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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Panel warns of Hudson River tunnel delay

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Construction of a second commuter train tunnel under the Hudson River, one of the biggest public works projects under way in the country, could be delayed by issues about the use of eminent domain to take property on the West Side of Manhattan, The New York Times reports.

A report prepared for the new governor of New Jersey, Christopher J. Christie, warned the $8.7-billion project could be delayed by four to six months if the issues were not resolved. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which has pledged $3 billion toward the project, has begun trying to acquire buildings and obtain permission to bore under others. Its lawyers have been negotiating with the city over how much public notice is required before the Port Authority can condemn the property it wants.

A committee advising Governor Christie on transportation issues concluded that the required notice could affect the tunnel-boring contracts that have been awarded. In early December, New Jersey Transit, the lead agency on the project, awarded a $583-million contract for the design and construction of the Manhattan side of the tunnel. Groundbreaking on that segment was scheduled to occur later this year.

Kate Slevin, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an ardent supporter of the tunnel project, said, "The agencies need to act swiftly to ensure these delays don't skyrocket out of control and severely impact the project."

Ron Marsico, a spokesman for the Port Authority, said the agency "is abiding by its commitment to acquire property and easements through the city's eminent domain procedures." He added, "The timing depends on the outcome of ongoing discussions with the city's legal department."

Some operators of businesses that stand in the way of the proposed project have objected to the taking of their property to build a train terminal that would be just a block away from Pennsylvania Station and from the Herald Square subway and PATH train stations. (The new commuter terminal, which would sit more than 120 feet beneath 34th Street near Macy's, was not designed to connect directly to Penn Station or the subway.)

Port Authority officials expect that the agency will have to use eminent domain to take some of those properties, a process that normally requires public hearings and can be fought in state court.

Paul Wyckoff, a spokesman for the tunnel project, played down the committee's suggestion of a long delay, and officials in New Jersey emphasized that the panel's views were not necessarily shared by Governor Christie. However, the governor just appointed one member of the committee, James Weinstein, to run New Jersey Transit. Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Governor Christie, referred all questions about the committee's report to Wyckoff.

Wyckoff said the officials overseeing the project were confident that an agreement could be reached quickly on "the exact process we have to follow for land acquisition in the city." He said the project was still on schedule to be completed in 2017.

Marsico said that the Port Authority had acquired or was close to buying three pieces of Manhattan property needed for the tunnel. It still must obtain permission from about 20 other landowners to bore deep below their property, he said.

The Port Authority got a head start on the acquisitions in 2008 when it bought a lot on West 33rd Street from a company controlled by Sam Chang, a developer who has been building hotels throughout the city over the last several years.

According to city records, Mr. Chang's company bought the lot for $24 million in early 2008 with plans to build a 26-story hotel on it. A few months later, the Port Authority bought it for $30 million, the records show.

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