Nearly a year after President Donald Trump promised in his inaugural address to renew “tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation,” concerns are running high in New Jersey that the federal government will back out of its commitment to help fund a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel.
That uncertainty, fueled in part by recent negative statements made by the Trump administration about the long-planned Gateway infrastructure project, is leading some officials to start sketching out a “Plan B” in the event the federal dollars for a new tunnel never materialize, or at least continue to be delayed.
One of those officials is state Sen. Robert Gordon, a Democrat from Bergen County who was recently picked to lead the Senate Transportation Committee. Gordon envisions using a three-pronged approach to increase trans-Hudson capacity in the short term: taking advantage of an expanded Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York, completing a planned extension of the bistate agency’s PATH service to Newark Liberty Airport, and possible public subsidies that could be used to improve and increase ferry service between New Jersey and New York.
While none of those options could replace the building of a new rail tunnel between the two states — which is still the preferred priority — the three changes could significantly boost trans-Hudson capacity over the next decade, no matter what happens with the languishing tunnel project. They could also help to backstop the 107-year-old rail tunnel that’s currently being used by both New Jersey Transit and Amtrak, a tunnel badly damaged by superstorm Sandy that officials say is still safe but desperately in need of repairs.
“The clock is ticking,” Gordon said yesterday in an interview with NJ Spotlight. “I think it would be irresponsible not to begin pursuing other alternatives.”
Under an initial agreement to finance Gateway — which calls for other infrastructure improvements in addition to a new rail tunnel, including replacing the faltering Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River near Secaucus Junction — the cost of the work was to be shared between the federal government, New Jersey, New York, and the Port Authority. The arrangement, drafted during the tenure of former President Barack Obama, specifically called for the federal commitment to cover roughly half the bill, with the two states and the Port Authority picking up the balance.
But a budget summary the Trump administration released by last March raised questions about his administration’s commitment to the project when it called for freezing new federal-grant agreements for infrastructure projects like Gateway that aren’t yet fully funded. And late last month, Crain’s New York Business reported on a letter written by a top Federal Transit Administration official that called the earlier finance agreement “nonexistent.”
While some remain hopeful that the Trump administration is just posturing and will eventually come through with the funding, Gordon said the project has been delayed so long already that the best-case scenario would put the opening of a new tunnel at least a decade off, even as demand for trans-Hudson capacity continues to go up.
Get going on bus terminal
To help keep pace, Gordon is urging the Port Authority to move ahead with a planned overhaul of its flagship midtown Manhattan bus terminal. But instead of building a new facility in a new location, Gordon wants the agency to build two new floors on top of its current facility at Eighth Avenue and West 42nd Street. Once the add-on is completed, the rest of the facility could be renovated so commuters aren’t disrupted and would retain access to nearby subway lines.
A total of $3.5 billion for a new bus terminal was included in the 10-year capital plan the agency adopted last year, and Gordon said that funding should cover much of the cost of the overhaul he envisions. “We’re optimistic about that,” Gordon said.
The Port Authority’s planned extension of PATH train service to Newark airport would also play a role in his plan, partly through a proposed park-and-ride facility at the site of a planned new PATH station adjacent to the airport. Nearly $2 billion was included in the agency’s long-term capital plan to fund the PATH extension, and construction is expected to begin in 2020 and be finished by 2026.
Gordon said the Port Authority could also spend another $500 million to expand its stations in Jersey City to allow for 10-car trains to run into Manhattan instead of the current eight-car trains.
“That just provides another option to get across the Hudson,” he said.
Let ferries pick up the slack
Lastly, Gordon pointed to the role ferry service played to help pick up the slack over the summer after Amtrak decided to make expedited repairs for several months inside New York Penn Station. The so-called Summer of Hell repairs required regular track closures and forced thousands of riders on NJ Transit’s Morris and Essex lines to be diverted to Hoboken during peak hours. With some facility expansion — and a public subsidy — Gordon envisions the ferries handling an additional 10,000 daily commuters.
“The ferries, we think, can be greatly expanded,” he said. “It looks like that is something we should explore.”
Gordon said he’s met recently with the leaders at the Port Authority, including Chairman Kevin O’Toole, who is a former state senator, and is encouraged that the projects that could be a part of the “Plan B” are moving forward. He also said the incoming administration of Gov.-elect Phil Murphy has been briefed on the plan. Murphy is due to be sworn into office at noon on Tuesday.
“I’m hopeful that the Murphy administration will be up and running, and advancing these priorities,” Gordon said.
But Gordon also said the top priority remains getting the federal government to honor the finance agreement for Gateway that was reached before Trump took office.
“I think we continue to push for Gateway with as much energy as we have, and I know our federal legislators are doing just that,” Gordon said. “We’ve got to keep pushing.”