Gov. Chris Christie has been heavily criticized for the crisis in cross-Hudson train travel, due to his cancellation of the ARC tunnel five years ago and reluctance to support Amtrak’s proposed Gateway tunnel project. Far less attention has been given to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who until recently was all but silent on the potential transportation catastrophe facing tens of thousands of Manhattan workers who commute from New Jersey.
For years Cuomo barely acknowledged the decrepit existing train tunnels, whose potential shutdown for repairs would cripple rail travel into Manhattan, or the idea of building new tunnels. After train delays caused by decaying electrical equipment stoked commuters’ anger and prompted a letter from the U.S. Transportation Secretary last month, Cuomo finally acknowledged the importance of the Gateway project but firmly rejected calls for New York to help pay for it.
The prospects for a new tunnel are “not especially bright” if New York, New Jersey, and the Port Authority are expected to bear part of the estimated $15 billion cost, he told a TV station last week. “It’s not my tunnel!” he said to reporters during a press conference a few days later. “Why don’t you pay for it? It’s not my tunnel. It is an Amtrak tunnel that is used by Amtrak and by New Jersey Transit.”
Cuomo is technically correct, but he fails to mention the impact on New York, which sees some 400,000 workers commute from New Jersey every day. More than 20 percent of the people who cross the Hudson to go into Lower Manhattan take NJ Transit and Amtrak trains, and the figure exceeds 30 percent in Midtown Manhattan, according to NJ Transit data.
Commuters must also pay New York state and city taxes for every day they spend across the river.
Port Authority executive director Pat Foye — a Cuomo appointee — has said a disruption of the commute would have a “disastrous effect on the regional economy.”
In addition, whether Cuomo likes it or not, New York’s inability or refusal to contribute to trans-Hudson rail has played a role in the system’s current perilous state. Christie cited the lack of New York funding as one of the reasons he canceled the ARC tunnel in 2010, and he has said he won’t support Gateway unless New York and the federal government cover a “fair” share of the costs. Federal officials are now saying both states must participate if the project is to succeed.
“What’s really shocking is how much heat Christie has been taking for this, when nobody says this is actually New York’s fault as much as Christie’s,” said Philip Mark Plotch, a professor at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City who has studied Cuomo’s transportation policies.
Plotch and other experts say Cuomo resists supporting Gateway because his constituents would not use it much, which minimizes political pressure to contribute, and because his state is focused on other very expensive transportation needs, including the MTA capital plan, the new Tappan Zee Bridge and a proposed new LaGuardia airport.
But New York state officials’ refusal to even acknowledge the trans-Hudson tunnel issue for years also stems from a failure to think regionally — on both sides of the river. It’s also the result of a historic rivalry that the Port Authority and other joint planning efforts were supposed to prevent from sabotaging infrastructural and economic growth.
Disputes over the region’s port, rail, and bridge needs and how to pay for them date back over a century. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was created in 1921 to address the problem of moving freight between ports in New York and rail lines in New Jersey, and was given sole authority to build bridges and tunnels within 25 miles of the Statue of Liberty. That eventually gave it a large and steady revenue base from tolls that it could use to maintain its facilities and build infrastructure that benefited both states.
Still, some structures remained out of the Port Authority’s hands. They include Amtrak’s trans-Hudson tunnels, which were built by a railroad company before the Port Authority was created, and transferred to the federal rail agency in 1976. Another such facility is the Tappan Zee Bridge, which crosses the Hudson further north. When it was built in 1955, New York sited the bridge just outside the Port Authority zone so that New York could keep the toll revenue.
Proposals to upgrade these two non-Port Authority facilities came into conflict in the 1990s and early 2000s, according to Plotch, who has written a new book about the bridge called “Politics Across the Hudson: The Tappan Zee Megaproject.”
New York wanted to address traffic congestion by creating its own rail service to Manhattan from Orange and Rockland counties, west of the Hudson, Plotch said. Trains there begin on a section of the Metro-North railroad that NJ Transit operates under contract, then cross the state border and continue on NJ Transit tracks down to the tunnels. Rather than collaborate with New Jersey to expand capacity by building new the ARC tunnels, Gov. George Pataki pursued a new Tappan Zee with a rail component, Plotch said.
