(Adds details about New York trustee Cohen; clarifies first two paragraphs)
By Hilary Russ
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 construction into a federal program, a critical step to accessing billions of dollars of financing.
The Gateway Program Development Corporation agreed to put the first phase onto the federal "emerging projects" roster. That will allow it to 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 program, 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 Manhattan'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.
Trustee 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.
Steven Cohen, another trustee, was named treasurer of the four-member board, on which he will serve despite stepping down from his position as Port Authority vice-chairman in December.
Cohen, who had been appointed to the Port Authority board by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, said he left because of frustrations with governance changes at the embattled bi-state agency, which came under scrutiny after the "Bridgegate" scandal exposed political influence there.
"One thing has nothing to do with the other," Cohen said after the meeting of his role on the Gateway 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)