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Pushing to Keep Trump Budget Cuts from Derailing NJ Mass-Transit Projects

Lawmakers, transportation advocates argue that loss of funding would be a blow not just to New Jersey but the entire Northeast corridor

mass-transit presser
Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) leading a news conference with transportation advocates and lawmakers yesterday at Penn Station, Newark

Alarms were sounded almost immediately last week after a preview of President Donald Trump’s first budget showed federal funding for the planned Gateway trans-Hudson tunnel is now in peril.

But concerns are also running high among state lawmakers and transportation advocates as it’s become clear that federal aid for other major transportation projects in New Jersey is also on the chopping block, including an expected multimillion dollar grant for the long-envisioned expansion of New Jersey Transit’s Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Line.

The project, which would extend the existing line from its current terminus in North Bergen nearly 10 miles north to Englewood, was among those that lawmakers frequently pointed to last year as they lobbied their colleagues and the public to support a 23-cent increase of the state gas tax that was eventually enacted last fall.

United front

During a news conference held yesterday at Penn Station in Newark, the lawmakers and advocates held up the light-rail expansion, Gateway, and several other projects as they presented a united front in calling for the region’s congressional delegation to begin launching a firm defense of federal infrastructure spending. They portrayed the issue as more than just a parochial one, saying transportation projects like Gateway are vital to the economic future of a Northeast corridor that stretches from Washington, D.C., to Boston, producing a large share of the nation’s gross-domestic product.

“We are a regional economy, and our region’s transportation ceiling will be our economic ceiling,” said Len Resto, president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers.

“The time to act is now,” Resto said. “We must email, we must call, we must write, we must visit our legislators.”

Only a few sentences related to mass-transit spending were included in the budget summary released by the Trump White House last week, but they generated immediate concern among transportation advocates thanks to the inclusion of a call to freeze funds for projects in the federal New Starts grant program that don’t already have agreements in place for full funding.

The Gateway project — which involves building two new tunnels under the Hudson River to support the existing, 107-year-old tubes — is counting on funding from the New Starts program to help cover what’s estimated to be a price tag of at least $20 billion. Gateway also calls for other major-infrastructure upgrades, including the replacement of a more-than-100-year-old bridge near Secaucus Junction, with work expected to begin this year.

To be sure, the White House’s federal-spending outline marks only the beginning of a lengthy federal budget process that will also involve significant reshaping by Congress in the run-up to the October 1 start of the next fiscal year. Trump, meanwhile, has also talked about launching a major off-budget infrastructure-investment effort after promising on the campaign trail last year that he would rebuild the nation’s “roads, bridges, railways, tunnels, sea ports, and airports.”

No time to waste — or wait

But state Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) said yesterday that New Jersey doesn’t have time to wait to see what that infrastructure plan could look like and how much actual federal investment it will involve since Trump has also discussed public-private partnerships and offering developers tax credits. The two existing trans-Hudson rail tunnels — which support up to 200,000 train passengers daily — were damaged by floodwaters during 2012’s Superstorm Sandy and are overdue for repairs that the Gateway project would enable.

“If either of the two existing Sandy-damaged tunnels need to close before the Gateway tunnels are finished, we would lose 75 percent of tunnel capacity,” Gordon said. “New Jersey Transit admits that there is no real contingency plan if such a commuter catastrophe were to occur.”

During a NJ Spotlight Newsmaker event held earlier this week in Newark, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said a slashing of New Starts funding that he worked to secure as a member of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Surface Transportation doesn’t make any sense from an economic perspective.

“We are one of the most economically productive regions on the planet Earth,” Booker said. “Investing dollars here actually produces in economic activity multiples of return. Investing infrastructure dollars here produces more than $2 back.”

“Even if you’re concerned about the debt-to-GDP ratio, and our country’s spending, actually you make the debt-to-GDP ratio better by creating that economic growth,” Booker said. In a statement issued yesterday, he also pledged to work with other elected officials and the transportation advocates to keep the Gateway project moving “full steam ahead.”

Delays would drive up costs

Caren Z. Turner, who recently joined the Port Authority’s board of commissioners as a New Jersey representative, said yesterday that delaying the project would also likely mean the cost of completing it will increase. The current finance plan for Gateway involves an equal sharing of costs between the federal government, New Jersey, New York, and the Port Authority. Earlier this year, the Port Authority set aside $2.7 billion in its latest 10-year capital plan to cover Gateway-project debt service.

“We cannot afford to add to the cost of this project through needless delay,” she said.

But state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) suggested the biggest “immediate impact” for New Jersey is on NJ Transit’s planned expansion of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Line. The 15-year-old line now runs for 21 miles along the Hudson River through Bayonne, Jersey City, Hoboken, Weehawken, Union City, and North Bergen. The expansion project, which would add seven stations, has been on the drawing board for the past two decades.

With an estimated $1 billion price tag, it was expected to be in the running for a New Starts grant of between $300 million and $500 million. But like Gateway, Trump’s budget sketch has put that funding in question even though lawmakers worked with Gov. Chris Christie last year on an eight-year, $16 billion reauthorization of the state Transportation Trust Fund that was expected to draw full matching dollars from the federal government.

Instead, the state could have to cover the full cost of the light-rail project, leaving fewer dollars available for important projects in other regions of the state. Weinberg said though New Jersey is one of the states that overall receives far less funding from the federal government than its residents typically provide through their taxes, New Starts is one of the programs in which New Jersey typically does better than its counterparts.

“We need our congressional delegation on both sides of the Hudson, and in both parties, to fight to keep the existing the New Starts program alive,” she said.

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