NJ Agencies Try to Calm Trump Hostility to Gateway Project

John Reitmeyer | July 10, 2018 | Transportation
Port Authority takes over more aspects of trans-Hudson tunnel, NJ Transit confirms extra money for Portal Bridge. But is President’s enmity toward Schumer the real impediment?

Credit: Amtrak/Chuck Gomez
An Amtrak train exits north tube of the outmoded Hudson River Tunnel from New York into New Jersey.
Two local transportation agencies are looking to neutralize the Trump administration’s stated opposition to the Gateway tunnel project, although no one is confident the moves will satisfy federal demands amid fears that President Donald Trump is blocking the project due to politics.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is now acting as the lead agency for grant applications and will handle the environmental review of the proposed trans-Hudson rail tunnel, a shift that was explained in a recent letter to federal transportation officials. Federal officials had raised concerns about a different and newly created nonprofit agency overseeing the project.

Artist's rendering of new Portal North Bridge
That action coincided with New Jersey Transit’s recent decision to update the financial framework for a planned replacement of the Portal Bridge, a key north Jersey rail crossing near Secaucus Junction. The new finance plan for the bridge project reduces the overall price tag and reflects some $600 million in new bond financing that New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has approved to beef up the local share of the project. Federal officials had previously raised concerns that not enough funding for the bridge replacement was being contributed at the local level.

The two agencies are acting with the full support of the Gateway Development Corporation, a nonprofit agency that was set up with the blessing of leaders from New Jersey and New York to help guide what’s known as the Gateway infrastructure-renewal program through the federal approval process. A $1 trillion federal spending bill that was signed into law earlier this year also includes about $540 million in funding that could go toward advancing the infrastructure projects.

Is Trump the real threat?

But even with these steps being taken, it remains to be seen whether Trump, a Republican, will continue to pose a threat to the rail improvements; he is reportedly using them as leverage in his dealings with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the powerful New York Democrat and strong backer of Gateway. Among other political reasons, Trump is widely believed to have linked funding for Gateway to his push to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

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Spearheaded by Amtrak, the Gateway program became the top-priority infrastructure project for the administration of former President Barack Obama after former Gov. Chris Christie abruptly canceled a federally funded tunnel project known as Access to the Region’s Core, or ARC, over concerns that New Jersey taxpayers alone would be on the hook to fund any cost overruns.

Christie’s controversial decision — made in 2010 in the midst of the Great Recession — took on a new meaning after the existing, more than 100-year-old trans-Hudson rail tunnel that’s used by both Amtrak and NJ Transit was severely damaged in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy. Federal officials say the tunnel is still safe for rail traffic, but they have also warned that if just one of the two tubes that allow for trains to travel in both directions at the same time had to be closed for emergency repairs, it would bring on a commuting nightmare. They’ve estimated it would require a reduction of hourly capacity from 24 trains to just six.

At a cost of more than $10 billion, the new tunnel would also feature two tubes that would allow for east and west rail-traffic to flow uninterrupted between North Bergen in New Jersey and Penn Station in New York.

In a letter to federal transportation officials late last month, Port Authority executive director Rick Cotton said a final environmental impact statement for the tunnel-replacement project was completed earlier this year, with an expectation that an official record of decision would be forthcoming from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Without getting the record of decision, the tunnel work cannot advance out of the development stage.

Port Authority takes the lead

Cotton’s letter also highlighted his agency’s decision to now take the lead on issues related to grant applications and the broader environmental review in response to concerns the Trump administration had raised about the Gateway Development Corporation’s handling of those duties.

“To respond to this concern, this letter notifies you that the Port Authority has agreed to perform those roles on behalf of the project partners for this project,” Cotton wrote.

Meanwhile, a letter from NJ Transit to federal officials — also in late June — took on the Trump administration’s concerns about the amount of local funding that had been put up for the Portal Bridge project. First reported by NJ Spotlight last month, the Murphy administration’s planned $600 million bond issue has now won approval from the boards of both NJ Transit and the state Economic Development Authority. It will roughly double the amount of funding the state had previously been willing to commit to replacing the more than 100 years old rail bridge — and, since it involves appropriations-backed financing using the EDA, the bond issue will not require direct approval from New Jersey voters.

While federal officials have offered assurances that the Portal Bridge is still safe for rail traffic, it is often a source of major delays since the span sits close enough to the river that it must be swung open to allow for maritime traffic to pass. It is also prone to mechanical problems, including getting stuck in the open position, that can bring the region’s trains to a halt.

Eight contracts consolidated into one

The $1.5 billion bridge-replacement project calls for the construction of the Portal North Bridge, which would be a high-level, fixed-span bridge that would move the two-track crossing more than 50-feet above the river, obviating the need for it to open. The replacement is expected to increase capacity by an estimated 10 percent, while also allowing for trains to get across the river faster and more reliably.

The estimated cost of the replacement project was recently reduced as part of the overhaul of the finance plan, thanks in part to a decision to consolidate eight different contracts into one, NJ Transit executive director Kevin Corbett said in the letter his agency sent to federal transportation officials.

“NJ Transit and our partners are optimistic that you will have a favorable view of these revisions to the project’s financial plan,” Corbett wrote.

He also reminded the Trump administration that the bridge project is “100 percent designed, fully permitted, and has early work currently underway.”