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ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Buried deep under Manhattan is a $185 million hole in the ground, evidence that while politicians bicker over how to pay for a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, work on the project has been underway for years.
All told, more than $300 million has already been committed to the $14 billion tunnel — investments based on the assumption that leaders in New York, New Jersey and Washington will be able to strike a deal on the project after years of false starts.
Experts say the project will only get more expensive the longer it is delayed — and that by starting preliminary work now Amtrak will lessen the pain of the 200,000 daily commuters who have seen summer travel marred by hours-long delays on the rail link between New Jersey and New York City.
Amtrak has set aside the $300 million to pay for the first stages of the tunnel and complete early design and engineering work that must be done before the full project can proceed.
"Time is the enemy," Amtrak Executive Vice President Stephen Gardner told The Associated Press on Thursday. "Every day, every year you add you escalate costs. Every day we delay is another day of reliability risk for the existing railroad."
Even though there's still no agreement to build the tunnel, the early investments show how vital the project is to Amtrak and they give elected officials like Sen. Charles Schumer hope the tunnel will get built despite the formidable political and fiscal challenges.
"It will take energy, commitment, several leaps-of-faith," Schumer said of the project earlier this month. "But above all else: it will take cooperation."
And that may prove more difficult than the digging.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Dept. of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx are engaged in an increasingly vitriolic back-and-forth over the tunnel's price tag. Cuomo said the tunnel is vitally important to New York, but he wants Washington to agree to pay the "lion's share" before the project can move forward. A spokesman for Foxx insisted last week that the states must come together to back the project first.
"New York will do its fair share — but let's remember who owns the tunnel and who uses the tunnel," Cuomo said Wednesday, noting that the tracks serve mostly Amtrak and New Jersey Transit riders.
So far, even getting Cuomo and Foxx to meet face-to-face has proven challenging. Cuomo declined a written invitation from Foxx last month, only to have a spokeswoman insist he wasn't invited when Foxx met with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and other New Jersey leaders last week.
Amtrak isn't waiting on an agreement. The existing rail tunnels below the Hudson are 105 years old and well past capacity. Their electronic components were heavily damaged during Superstorm Sandy.
Work on the 800-foot concrete casing under Hudson Yards between 10th and 11th avenues began in 2013. The tunnel — more of a concrete box at this point — is 50 feet wide and 35 feet tall — enough room for two tracks of rail to be laid down when the rest of the tunnel is constructed.
Amtrak determined the project was a necessity when the redevelopment of Hudson Yards began. Waiting to dig that part of the tunnel until after the new Hudson Yards was built would have made the project much more expensive. Other stakeholders — the MTA, City Hall — saw the wisdom of moving ahead.
Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, said it came down to "working with our partners and doing what we can to move (the project) forward as quickly and effectively as possible."
The rest of the money is going to other preliminary efforts, including engineering and design work, so the work can begin quickly when the project is fully funded. The project is expected to take as long as a decade.
"If we're not planning for it now than we're making a huge mistake," said Lucius Riccio, a former transportation commissioner in New York City who now teaches at New York University's Stern School of Business. "Somebody has to wake up and recognize that these things have to be done. It's not a matter of 'do we build it or don't we.' It's a matter of 'how quickly can we do it?'"
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