NJ Politicos Get Eyeful of Decay in Hudson Tunnel Tour, Want Federal Funding

John Reitmeyer | January 29, 2019 | Politics, Transportation
With Democrats in control of House of Representatives, New Jersey congressional leaders believe there’s a better chance of getting money from Washington, D.C. to repair badly damaged tunnel

Credit: Edwin J. Torres/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy and a federal delegation toured the North River Tunnel on Monday, January 28, 2019.
Gov. Phil Murphy stood alongside his new ally in the fight to build the proposed Gateway tunnel under the Hudson River — a nearly all-Democratic state congressional delegation that is promising to push hard to deliver the federal funds needed to make a new tunnel a reality.

During an event yesterday that in many ways was a show of force by the state’s most powerful Democrats, Murphy and congressional leaders toured the 108-year-old tunnel that is used to connect New Jersey with New York for some 200,000 daily riders.

The officials emerged from the tunnel — which was heavily damaged by 2012’s superstorm Sandy and is often the source of frustrating delays for commuters — using words like “alarming” and “ticking time bomb” to describe what they saw. They also renewed calls for the significant federal infrastructure funding that for now remains on the sidelines, thanks to the administration of President Donald Trump.

And just as Democrats who now control the House of Representatives recently flexed their muscle by thwarting Trump’s plan to spend $5 billion on a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, they also expressed confidence yesterday that they can be instrumental in freeing up more dollars for the proposed tunnel and other major infrastructure investments that are planned for the Northeast Corridor.

Credit: NJTV News
U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-7)
“We have a new House of Representatives. That’s the big change and that’s what gives us leverage,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski, one of several Democrats who last year flipped a congressional seat in New Jersey that previously had been held by a Republican.

“The New Jersey delegation is a huge force within the Democratic caucus,” said Malinowski (D-7).

Still safe but ever more difficult to maintain

The plan to replace the existing tunnel and the nearby Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River is part of a broader infrastructure renewal program known as Gateway that is awaiting both federal approval and long-term funding from the Trump administration.

Spearheaded by Amtrak, Gateway was the nation’s top-priority infrastructure 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. Christie’s controversial decision — made in 2010 during the Great Recession — took on new meaning after the existing tunnel was severely damaged by Sandy.

Close-up of the North River Tunnel
The tunnel is still safe to use, but federal officials say it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain for daily train traffic and will eventually have to be taken out of service. And, while the tunnel’s two tubes allow for trains used by both New Jersey Transit and Amtrak to move in and out of New York City at the same time, officials say closing just one for emergency repairs would reduce the number of hourly trips allowed during peak times from 24 to six.

Murphy and the other public officials got a firsthand look at what Amtrak’s maintenance workers are up against as they looked out from a special “theater car” during yesterday’s tour. The car offered unobstructed — and unvarnished — views of the tunnel’s inner workings.

“It’s pretty alarming to say the least,” Murphy told reporters afterward.

Menendez: ‘…ticking time bomb’

“From my perspective, we’re sitting on a transportation ticking time bomb,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who was an ardent supporter of the ARC tunnel.

Credit: Edwin J. Torres/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy, center, comments on the condition of the North River Tunnel.
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 completed new tunnel then would allow for major repairs to occur inside the existing tunnel so that it could eventually be brought back online to double capacity, keeping pace with growing regional demand.

An original funding framework established during Obama’s tenure 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 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 Portal Bridge replacement (another element of Gateway), which will cost an estimated $1.5 billion.

Under Republican control, Congress largely abided by Trump’s recalcitrance. But Malinowski noted yesterday that he and other Democrats now control the federal spending power after his party flipped control of the House during last year’s midterm elections. In some cases, Democrats from New Jersey hold key leadership positions, like U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12), who now serves on the important House Appropriations Committee.

Malinowski: ‘We will be writing the spending bills’

“We will be writing the spending bills and we will be writing the transportation bills this year,” Malinowski said.

“We’ve just seen what a united Democratic caucus in the House can do in terms of leverage with the White House,” he said. “I think we can bring that to bear on transportation and Gateway in particular this year.”

A recent report from Wall Street credit-rating firm Moody’s Investors Service spelled out the economic stakes for the region as the infrastructure funding remains on the sidelines. It suggested the output of the entire Northeast Corridor — a region that accounts for an estimated 20 percent of the nation’s total gross domestic product (GDP) — is linked directly to the fate of the rail system.

Murphy and Menendez echoed similar concerns yesterday, with the governor calling Gateway an “existential set of investments for New Jersey.”

“New York, New Jersey, the Port Authority, we’ve stepped up with our share of this,” Murphy said. “We desperately need the federal government to step up on its side.”