“New York saw it as competition,” Plotch said of ARC. “They figured, okay, only one of these projects is going to get federal funding. Let’s hope it’s ours, not this New Jersey one. It was seen as a New Jersey project, the ARC project.”
“From New York’s perspective, you would think the ARC project is great, right? It brings in people. It helps the economy. There’s so many reasons why it’s important. But New York was afraid, if they said good things about it, they would have to help pay for it,” he said.
[related]New York’s MTA had originally been part of the planning process that led to ARC, along with NJ Transit and the Port Authority, which was eager to ameliorate the problem of insufficient trans-Hudson capacity. But during Pataki’s tenure the MTA dropped out and New York focused on the Tappan Zee.
Plotch notes that rail across the Tappan Zee would have carried just one-tenth the number of people as a new tunnel to Penn Station. When he interviewed a former aide to Gov. George Pataki for his book, he asked why the administration had not supported ARC rather than push for a new bridge.
“The aide said to me, ‘It’s New Jersey. Who cares?’” Plotch recalled.
Under Gov. Jon Corzine, New Jersey concluded it needed ARC badly enough that it went ahead with the $8.7 billion project without New York’s help. NJ Transit ran the project but the Port Authority agreed to kick in $3 billion. Martin Robins, the NJ Transit executive who oversaw ARC, says the Port Authority contributed because it recognized the need for more rail capacity, though some observers later claimed the ARC money was a quid pro quo for the billions that the agency would eventually spend on rebuilding the World Trade Center site.
Pataki’s proposed Tappan Zee rail line turned out to be far too expensive to be feasible, but the bridge had been neglected in the meantime and needed some $16 billion in repairs. In 2010, New York Gov. David Paterson suggested adding the Tappan Zee to the Port Authority as a way to regionalize the repair costs and toll revenues, reversing the state’s decision of 60 years earlier.
Christie, who had recently cancelled ARC and criticized New York for not contributing to the project, responded angrily to Paterson’s request. New York had wanted to keep the Tappan Zee toll revenues, so it was stuck with the maintenance costs, he said.
“I didn’t let them pick our pockets on ARC, I’m not letting New York pick New Jersey’s pockets on the Tappan Zee Bridge either,” Christie said.
“I can’t make this any clearer to New York than this: stop screwing with us. You’re not going to come and pick our pockets. New Jersey is not going to permit it any more,” he said.
Cuomo later revived the Tappan Zee replacement plan, leaving out the rail component, and construction is now under way. Neither state agreed to help with the other’s project and, as Plotch notes, the region now has neither Tappan Zee rail nor a new tunnel.
Cuomo continued to maintain New York’s silence on the need for new Hudson tunnels. As with the Pataki administration, acknowledging the tunnels’ importance would prompt demands that the state help fund Gateway, Plotch said.
With the end of the Obama administration approaching, Amtrak and the U.S. Transportation Department have been beating the drum ever louder for an agreement with the states that would allow Gateway to proceed. After last month’s train delays, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx sent a letter asking for a meeting with Cuomo and Christie.
Christie agreed to a meeting next Tuesday, which will include Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez (both D-NJ). Cuomo finally made a clear statement recognizing that new tunnels must be built, but refused to contribute funds and said, “There’s no reason to meet now” with Foxx.
“Everyone agrees that we needs the tunnels. I spoke to Gov. Christie about the tunnels after the secretary sent the letter. Gov. Christie and I both agree we need to repair those tunnels as quickly as possible,” Cuomo told a radio interviewer in late July. “The problem there is money. It’s about $12 billion. That’s a lot of money.”
“If the federal government, which heretofore has only offered about $3 billion, if the federal government can make a significant contribution, then let’s go. I mean, we have the shovels. We need it. We’ll make it a priority,” he said. “But we need the funding. And if we have a source of funding, we’ll go.”