With federal funding for a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel and other long-planned infrastructure improvements still stalled in Washington, D.C., top elected officials from New Jersey are starting to use more ominous imagery as they apply pressure on majority Republicans and President Donald Trump.
Gov. Phil Murphy, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, and several members of the state’s congressional delegation yesterday cited national security and commuter safety along the key Northeast Corridor as among the issues at stake in the ongoing fight over infrastructure investment.
“This is not about politics. It’s about doing what’s right for our region and our country,” Murphy said during a morning news conference in Secaucus.
Invoking images of the Titanic
Other speakers talked more explicitly about crumbling concrete at a nearby rail bridge that nearly 200,000 commuters pass over each day. They also offered comparisons to the doomed voyage of the Titanic, since the century-old span dates back to the same era.
“We pray that it doesn’t suffer a similar fate,” said Jerry Zaro, a trustee of the Gateway Development Corp., a group that has been established to help oversee the planned rail improvements.
But despite their dire rhetoric, it remains to be seen whether the next federal spending bill that’s being drafted in Washington this month will provide more than just a token contribution to the costly infrastructure projects, which easily total more than $10 billion. And even if it does, Trump has threatened a veto as many believe he’s using the rail projects as leverage in a push for the funding of a wall along the border with Mexico. Any drawn-out political fight will only lead to further delays, something officials suggested yesterday would be tempting fate.
“This is our lifeblood we’re talking about here,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9th).
Trouble in the tunnels
Spearheaded by Amtrak, the infrastructure-renewal program called Gateway by its designers was the nation’s top-priority project for the administration of former President Barack Obama after then-governor Chris Christie abruptly canceled a federally funded tunnel project as Access to the Region’s Core, or ARC, over concerns that New Jersey taxpayers would be on the hook for any cost overruns.
Christie’s controversial decision — made in 2010 in the midst of the Great Recession — took on new meaning after the more than 100-year-old trans-Hudson rail tunnel that’s currently used by both Amtrak and NJ Transit was severely damaged in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy. The Gateway program calls for more than $10 billion to be spent on a replacement tunnel that, like the existing infrastructure, would feature two tubes to allow for rail traffic to move simultaneously in each direction.
While federal officials have assured commuters that the existing tubes are being inspected regularly and are still safe to use, Pascrell spoke yesterday about the conditions that he saw during his own tour of the tunnel.
“They’re not safe. Many of our bridges are not safe,” Pascrell said. “You know what, it costs money to fix them or shut the place down.”
Problems with the Portal Bridge
Yesterday’s event was held across the meadows from the Portal Bridge, a 108-year-old swing span over the Hackensack River near Secaucus Junction that is prone to regular breakdowns. The bridge is due to be replaced under a $1.5 billion project that’s already received all of the necessary permits, and a $600 million funding commitment from the Murphy administration. Officials broke ground at the site of the new bridge last year, but the work has yet to move forward as the federal share of the project’s funding remains held up.
Murphy said the faltering bridge has already caused 140 train cancellations this year, and U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-8th) spoke about what happens when it gets stuck in the open position and has to be manually moved into place to allow trains to safely pass.
“They have to have a guy with a sledgehammer line it up properly. Can you imagine a bridge that important that you have to have somebody there to line it up? It’s 110 years old,” Sires said.
Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise also detailed what he’s seen during boat tours that have taken him under the region’s deteriorating infrastructure.
“It is frightening when the boat goes under the bridges and you see concrete peeling off the metal that’s there and you think to yourself, ‘I’m on this bridge probably two, three, four times a week,’” DeGise said. “It looks so treacherous from the bottom … something needs to be done and we all understand that.”
The Obama administration made a funding commitment to the Gateway program that roughly called for 50 percent of the work to be covered by the federal government, with the remaining 50 percent paid for by New Jersey, New York, and the Port Authority.
Trump questions NJ and NY’s commitment
But even though he promised a major infrastructure-renewal initiative while running for office in 2016, the Trump administration has balked at honoring Obama’s commitment to Gateway. Trump’s transportation officials have also questioned whether the states are truly putting enough “skin in the game,” and earlier this year downgraded the priority rating of the Portal Bridge replacement in a move that threatened to jeopardize the awarding of any significant federal dollars.
The latest federal spending bill is now due to be passed by the end of the month, and it remains uncertain exactly how much funding for the region’s infrastructure will make it into any version that can get out of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. One advantage for the region is that retiring U.S. Rep. and Gateway backer Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th) remains in charge of the House’s influential appropriations committee through the end of the year.
Menendez — who is in the midst of a tough reelection contest this year — expressed confidence that the infrastructure projects would eventually receive hefty federal funding and promised he and the other officials would continue to press the issue no matter happens.
“The writing is on the wall,” Menendez said. “This is a fight the administration cannot win, and we will not let them win.”