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NJ Officials Scramble to Save Trans-Hudson Rail Tunnel After Trump Snub on Funding

Big blow to prospect of federal cash for Gateway infrastructure project leads some lawmakers to consider fighting for it in Congress, others to work on Plan B

portal bridge
Credit: Tim Larsen/Governor's Office
Train crossing the 100-year-old Portal Bridge. The swing gate opens when ships need to pass through, idling traffic until they're clear.

President Donald Trump’s long-awaited federal-infrastructure proposal has dashed any remaining hope that his administration will commit significant federal dollars to a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel, and that’s left New Jersey’s elected officials and other advocates for the long-planned Gateway infrastructure project trying to figure out what to do next.

For some, the Trump administration’s latest snub is being viewed as a “call to action,” with Gov. Phil Murphy among those who’ve suggested it’s now up to members of the state’s congressional delegation to push hard to make sure Trump is overruled, and that significant federal funding for Gateway is eventually appropriated.

Others, led by state Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Gordon, suggest Trump’s infrastructure and spending proposals should add more urgency to ongoing efforts to boost trans-Hudson capacity through means other than a new tunnel. They include expanding the Port Authority’s PATH train service and adding capacity to the agency’s flagship Manhattan bus terminal.

“I never thought I would say this, and it pains me to say this, but it seems as if the federal government, with regard to the northeastern states, is a hostile foreign power as opposed to a partner in this,” Gordon (D-Bergen) said in a recent interview with NJ Spotlight.

Tunnel still safe to use

No matter what, time is of the essence, since the existing, 107-year-old rail tunnel that is currently used by both New Jersey Transit and Amtrak is on borrowed time after it sustained heavy damage in 2012 during superstorm Sandy. Though federal officials say the tunnel is still safe to use, they have warned that closing just one of its two tubes for emergency repairs would require reducing hourly capacity from 24 trains to just six.

A new rail tunnel between North Bergen and New York’s Penn Station is the most significant feature of the proposed Gateway project which could cost nearly $30 billion to complete.

Another key element of the project is the planned replacement of the Portal Bridge which spans the Hackensack River near Secaucus Junction. Just like the tunnel, the bridge is used by both NJ Transit and Amtrak, and it, too, is more than a century old; and it is prone to breakdowns that can cause major commuting headaches. A new, $1.5 billion bridge has already been designed, but, so far, there’s been no talk among state officials of breaking it out of the broader Gateway initiative to speed up the replacement.

During former President Barack Obama’s tenure, the Gateway project was deemed “the most important rail project in the United States” by a top federal transportation official, and an initial funding framework was worked out in 2015 between the Obama administration and the governors of New Jersey and New York. That framework called for the federal government to pick up 50 percent of the Gateway project’s cost, with the two states and the Port Authority covering the balance.

Another setback last week

But a budget summary released by Trump’s administration by last March raised serious questions about the administration’s commitment to the project when it called for freezing new federal-grant agreements for infrastructure projects like Gateway that aren’t yet fully funded.

Last week brought another setback as the Trump administration released a spending proposal for the 2019 fiscal year and infrastructure-investment goals that had been teased by administration officials for several months as a major policy initiative. That proposal cast more doubt on the future of Gateway by prioritizing state and local funding over federal support for infrastructure, including by offering up just $200 billion in federal dollars over a 10-year span for all infrastructure projects. The budget documents also lowered the federal priority rating for both the new tunnel and the Portal Bridge replacement.

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, said the Trump administration’s policy proposals amounted to a “hit job on New Jersey families and commuters.”

In the wake of last year’s Gateway setback, members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation worked on a bipartisan basis to ensure hundreds of millions of dollars still made it into federal appropriations bills to help keep the Gateway project at least moving forward. Menendez and others are now suggesting that a similar effort should be mounted in the face of Trump’s latest spending proposals.

“The Gateway project is not optional; this is a pass-fail,” Gov. Murphy said following an event in Jersey City last week.

Murphy: ‘…cooler heads will prevail’

“This is one where we need to have a very big group advocating with one clear voice and I believe, if we can, cooler heads will prevail and we’ll get the right result,” Murphy said.

State Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Dan Benson (D-Mercer) also called for state and federal officials to collaborate. “This tunnel must be supported, and it must get built,” Benson said.

Janna Chernetz, director of New Jersey policy for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said federal lawmakers from New Jersey should work with their counterparts from New York to press for more federal funding for Gateway. She said Gateway is a crucial element of the entire Northeast corridor between Washington, D.C. and Boston.

Economic powerhouse of country

“The Northeast Corridor is the economic powerhouse of the country, responsible for producing $3 trillion of the country's GDP,” Chernetz said. “Gateway is a vital project to ensure that powerhouse continues to operate.”

“The New York and New Jersey delegation must be vigilant and continue to push for nothing less than the federal fair share of 50 percent and get this project finally underway,” she said.

In the wake of last year’s setback, Gordon, the state senator, started talking about the need for New Jersey policymakers to begin discussing a Plan B for the Gateway project that could be pursued if the federal funding continues to be delayed — or doesn’t materialize at all. He’s since come up with a three-pronged approach that would involve taking advantage of an expanded Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Manhattan, completing a planned extension of the bistate agency’s PATH service to Newark Liberty Airport, and providing public subsidies to improve and increase ferry service between New Jersey and New York.

Gordon said Trump’s new spending proposal only “adds impetus to our plans for the so-called Plan B.”

He suggested Trump’s latest snub should give New Jersey residents a reason to consider a political solution to the Gateway-funding issue, one that would involve making sure members of his own party gain more influence in Washington, D.C.

“I hate to be partisan, but I think it just provides greater impetus for changing the control of Congress and electing someone to the presidency who has a better appreciation for the need to rebuild our infrastructure,” Gordon said.

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