneck isn’t going away, congratulations to Senators Lautenberg and Menendez for getting it passed,” said Steven Higashide, federal advocate for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a regional transportation policy watchdog group.

The funding was part of a bigger bill which kept transportation funding at current levels and averted a proposed 30 percent cut to road bridge and transit funding that Higashide said would have been “devastating to the region.”

The quartet of senators predicted the president would sign the bill “immediately.”

The Gateway Tunnel project is expected to increase NJ Transit commuter rail capacity into New York by 65 percent, from 20 to 33 trains per hour during peak hours, in addition to adding eight Amtrak trains during peak hours.

Information from: The Asbury Park Press; http://www.app.com