Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is urging the federal government to use $550 million worth of leftover Hurricane Sandy relief money to fix Amtrak and commuter rail tunnels in New York City that were damaged during the storm.
Problems with rail tunnels in the New York City area have emerged as a political issue as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who cancelled an earlier proposal to build a new tunnel between New York and New Jersey, runs for president.
Schumer, a top ranking Senate Democrat, said unobligated Hurricane Sandy relief could be used to help pay for repairs to Amtrak's East River Tunnels, which carry trains between Manhattan and Queens under the city's East River.
"They link New York's Penn Station with destinations north and east including Amtrak's service to Boston as well as all of the Long Island Rail Road's (LIRR) service and they provide a vital connection for New Jersey Transit (NJT) trains to access Sunnyside Yards," Schumer continued.
The New York senator said the use of Hurricane Sandy funds to fix the East River Tunnels would be justified because the critical rail link was badly damaged during the 2012 storm.
"During Hurricane Sandy, two of the four tubes under the East River were badly damaged and are in desperate need of immediate repairs," he wrote.
"Amtrak has planned an aggressive schedule to repair these tunnels and has worked with the MTA [Maryland Transit Administration] to ensure that the work is done in concert with the needed work for the East Side Access project in order to minimize delays, congestion, and the impact on commuters," he continued. "Unfortunately, a recent preliminary decision by the U.S. District Court to cap Amtrak's insurance settlement could delay Amtrak's repair plans and subsequently put the project schedules for both East Side Access and the East River Tunnel repairs in jeopardy."
Schumer said the shortfall in money to fix the East River Tunnels "could cause Amtrak to delay their project for a number of years until the appeal process can be resolved" and could also lead to "increasingly frequent service outages and lengthy delays in the tunnels themselves, which could be hugely detrimental to the LIRR, the MTA, and NJT.
"This is simply unacceptable, both projects –the repair of the East River Tubes and the East Side Access project— are simply too important to Long Island, NYC, New Jersey and all of the New York metro region to be placed into jeopardy," he wrote.
"Therefore, I urge you to work closely to quickly release the necessary funds to cover Amtrak's shortfall from the unobligated Sandy Relief funds currently being held at FTA as well as from other sources of FEMA storm recovery funds available so that their East River Tunnel repair project and East Side Access can move forward as planned," Schumer continued.
The separate rail project that was cancelled by Christie in 2010 involved tunnels that would have carried Amtrak and commuter rail trains between New York and New Jersey under the Hudson River.
Killing the earlier rail tunnel, known as the Access to the Region's Core (ARC) project, was one of Christie's first high-profile decisions after he was elected in 2009 in a surprise win over then-New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat.
The project was originally projected to cost $8.7 billion, but it faced cost overruns. When Christie canceled it, the price tag was up to $11 billion.
Christie cast the decision at the time as an example of the type of fiscal responsibility that he promised voters in the Garden State when they elected him governor.
Christie allies have noted that canceled rail tunnel would not have carried trains to New York's Penn Station, which is the home of Amtrak and most commuter rail trains in the city.
Christie met recently with FTA's Secretary Foxx to discuss funding for a new plan from Amtrak to build more train tunnels between New York and New Jersey.
The duo, along with New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez (D) and Cory Booker (D), pledged to work together to increase rail capacity between New York and New Jersey.
"Transit across the Hudson River carries an enormous and increasing share of this region's workforce and economy, and it is clear that something must be done, and done now, as commuters continue to endure serious daily challenges that come with an aging infrastructure," Foxx and the lawmakers said in a joint statement after the meeting earlier this month.
“We had a substantive and productive meeting today and all of us are committed to working together on a path forward on this critical project," the joint statement continued. "Sen. Booker, Sen. Menendez, and Gov. Christie will work with Secretary Foxx to obtain a substantial Federal grant contribution toward the Hudson River tunnels. In addition to grants, we will also work on other funding and financing options."