Gateway Tunnel — Like NJ Commuters — Is Going Nowhere Fast

Meir Rinde | July 31, 2015 | Transportation
Christie and Cuomo agree Amtrak’s proposed trans-Hudson tunnel is important, but come up short when it comes to a plan

New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie (left) and New York's Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo
The urgent need for new rail tunnels under the Hudson River is getting new attention from Govs. Christie and Cuomo following several days of NJ Transit train disruptions last week, with the governors saying they will meet with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to discuss Amtrak’s proposed Gateway tunnel project.

Gateway’s profile has been rising since May, when the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey held a conference on trans-Hudson transportation and an Obama administration official called the tunnel the nation’s “most important rail project.” The deadly Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia subsequently drew notice to underfunding of the agency’s entire Northeast Corridor line, and the delays last week — caused by electrical problems in the 105-year-old Hudson River tunnels currently still in use — further heightened the pressure on New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie, New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Foxx.

Foxx reportedly wrote to the governors on Monday, and Christie and Cuomo agreed to meet with him soon. In a radio interview this week, Cuomo, who has barely addressed the tunnels since he was elected, said, “Gov. Christie and I both agree we need to repair those tunnels as quickly as possible.”

But despite the exchange of communications, and a storm of complaints from exasperated NJ Transit commuters, none of the background issues that have so far prevented action have changed. House Republicans have been hostile even to fully funding Amtrak, which owns the trans-Hudson tunnels, and Foxx says he cannot take on the project alone. Yet the governors insist that the federal government must cover the bulk of Gateway’s estimated $12 billion to $15 billion cost.

“That’s a lot of money,” Cuomo said. “If the federal government, which heretofore has only offered about $3 billion, can make a significant contribution, then let’s go. I mean, we have the shovels. We need it. We’ll make it a priority. But we need the funding. And if we have a source of funding, we’ll go.”

Notably, Cuomo did not say anything about New York itself contributing to the project, and in fact followed up his remarks by saying the state needs to focus on implementing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s new capital plan. Christie has said New York should pay part of Gateway’s cost, and has cited its failure to contribute as one of the reasons he canceled the similar ARC tunnel project under the Hudson five years ago. While Cuomo did acknowledge the tunnels’ importance, he gave no indication how Gateway could be advanced.

“It would be crazy for any governor to say no if someone else is going to pay for it,” said Philip Mark Plotch, a professor at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City who has closely studied Cuomo’s transportation policies. “So what he said isn’t really anything new at all. He’s under a lot of pressure now from federal officials, from the media, to say something, so he said something which was really innocuous.”

Cuomo’s office did not respond to emailed questions about his position on the tunnels.

Meanwhile, Christie and his surrogates have offered an evolving series of responses to the complaints following last week’s train delays. Commuters’ outrage has been largely directed at him and has been accompanied by renewed criticism of his cancellation of the ARC tunnel, along with his rejection of a gas-tax hike to rejuvenate the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which helps fund NJ Transit.

Initially both Christie and NJ Transit sought to redirect blame onto Amtrak. Christie, who is on the presidential campaign trail in New Hampshire, put out a statement saying riders had been “victimized” by “Amtrak’s indifference to New Jersey commuters and its abject neglect of the infrastructure.” He said he’d asked the attorney general to “see what recourse New Jersey has,” as if the state might sue Amtrak for damages. NJ Transit Executive Director Veronique Hakim put out similar statements.

Those comments prompted eye-rolling from the governor’s critics, including Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John S. Wisniewski (D-Middlesex).

“The governor has taken hypocrisy to a new level with his criticism of Amtrak, given his abject indifference to New Jersey’s transportation needs. His piecemeal approach and lack of long-term planning has left our roads and bridges in shambles and our Transportation Trust Fund near insolvency,” Wisniewski said.

“His cancellation of the ARC tunnel project has left New Jersey’s trans-Hudson commuters with no choice but to endure Amtrak’s delays, a problem that will only be exacerbated as the existing tunnels reach their expected lifespan and must be closed for improvements. Instead of slinging criticisms he should roll up his sleeves and tackle the problems at home that he was elected to fix,” he said.

Then, perhaps for the first time, Christie embraced Gateway — at least hypothetically — saying in a radio interview that if elected president he would arrange a meeting with the governors of New York and New Jersey and call for each entity to contribute “an equal share” to the project.

“Then, everyone has an incentive to have the project run right, to run efficiently because everybody is on the hook,” he reportedly said.

Next, Port Authority Chairman John Degnan, a Christie appointee, introduced new themes into the administration’s response, even though the Port Authority has no formal role in the Gateway project and has not proposed an alternative.

In a letter, Degnan called for an “intelligent engineering plan and a fair funding mechanism,” and tsk-tsked Foxx for not attending the May conference on trans-Hudson transportation. He noted the $3 billion limit on federal contributions to the ARC tunnel, writing, “we need to better understand whether adequate federal funding can now be made available.”

The mention of the engineering plan was apparently a reference to the ARC tunnel’s proposed terminus at a new station, deep underground near Macy’s in Manhattan, which Christie had criticized when he canceled the ARC. In New Hampshire this week, Christie picked up on Degnan’s comments, talking about engineering and fair funding and repeating his old critique of the defunct ARC’s route.

Cuomo’s shrugging response to questions about Gateway and the Christie administration’s deflection of responsibility left transportation advocates unimpressed. Martin Robins, a former NJ Transit executive who planned the ARC tunnel, criticized Christie’s evocation of hypothetical presidential action, saying the governor “could be doing something” about the tunnel now. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio reportedly called New Jersey’s cancellation of ARC “a huge mistake.”

Janna Chernetz, senior New Jersey policy analyst at Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said she was disappointed by the administration’s chiding of Amtrak and federal officials, given that the state’s own funding decisions recently led NJ Transit to hike fares and have starved rail, roads, and bridges of overdue infrastructure improvements.

“People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” Chernetz said. “I wish there would have been this much fervor when NJ Transit needed the money from Trenton. Where is NJ Transit calling on the treasurer and the leadership in the Legislature to make sure they have adequate funding, to make sure their rail infrastructure and bus infrastructure is in tip-top shape?”

“We’re seeing very similar challenges in D.C. and in Trenton, so it’s not just Amtrak’s fault. We have a lack of transportation investment going on within the state and regionally,” she said. “I wish there would have a been a little bit more push in Trenton.”