A group of New Jersey lawmakers and transportation advocates said at a midday news conference yesterday that the Port Authority and Amtrak are a perfect match — and money is the matchmaker.
A special panel that’s been examining the PA in the wake of last year’s Bridgegate scandal is urging the bistate agency to start selling off its valuable real-estate assets to refocus on transportation. Amtrak, meanwhile, needs $7 billion to $8 billion to pay for new tunnels as part of its Gateway project.
The lawmakers, gathered in Newark’s Penn Station, called on the Port Authority to set aside some of the money from real-estate sales specifically for the tunnel project.
“We need a new tunnel,” Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said. “We need funding for a new tunnel.”
“This is putting together the necessary funding for a new tunnel,” she said.
Amtrak’s Gateway project is being looked at by many as the next great hope for increasing trans-Hudson rail capacity, following Gov. Chris Christie’s decision in 2010 to kill the ARC (Access to the Region’s Core) tunnel project, citing concerns about New Jersey taxpayers’ exposure to cost overruns. Christie instead used the funding to prop up the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which still needs a long-term source of revenue.
The Gateway project, which involves other infrastructure components in addition to a new tunnel, is still in the planning stages, with a current completion date that’s more than a decade away. But there is a renewed sense of urgency after superstorm Sandy damaged Amtrak’s more than 100-year-old Hudson River tunnels in 2012.
“We cannot afford to have a tunnel shut down,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said. “It’s unfortunate the ARC tunnel didn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean we can’t move forward and move forward quickly.”
Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Campaign, an organization that advocates for better transportation policy in the Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York region, said a new rail tunnel should be looked at as more than just a benefit for commuters. It would also bring economic growth to the region.
“The Gateway tunnel is not just a transit project,” she said. “It’s an economic development project.”
A statement issued by Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz following the news conference said the agency “appreciates the leadership Senator Sweeney and others have demonstrated in calling attention to this important infrastructure program.”
“As thousands of daily commuters and intercity passengers experienced this winter, reduced rail capacity between New York and New Jersey can cripple the region,” the statement said. “This is the future we could face until and unless a new rail tunnel serving Penn Station is built under the Hudson River.”
The New Jersey lawmakers don’t have the authority to force the Port Authority to spend its dollars on the Gateway project, and their news conference came the day after several news reports indicated that the agency is considering options for replacing the current Port Authority Bus Terminal, with costs that could range between $7.5 billion to higher than $10 billion.
Still, the lawmakers said they estimate the Port Authority is currently holding onto about $12 billion in real estate, including the rebuilt World Trade Center, and $3 billion of that portfolio could easily be devoted to providing the funding to at least start Gateway.
“This proposal gives the federal government the seed money,” said Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Chair Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen). “This is a great opportunity for us.”
The notion that the Port Authority should begin selling off its real-estate portfolio to focus more on its transportation goals was raised in a report put forward late last year by a special panel that was convened by Christie and his counterpart in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in the wake of the bridge scandal.
The panel’s report was released just days after Christmas at the same time Christie, a Republican, and Cuomo, a Democrat, announced they were both vetoing legislation aimed at improving the accountability and transparency of the Port Authority.
The reform bill had passed all four houses of the legislatures in New York and New Jersey last year, but Christie and Cuomo said their panel produced superior suggestions. Christie and Cuomo currently maintain joint control over the agency.
In addition to recommending the sale of real estate, the special panel’s report also called on the Port Authority to lead the regional-planning effort for a new tunnel.
Sweeney said yesterday that he spoke with John Degnan, the chairman of the Port Authority’s board and also a member of the special panel, about the need for a new tunnel.
“We had a very positive conversation,” Sweeney said.
A statement issued by Port Authority spokesman Steve Coleman in response to yesterday’s news conference referenced the special panel’s work and highlighted agency’s efforts to get rid of “non-core” real estate.
“The Port Authority is focused on meeting the increasing requirements for Trans-Hudson transit capacity at our crossings and terminals in coordination with regional stakeholders, and prudently divesting non-core real estate holdings in order to focus on our core transportation mission,” the statement said.
Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie, also referred to the special panel’s report and Christie’s prior words of support for more trans-Hudson rail capacity when reached yesterday by NJ Spotlight. He declined additional comment.
And though yesterday’s news conference was held less than 24 hours after the Democratic-controlled New Jersey Senate could not muster enough Republican votes to override Christie’s veto of the Port Authority reform legislation, Sweeney — someone many believe is gearing up himself for a future run for governor — said the two events were unrelated.