New Jersey officials are itching to get started on a series of projects that would improve and stabilize train access to New York, starting any time now with replacement of the century-old Portal Bridge. The main holdup remains federal funding.

Senator Bob Gordon said there would be “commuter Armageddon” if either of the train tunnels connecting New Jersey and New York fails, cutting the number of rush-hour trains from 24 to 6, before new ones are built – a process that would take a decade or more.

“Today our concern is not the commitment of the states but of the federal government,” said Gordon, D-Bergen.

Estimates for the multi-part project range from $20 billion to $30 billion, with the expectation that the federal government will pay half.

Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, said officials need to stop dawdling.

“In these projects, time is money cubed. Delays on these kinds of things drive up the cost of them dramatically,” Wright said.

“If you think of the entire Gateway project as a potentially $20 billion project, often costs on these projects escalate at about 5 percent a year. Every single year that we delay building Gateway adds roughly a billion dollars to the cost of the project. Every month we delay adds almost $100 million.”

The two new Hudson River rail runnels are expected to cost $11.1 billion, plus $1.8 billion to rehabilitate the existing tunnels, which are approaching a century old and began deteriorating more rapidly after being flooded in Superstorm Sandy.

The tunnel construction portion of Gateway may rely on private-sector partners, said John Porcari, the interim executive director of the Gateway Program Development Corporation. That could shorten the construction and shift the risk for cost overruns.

“Part of the reason of soliciting, formally soliciting, private-sector input is to ask for ways to do it faster, better, cheaper,” Porcari said. “And based on the responses we’ve gotten, there’s some pretty encouraging possibilities out there.”

Porcari, a former U.S. deputy transportation secretary, said he can’t think of any transportation project better situated for federal funds than Gateway, which he said is an economic imperative moreso than a transportation one, given that the first phase stabilizes a system at risk of failure.

“We’re first trying to make sure that something catastrophic doesn’t happen to the regional economy,” Porcari said.

Representatives from the Lackawanna Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for better service on New Jersey Transit’s Morris & Essex and Montclair-Boonton rail lines, said commuters can’t wait until 2030 for service improvements.

Joe Clift, the coalition’s technical director and a former director of planning for the Long Island Rail Road, said the cost for Gateway is approaching $30 billion. Changes that significantly increase rush-hour trains could be accomplished for one-third of that, he said.

“Do something within a $10 billion price tag that actually can be funded. I honestly don’t see how more of that can be funded,” Clift said.

NJ Transit executive director Steve Santoro disagreed with the suggestion to take a step back.

“The most important thing to do, in my opinion, is to stay focused on the project at hand,” Santoro said. “… Any wavering in that, the federal government if they do not see from New Jersey and New York, congressional, legislative, administrative support for this project, they will question our resolve.”

Janna Chernetz, senior New Jersey policy director for Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said she found new cause for concern from the hearing – the timetable for a $440 million ‘tunnel box’ that must be built under Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s West Side.

Chernetz said that needs to be funded soon, given the pace of that real estate redevelopment, after Porcari said the money is part of the broader Gateway project that isn’t yet funded.

“Where are we on that timeline in terms of getting that funding done? If it’s wrapped up in the bigger piece, are we going to lose the ability to finish that project, rendering Gateway moot?” Chernetz said. “That’s a very important question that needs to be asked and answered as soon as possible.”

New York paid for the first two phases of the Hudson Yards tunnel box using federal Sandy recovery funds, so it would presumably be unlikely to allow those efforts to be squandered.

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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com