- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - What the burden will be on state commuters and taxpayers for a new rail tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey is unsettled even though the estimated $20 billion project got a jolt forward this week after a painful summer of delays along the Hudson River corridor.

Officials have praised a letter from Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo asking President Barack Obama for a federal grant to fund half the cost of the project, but details about how much each state will pay and where the money will come from are unclear.

For New Jersey residents, the governors’ letter comes after a summer of broken-down trains, electrical cable issues and signal problems. Not only that, the state’s roughly $1.2 billion transportation trust fund is lurching along without a plan to pay for its debt and capital programs in the next fiscal year, casting further uncertainty on infrastructure projects in the state.

“It’s another example of how we’ve fallen short on prioritizing our transportation infrastructure,” said Janna Chernetz, a senior policy analyst at Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit, non-partisan advocacy group.

Christie and Cuomo have tasked the Port Authority, which operates the region’s airports, bridges, ports and tunnels, with establishing a development authority within the agency to manage the project, if the federal grant comes through. John Degnan, chairman of its board of commissioners, said recently that it’s too soon to know what kind of contribution his agency could make.

Experts say a second tunnel is needed to deal with delays on the existing tunnel and to avoid disruption of the Northeast’s rail system, which is the busiest corridor in the nation.

Officials acknowledge many details must be worked out and approved before the project, which could take a decade, can even begin.

The project also includes a replacement bridge over the Hackensack River in New Jersey and an expansion of Penn Station in New York. The question of how to settle the cost has not been decided. Christie canceled an earlier tunnel in 2010 saying the state couldn’t afford it after roughly $3 billion was already committed.

Some New Jersey leaders are urging for the Port Authority to cover the cost.

The simplest solution is for the Port Authority to fund the rail project and to use federal loans, said New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney. Sweeney referenced the federal Railroad Rehabilitation Infrastructure Financing program for low-interest loans, saying a long-term loan would be justified in the case of the tunnel since it could be expected to last 100 years.

“I’m saying if you look at the Port Authority whose mission is transportation - that’s its mission,” Sweeney said. “A lot of revenue is generated. I think that agency should be responsible.”

Port Authority spokesman Ron Marsico said the agency looks forward to working with the stakeholders “to develop a practical financing plan that is fair to all parties.”

The rail project is not the only significant transportation issue facing New Jersey. There is no clear path forward for its transportation trust fund, which is supported through sales and gasoline taxes that the state’s Republican governor and Democratic Legislature are reluctant to raise.

Transportation experts have said for a year the situation is dire, with nearly 600 deficient bridges, and the fund facing roughly $28 billion in debt service payments over the next 30 years.

Still, talks over how to move forward have stalled.

“I don’t think there will be any discussion on that until after the election,” said Democratic state Sen. Bob Gordon, who chairs the Senate oversight committee. “I hope to find some way to mitigate the effect through tax rebates. The bottom line is we have to have a once-and-for-all serious discussion.”

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