Loud alarms were sounded earlier this year when President Donald Trump released a budget outline that threatened to strip federal funding for Gateway, a transportation-infrastructure project that includes a new trans-Hudson commuter rail tunnel that leaders from both parties have called critical to the region’s economic success.
But a new spending bill now advancing in the U.S. House of Representatives would keep up to $900 million available during the upcoming 2018 fiscal year for the tunnel and other proposed Northeast Corridor infrastructure upgrades, including the replacement of a key rail bridge near Secaucus Junction.
The House’s spending bill comes as ongoing repair work at New York’s Penn Station has underscored the importance of keeping the region’s transportation infrastructure in good working condition. Emergency track work at the Amtrak-owned station is expected to last through Labor Day, forcing thousands of New Jersey Transit commuters to confront weeks of service changes and potential delays as they travel to work in New York City.
And while the new House bill represents just one step in the lengthy and complicated federal appropriations process, it also demonstrates a willingness by GOP lawmakers like New Jersey’s Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th) to counter their Republican president on the issue of transportation spending.
Praise for Frelinghuysen, questions for Christie
Frelinghuysen’s efforts as chair of the House’s Committee on Appropriations drew praise from local Republicans yesterday, including Gov. Chris Christie. But it also served to rekindle a debate about Christie’s own record on mass-transit issues, including his controversial 2010 decision to cancel a prior trans-Hudson rail-tunnel project even though billions of dollars in federal aid had already been secured.
The most significant feature of the proposed Gateway initiative — which has an estimated cost of $25 billion — is two new rail tubes that would run under the Hudson River between North Bergen and Penn Station.
The current tunnel, which also features two tubes, is more than a century old. It’s shared by Amtrak and NJ Transit, supporting an estimated 200,000 daily train passengers. The tunnel was also damaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and if just one of its two tubes were to go out of service for emergency repairs, transportation officials say that would reduce capacity by 75 percent.
Federal officials announced earlier this month that the new tunnel’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement has been published, a key step forward in the federal approval process. Three public hearings on the draft statement have also been scheduled for August 1 in New York, August 3 in Secaucus, and August 10 in Union City. Under the project’s current schedule, the new tunnel could open as early as 2026.
But Gateway involves more than just the new tunnel; the plan also calls for a full repair of the existing tunnel and a replacement of the century-old Portal Bridge near Secaucus Junction station, along with other improvements.
Trump’s budget proposals seemed to hit Gateway
An original finance plan for the Gateway initiative drafted during the tenure of former President Barack Obama involved an equal sharing of costs between the federal government, and New Jersey, New York, and the Port Authority. Under that proposal, which came out when cost estimates for Gateway were closer to $20 billion, the federal commitment would have covered at least $10 billion, with the two states and the Port Authority picking up the balance. And earlier this year, the Port Authority set aside $2.7 billion in its latest 10-year capital plan to cover Gateway-project debt service.
But a budget summary that was released by President Trump’s new administration in March raised questions about the federal government’s commitment to the project; Trump’s “skinny budget” called for a freezing of new federal-grant agreements for infrastructure projects like Gateway that aren’t yet fully funded.
In all, the new House bill — which covers federal appropriations in the areas of transportation and housing — calls for a total of $56.5 billion in discretionary spending during the federal government’s 2018 fiscal year, which begins on October 1. That represents a cut of $1.1 billion from the prior fiscal year but $8.6 billion more than what was requested by the Trump administration. A summary of the bill issued by Frelinghuysen’s office indicates it would provide $500 million from a FY2018 allocation for the Federal Railroad Administration to benefit Gateway. The FY2018 spending bill also includes another $400 million in federal transit dollars for the project, according to the summary.
‘Imperative to our economy’
“Now more than ever, it is imperative to our economy and to our quality of life to have safe and well-functioning transportation infrastructure,” Frelinghuysen said.
A longtime member of Congress whose seat has long been considered safe, Frelinghuysen is expected to face a tough bid for re-election in 2018 after he upset constituents who pressed him to hold a town-hall meeting as the House considered a controversial repeal of the Affordable Care Act earlier this year.
But Frelinghuysen drew praise yesterday from fellow U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7th) and others for using his leadership position on the Appropriation panel to protect the Gateway funding. “This is a major win for Garden State commuters that would not have been possible without the leadership of New Jersey’s own Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen,” Lance said.
Christie, a second-term Republican, called the House bill a “triumph for our region” in a statement released by his office. “Only through the leadership of Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen is this type of congressional commitment possible,” Christie said.
Christie has been facing his own transportation controversy this year as the failings at Penn Station have put his decision to cancel the last major trans-Hudson tunnel project back under the microscope. At the time, Christie justified his 2010 reversal by citing concerns that construction was likely to run billions of dollars over the project’s $8.7 billion budget and put New Jersey taxpayers at risk. He also took issue with the ARC tunnel’s design, which called for NJ Transit trains going into Manhattan to arrive not at Penn Station, as they currently do, but at a new terminal less than half a mile away, near Herald Square.
The ARC tunnel and its new terminal was originally projected to be completed by 2018, leading many to now second-guess Christie’s decision amid the ongoing “Summer of Hell” problems at Penn Station, which have resulted in the diversion of most of NJ Transit’s Morris and Essex line trains to Hoboken.
“Gov. Chris Christie’s selfish political ambitions are the reason we’re not six months from a third tunnel, instead of 10 years away,” Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) said yesterday in response to Christie’s heaping of praise on Frelinghuysen. “The temerity to try and take a bow for funding that’s far from a certainty thanks to President Trump is an outrage, but not a surprise,” McKeon said.