Bipartisan Delegation from NJ, NY Pitch President Trump on Gateway Tunnel Project

But administration offers no indication to governors, senators, and representatives if it will help pick up tab for ‘nation’s most important infrastructure project’

President Donald Trump
A bipartisan delegation of elected officials from New Jersey and New York that included governors, senators, and members of Congress made an in-person pitch at the White House yesterday for support for a new trans-Hudson tunnel and other elements of the long-planned Gateway infrastructure project.

Whether they made a strong enough impression on President Donald Trump, whose first federal budget proposal sought to cut money for a key federal transportation-grant program, remains to be seen.

Some of the officials who were invited to meet with Trump yesterday expressed hope following the late-afternoon meeting, which came on the heels of the president’s decision earlier in the week to work with Democrats to extend the federal debt ceiling, a move that has fostered some optimism that the Republican president will be willing to strike more bipartisan deals in the future. The meeting also came as members of the House just voted to advance an appropriations bill that includes nearly $1 billion for Gateway.

“This administration has indicated that infrastructure investment will be a priority and I am hopeful that (Thursday’s) meeting and information will persuade President Trump to consider Gateway to be a national priority,” U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7th) said after the meeting.

No clear word on Gateway

Still, there was no definitive announcement from the White House after the meeting yesterday on the federal funding issue or any other key detail, leaving questions about Gateway’s future still largely unanswered.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a strong advocate for the new tunnel and the other infrastructure improvements that are planned as part of the more than $25 billion Gateway initiative, said afterward that it’s now time for Trump to “step up and commit to real investment in Gateway.”

“The Gateway program is the most important infrastructure project in the nation and critical to our region’s economy,” Booker said. “It is also key to providing much-needed relief to New Jersey commuters.”

More than a tunnel

A proposed new tunnel between North Bergen and New York’s Penn Station is the most significant feature of the Gateway initiative, but it also involves other major infrastructure improvements in the region, including the planned replacement of a key rail bridge spanning the Hackensack River near Secaucus Junction.

A series of public hearings were held last month as part of the tunnel project’s planning process, which currently calls for a final environmental impact statement to be issued next spring, and for construction to start in 2019. The new tunnel would replace an existing tunnel that is more than a century old and in need of repair after being damaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Transportation officials have warned that if just one of the existing tunnel’s two tubes were to go out of service for emergency work, there would be a reduction in overall rail capacity of 75 percent.

But even as the formal planning process for the new tunnel is moving ahead, it’s still uncertain exactly how the full Gateway project will be funded.

An earlier agreement to finance Gateway that was drafted during the tenure of former President Barack Obama called for 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 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. Earlier this year, the Port Authority set aside $2.7 billion in its latest 10-year capital plan to cover Gateway-project debt service.

Mixed signals

But a budget summary that was released by Trump’s new administration in March raised questions about the federal government’s commitment to the project when it called for a freezing of new federal-grant agreements for infrastructure projects like Gateway that aren’t yet fully funded.

The appropriations bill now advancing in the House of Representatives would provide $500 million from a fiscal year 2018 allocation for the Federal Railroad Administration to benefit Gateway, and it would also set aside another $400 million in federal transit dollars for the project. But the Senate also has its own version of the spending bill, meaning the Gateway funding issue may have to be sorted out over the next several weeks in a budget process known as reconciliation before the federal fiscal year begins on October 1. And there’s also the issue of whether Trump will approve whatever amount comes out of the Congress, or seek to fund major infrastructure projects in some other way.

Still, Lance, the GOP congressman, called this week’s developments “significant” for Gateway, citing both the White House meeting and the House’s successful protection of the appropriations bill that includes the $900 million in funding for Gateway.

“A strong majority in the U.S. House affirmed that the Northeast Corridor must remain a vibrant national asset,” Lance said. “I will continue to work in a bipartisan capacity to build support for the Gateway Tunnel project on Capitol Hill and with the Trump administration.”

Booker, meanwhile, also pledged to keep working with state and federal partners to make sure the project stays on track.

“President Trump has made plenty of promises on infrastructure which so far have fallen flat,” Booker said. “It’s time for him to step up and commit to real investment in Gateway in order to strengthen our region’s surface transportation networks, bolster our economy, and boost job creation.”

Gov. Chris Christie — who has drawn criticism from transportation advocates and others for canceling an earlier trans-Hudson tunnel project over concerns about cost overruns even though it had significant federal funding — did not issue a statement after attending the Gateway meeting yesterday.