New Jersey commuters got a jolt of good news yesterday: The federal government will cover at least half of the up to $20 billion price tag for a new trans-Hudson tunnel. That could go some way toward erasing this summer’s anger and frustration over long delays caused by the dilapidated, century-old-tubes, but it’s far too soon to talk about the proverbial light at the end of the …
Federal officials say they are also prepared to play a key role along with the Port Authority in the creation of a new entity that will be tasked with overseeing a massive infrastructure project known as Gateway that could take at least a decade to complete.
Yet despite the progress, several key concerns remain, including how New Jersey will come up with its share of the funding, given its own fiscal challenges. Also at issue is whether the Port Authority — fresh off a major scandal that put its bistate dysfunction on full display and led to calls for major reform — will be up to the task of leading the tunnel project.
And Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential ambitions remain a factor, with many New Jersey residents still skeptical of the Republican governor’s willingness to put the state’s best interests ahead of his 2016 campaign.
Still, the breakthrough marks another major step forward for a project that many transportation advocates see as the last best hope for fixing a commuter-rail system that supports 200,000 daily riders through Penn Station in New York via New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains. Though commuter demand is expected to double by 2030, damage caused by 2012’s superstorm Sandy remains largely unrepaired, meaning a reduction of per-hour tunnel traffic from 24 to six trains could come at any time.
Word of the federal funding agreement started to leak Wednesday night, but the official announcement detailing the deal came yesterday morning from the offices of Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Chuck Schumer of New York.
In the wake of the announcement, Booker received a lot of credit for helping to bring together all of the parties involved in the deal. In an interview with NJ Spotlight yesterday, he credited a sense of urgency fostered by commuters’ regular complaints to their elected officials and on social media for bringing the officials to the negotiating table.
“I think that urgency is beginning to be felt by everyone,” Booker said.
Having all the key players, including federal officials and the two governors, involved “at the beginning” is a reason for hope that this project will get done, he said. Booker also cited the financial framework, including the potential reinvestment of Amtrak profits, as a key feature of the deal.
But he acknowledged the hard work of getting the project to the finish line — which is where a previous tunnel-building effort fell short — remains.
“This is not going to be easy,” Booker said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. This is about keeping the pressure on.”
Yesterday’s announcement came on the heels of an earlier agreement reached by Christie and Cuomo to come up with the other 50 percent of the funding that will be needed to get the Gateway project started.
That was no small task given that it was Christie who in 2010 cancelled Access to the Region’s Core, the last major effort to build a new trans-Hudson tunnel, citing a potential for cost overruns that would be covered by New Jersey taxpayers. The agreement also amounted to an about-face for Cuomo, who had as recently as August been saying “it’s not my tunnel” when pressed on the commuter issues.
Martin Robins, director emeritus of Rutgers University’s Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center, said yesterday’s announcement, with Christie’s name attached to it, is a major step forward.
“Just consider, for five years Chris Christie said nothing constructive about building a new tunnel,” Robins said yesterday after a news conference held in Bergen County to announce support for an unrelated extension of light rail into Englewood.
“That barrier has been broken,” said Robins, who played a key role in planning the ARC tunnel.
He also stressed the importance of the plan to form a new agency, the Gateway Development Corp., to spearhead the project going forward. It will be made up of representatives from the Port Authority, Amtrak, and the federal Department of Transportation.
“That’s very important in a government project,” Robins said.
But New Jersey lawmakers are in the midst of serious discussions right now on how they can stop the state from running out of funding for its own infrastructure projects; heavy borrowing has put a strain on the state Transportation Trust Fund. An increase of the state’s gas tax is widely expected, though it remains unpopular in public-opinion polls.
Also unclear is what role New Jersey Transit — an agency that just had to hike fares due to its own budget problems — will play in the tunnel-building effort. That was left undefined in yesterday’s announcement.
Still, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) did his best to downplay those state-funding concerns in response to yesterday’s tunnel announcement. It was Sweeney and Senate colleagues who held a news conference back in March inside Newark Penn Station to bring attention to the tunnel issue. But at the time, it was still largely on the back burner.
“That’s one hell of a deal,” he said yesterday in response to the announcement.
“The (funding) commitments were made by everybody, we just need to get started,” Sweeney said.
And Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said earlier that the announcement left her feeling “giddy.”
Sweeney and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) cosponsored a bipartisan resolution that was passed by the Senate in September that called on the federal government to accept the 50-50 cost-share plan that was eventually spelled out in yesterday’s announcement.
Kean Jr. said that the framework that’s now been agreed to fixes two of the biggest concerns about the ARC project.
The availability this time of federal loans and grants and the full cost-sharing agreement between the states, the federal government, and the Port Authority addresses the cost concerns that Christie had raised, Kean Jr. said. The Gateway project, which involves other infrastructure improvements in addition to a new tunnel, will also go directly to Penn Station, whereas the ARC terminus was only near it.
“It’s a big accomplishment,” he said.
He also said he believes the Port Authority is up to the task of playing a key role in the development of the Gateway project, but added that in the wake of the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal it’s vital that reform legislation be passed to ensure proper protections are in place at the agency as it takes on this new responsibility.
Lawmakers in New Jersey have been holding a series of hearings to compare Port Authority reform legislation that has already been passed in New York with a more rigorous bill sponsored by Democrats who control New Jersey’s Legislature, but neither has been put up for a vote here. And since the Port Authority is a bistate agency, any changes must be approved by the legislatures in both states and signed into law by both governors.
“I think it’s important that we get the reform measure done,” Kean Jr. said.
Matthew Walters, a regular commuter into New York from Montclair who’s helped organize other train riders using social media, also raised the issue yesterday of whether Christie’s ongoing run for the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination will mesh with his support for an expensive federal rail project.
It was Christie, he noted, who loudly chastised recalcitrant members of his own party when Congress initially balked at approving federal funding for recovery legislation in the wake of Sandy.
“New Jersey Transit commuters will be waiting to see if Gov. Christie is capable of making a similar public pitch for billions of tax dollars for the new tunnels,” said Walters, the co-founder of New Jersey Commuters Action Network, an independent grassroots organization.
“If Gov. Christie is able to make a case to hardline conservative voters in Iowa and New Hampshire on the urgent need to spend $10 billion of federal tax dollars on new tunnels from New Jersey to Manhattan, then the governor might finally begin to redeem himself in the eyes of NJ Transit’s most beleaguered train commuters,” he said.