A special bi-state agency created several years ago to spearhead the effort to build the Gateway commuter-rail tunnel would get new legal powers under legislation that cleared its first committee hurdle in Trenton yesterday.
A bipartisan bill approved unanimously by the Senate Transportation Committee would give the Gateway Development Corporation the authority to receive government grants and loan proceeds that are critical to the financing of the proposed new tunnel under the Hudson River.
It would also allow the GDC to take the lead on other major infrastructure projects that are part of the Gateway program, including a replacement for the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River near Secaucus Junction.
While Gateway was a top priority during President Barack Obama’s tenure, President Donald Trump has thus far not agreed to honor a financial framework established before he took office. It called on the federal government to cover half of the cost of the improvements, with New Jersey, New York and the Port Authority funding the other half, including with federal grants and loans.
Trump now ‘open-minded’ on funding?
Trump — who ran for office promising a major infrastructure-renewal effort — has reportedly been blocking the Gateway project’s funding and using it at times as leverage in his push to get funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. But earlier this week, during an interview with reporters in the White House, Trump offered some new hope that he may have a change of heart. Newsday reported that Trump said he is now “open-minded” about funding Gateway.
The nonprofit GDC was established in 2016 to help bring together stakeholders and coordinate planning for Gateway and the other improvements. But its original corporate structure does not allow the GDC to fully function as the lead agency.
The bill approved in committee yesterday grants GDC the power to manage its own budget and issue bonds to help support the projects, among other responsibilities.
“In short, the legislation allows us to effectively accomplish the mission we were created to do,” said Stephen Sigmund, spokesman for the GDC.
200,000 passengers a day rely on 108-year-old tunnel
The bill — which also has to be passed by lawmakers in New York — drew wide praise during yesterday’s committee hearing from environmentalists, labor groups and the New Jersey League of Municipalities.
“This is a priority of mayors across the state,” said Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr, who also serves as the league’s president.
Spearheaded by Amtrak, Gateway was the nation’s top-priority infrastructure project under Obama after then-Gov. Chris Christie abruptly canceled a similar tunnel project known as ARC. Controversial at the time, Christie’s 2010 decision took on added significance two years later after the existing tunnel — used to shuttle an estimated 200,000 Amtrak and New Jersey Transit riders in and out of Manhattan each day — was severely damaged by superstorm Sandy.
While federal officials say the existing tunnel is still safe to use, its condition is deteriorating, and they warn that closing just one of its two tubes for emergency repairs would reduce the number of hourly trips allowed during peak times from 24 to six. Gov. Phil Murphy and other public officials from New Jersey went on a tour of the 108-year-old tunnel late last month to inspect its current state.
“It’s scary,” Committee Chairman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) said yesterday. “As somebody said, if it was a bridge instead of tunnel, you’d be scared to go over it.”
Eminent domain among the new GDC powers
At a cost of more than $10 billion, the most expensive element of Gateway is the building of a new rail tunnel that, like the existing tunnel, would feature two tubes allowing uninterrupted traffic between New Jersey and Penn Station in New York. Once Gateway is completed, the existing tunnel would be repaired and eventually put back in service, allowing capacity to double to keep pace with growing regional demand.
With the GDC unable to accept federal grants or loans, the Port Authority has taken the lead on a temporary basis for the Hudson tunnel; NJ Transit is serving in the same capacity for the Portal Bridge, which would cost an estimated $1.5 billion to replace.
The bill approved by the Senate committee yesterday would give the GDC the authority to serve as the “recipient agency for federal, state, or private funding and authorizations necessary or appropriate to facilitate the project.” The measure would also empower the agency to begin “acquiring, subdividing, leasing, licensing, taking, and holding property, managing the property, and developing any undeveloped property in a manner necessary or appropriate to facilitate the project.”
“It’s now time to take the next step, which is what this legislation will do,” Sigmund said.
The GDC would continue to be led by a three-member board with equal representation from New Jersey, New York and the federal government. It would remain obligated to to hold public meetings and issue minutes and other public records.
The New Jersey version of the bill is being sponsored by both Diegnan and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), who emphasized Gateway’s potential for expanding NJ Transit direct service into Manhattan.
“The Morris and Essex Line’s Midtown Direct rail service is a major reason that downtowns like Morristown, Madison and South Orange are now thriving, and we need that same transit-oriented development to spur economic growth on the Raritan Valley Line and throughout North and Central Jersey,” Kean said.