Federal Spending Bill Before Congress Could Mean $541M for Gateway Project

John Reitmeyer | March 23, 2018 | Transportation
Far from the $30 billion the Gateway tunnel and Portal Bridge will ultimately cost, federal funds could get shovels in the ground for critical infrastructure initiative

Credit: Amtrak/Chuck Gomez
An Amtrak train exits north tube of the outmoded Hudson River Tunnel from New York into New Jersey.
The Gateway transportation project — which includes a new rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York — is in line for significant funding from the federal spending bill now being considered by Congress. Although the $541 million is only about half of what lawmakers from New Jersey and New York originally sought in a bill that won approval from the House of Representatives last year, it will allow work to continue apace on the project.

The federal spending measure could also allow Amtrak to move ahead with the replacement of the century-old Portal Bridge near Secaucus Junction, which was the source of the latest major headache for commuters last week.

U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th)
In all, the $1.3 trillion spending bill includes more than $2.5 billion for mass-transit investment, including the $541 million for Gateway, thanks to a bipartisan deal struck earlier this week by majority Republicans and Democratic leaders. The House, largely due to the efforts of Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th), had initially approved $900 million for the project, but President Donald Trump reportedly told House Speaker Paul Ryan he would veto the bill if that sum was included.

Yesterday the House voted 256-167 in favor of the spending bill, and final approval in the Senate came early today as members of the upper house voted 65-32 in favor of the bill, preventing a government shutdown. An initial statement from the White House suggested the bipartisan deal has Trump’s blessing, but it remains to be seen whether his administration will eventually allow all of the funding to come through.

Words of praise

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Still, members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation from both parties praised the advancement of the spending bill yesterday, though some also noted there remains more work to do since cost estimates for the entire Gateway project now run near $30 billion, with the proposed new tunnel and Portal Bridge replacement accounting for about half of that total. House passage of the bill was also applauded by a host of groups in New Jersey, including transportation advocates, organized labor, and the state Chamber of Commerce. Murphy weighed in as well, calling yesterday’s vote a “great move in the right direction.”

“There’s a lot more to do, as we all know,” Murphy said while speaking to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s board in Jersey City.

A new rail tunnel between North Bergen and New York’s Penn Station is the most significant feature of the proposed Gateway project, which transportation advocates have argued is absolutely necessary to preserve convenient rail service along the Northeast Corridor, which contributes some $3 trillion to the nation’s overall gross domestic product.

Right now, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak rail service rely on a 107-year-old rail tunnel under the Hudson River that features two tubes to allow for traffic running in each direction. But the tunnel sustained heavy damage in 2012 during superstorm Sandy and needs to be repaired. Federal officials say the tunnel is still safe to use, but they have also warned that closing just one of its two tubes for emergency repairs would be a disaster, requiring a reduction of hourly capacity from 24 trains to just six.

Replacing the Portal Bridge

Credit: Tim Larsen/Governor's Office
Train crossing the 100-year-old Portal Bridge. The swing gate opens when ships need to pass through, idling traffic until they're clear.
Another key element of the Gateway project is the planned replacement of the Portal Bridge, which spans the Hackensack River near Secaucus Junction. Just like the tunnel, the swing bridge is used by both NJ Transit and Amtrak, and it, too, is prone to frequent breakdowns. One of those occurred last Friday, as morning rush-hour trains between Newark and New York City were stalled for hours. A new, $1.5 billion bridge has already been designed, and construction is largely ready to begin.

During former President Barack Obama’s tenure, the Gateway project was deemed “the most important rail project in the United Sates” by a top federal transportation official, and an initial funding framework was worked out in 2015 between the Obama administration and the governors of New Jersey and New York. That framework called for the federal government to pick up 50 percent of the Gateway project’s then-estimated cost of $20 billion, with the two states and the Port Authority covering the balance.

But Trump has taken a different posture with officials from his administration suggesting that a far more significant funding commitment should be provided by the two states. Trump has also reportedly bristled at providing funds for Gateway because it is a top priority for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). The president and Schumer have clashed over other issues, including immigration and judicial appointments.

After the spending bill was passed by the House yesterday, John D. Porcari, interim executive director of the Gateway Development Corp., said the spending bill would allow for “significant investments in intercity rail and transit.”

“We appreciate the bipartisan leadership and, between this available funding for Gateway and strong commitments from our two states, we look forward to advancing Gateway construction as quickly as possible,” he said.

Gateway gets votes

U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5th) was among the members of Congress from New Jersey to point directly to the Gateway funding as a reason they voted for the bill yesterday.

“Although we still face headwinds, this federal support is a constructive first step toward solving the most pressing infrastructure problem facing our nation,” Gottheimer said.

U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7th) said the spending bill isn’t a “perfect measure,” but he also highlighted the funding for Gateway in calling it an overall “good compromise” between lawmakers and the White House.

Janna Chernetz, director of New Jersey policy for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, praised members of Congress for “remaining steadfast with the position that the federal government must fund Gateway.”

“It is the right thing to do and Congress must continue to push hard until the bill is signed,” she said. “It also sends a strong message that Congress will not acquiesce to President Trump’s nonsensical position of the refusal to fund Gateway.”

Greg LaLevee, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825, called the spending bill “a great start,” pointing to the thousands of jobs the Gateway project is eventually expected to create.

“I urge our elected officials to continue this spirit of compromise to make Gateway a reality as soon as possible,” Lalevee said.

The economic impact of the planned mass-transit improvements was also highlighted by Tom Bracken, president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

“Funding these projects is a wise investment that will see ample return in the form of economic growth and new jobs for New Jersey,” Bracken said.

But U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9th) said his fellow members of the New Jersey delegation have to remain vigilant to make sure the Trump administration doesn’t ultimately get in the way.

“This is not the perfect deal. But it’s a start, and it will get shovels in the ground on a new tunnel,” Pascrell said. “I have concerns that the administration may try again to block Gateway. The delegation will have to keep the pressure on.”