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NEWARK, N.J., Jan 12 (Reuters) - The board overseeing the $24 billion Gateway Program to rebuild portions of Amtrak rail lines through New York City voted on Thursday to enter the first phase of the project, a critical step to releasing billions of dollars of federal financing.
The Gateway Program Development Corporation board approved entering the program's first phase, putting it onto the federal "emerging projects" roster, under which it will apply for an estimated $6 billion of federal low-interest loans.
The federal government has agreed to split funding with New York and New Jersey for the project, but where all the money will ultimately come from is still unclear.
Gateway, particularly a new train tunnel underneath the Hudson River and subsequent repair of the existing tunnel, is considered one of the most important infrastructure projects in the nation.
Failure of the lines in the current century-old tunnel, which was heavily damaged during 2012's Superstorm Sandy, could come within a decade and would hobble commuting in a metropolitan area that produces 10 percent of the nation's economic output.
Construction on the tunnel could tie up traffic on New York City's heavily traveled West Side Highway for three years and cause other disruptions.
A board of trustees to oversee the Gateway program was named late last year.
Board of trustee member Anthony Foxx, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, was represented at the meeting by his counselor, Andrew Right, a former Goldman Sachs infrastructure banker.
Trustee Richard Bagger, who is also on the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was named chairman of the board.
During the public comment period, David Peter Alan, chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, a regional ridership advocacy group, faulted the board for not containing a riders' advocate or establish a citizens advisory committee.
Riders "deserve to have a genuine voice" in the program, he said. (Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Alan Crosby)