Are There Lessons in History — and Tammany Hall — for Stalled Gateway Project?

John Reitmeyer | November 28, 2018 | Transportation
Key parts of the Hudson River rail network went into service 108 years ago yesterday. The history could be instructive for those who are trying to renew the crumbling infrastructure

Gateway tunnel
Transportation officials and mass-transit advocates working to make the Gateway project a reality were told yesterday not to become disheartened but to look to the original tunnel’s campaign of more than 100 years ago for inspiration. The project, which calls for a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, has been stalled by the Trump administration’s refusal to live up to the Obama administration’s commitment to cover half the cost.

Two major pieces of the region’s Hudson River rail network went into service 108 years ago yesterday, and they remain key elements of the region’s current infrastructure even as they have deteriorated. The poor condition of the network has led to frequent breakdowns that draw fury from the commuters who ride New Jersey Transit trains on a regular basis.

But even as officials “celebrated” the birthday, they were told something we all know — the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The original tunnel project, which was built in the era of the Wright Brothers and Tammany Hall, had a lot of difficulty getting the votes needed to push the project forward.

The solution? Generating a groundswell of public support.

Awaiting federal approvals and funding

“Everyone here who feels disheartened by how long things take … you are still engaged in such important work,” said author and historian Jill Jonnes during yesterday’s meeting of the Gateway Development Corporation, an agency that is leading an effort to replace the tunnel and the nearby Portal Bridge.

“If (citizens of 100 years ago could) they can do it, so can you,” she told the transportation officials and mass-transit advocates who attended the meeting in Manhattan.

Pennsylvania Railroad engineers walk through the completed north Hudson River tunnel in 1906.
The plan to replace the Hudson Tunnel and the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River is part of a broader infrastructure renewal program known as Gateway that is stuck in neutral, awaiting federal approvals and funding.

Spearheaded by Amtrak, Gateway was the nation’s top-priority project for the administration of former President Barack Obama after then-Gov. Chris Christie abruptly canceled a federally funded tunnel project known as Access to the Region’s Core, or ARC. He did so 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 existing 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. The Obama administration made a funding commitment to Gateway that roughly called for 50 percent of the infrastructure work to be covered by the federal government, with the remaining 50 percent paid for by New Jersey, New York, and the Port Authority. But even though President Donald Trump promised a major infrastructure-renewal initiative while running for office in 2016, his administration has balked at honoring Obama’s commitment to funding both the tunnel and the bridge replacement, which will cost another $1.5 billion.

Is Trump using the issue as leverage?

Trump’s transportation officials have questioned whether the states are truly putting enough financial “skin in the game,” and there are concerns that the president is also using the infrastructure funding as leverage as he seeks substantial funding for an elaborate border wall.

But the Democratic takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives could provide a new opening for the Gateway, project advocates hope, since Trump has talked about funding infrastructure renewal. There has already been some talk in Washington, D.C. about the possibility for the president and the House’s new leaders to find common ground on a bipartisan infrastructure-spending bill.

“We are happy to hear leaders from both parties say that infrastructure is an area that is ripe for bipartisan cooperation,” said Dani Simon, vice president of communications for the Regional Plan Association, during the GDC meeting yesterday.

Historian Jill Jonnes
Jonnes, the author of “Conquering Gotham: The Rise and Fall of Penn Station,” offered her encouragement as she detailed the years-long efforts of Pennsylvania Railroad officials to get approval for the infrastructure work from famously corrupt Tammany Hall. That was at a time when airplanes built by the Wright brothers were considered cutting-edge transportation technology. To win approval for the proposed tunnel, dozens of New York City aldermen were expected to receive bribes that the railroad officials were unwilling to pay. It wasn’t until there was a groundswell of public opinion organized by a broad coalition that the Tammany officials ultimately signed off, Jonnes said.

“Public opinion is really important,” she said.

Urged to go back to the drawing board

Not everyone was in an upbeat mood yesterday as they took note of the existing infrastructure’s anniversary. Joseph Clift, a former Long Island Rail Road planning official who keeps close tabs on regional mass-transit issues, urged the GDC to go back to the drawing board, suggesting it was unrealistic to expect the federal government to come up with a large share of the funding for the new infrastructure as currently designed.

“Please take a hard look at this,” Clift said.

As part of the modern effort to win the Trump administration’s support, a new “Build Gateway Now” public campaign has been organized by a coalition of civic, environmental, transportation, labor and business groups, according to the coalition’s Twitter feed, which was launched in July.

The Gateway “delay cake”
The GDC also attempted to bring new attention to the aging pieces of infrastructure with an elaborate cake that was brought out during yesterday’s meeting. Calling it a “delay cake,” the officials lit a lone candle in front of the bright red “108” numerals to highlight the Pennsylvania Railroad’s past success as well as the need to replace the same infrastructure that’s still in use today.

“We’re hoping it’s going to be a candle for luck,” said GDC spokesman Steve Sigmund.