New Jersey’s two U.S. senators are challenging the head of the federal Department of Transportation to meet the commuters who routinely face delays caused by the Northeast Corridor’s century-old trans-Hudson rail tunnel.
In a letter sent yesterday to U.S. DOT Secretary Elaine Chao, Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez reacted to recent media reports that indicated the secretary privately reviewed conditions inside the North River Tunnel last year, even as her agency has held up federal funding for a new tunnel.
“While viewing the state of the existing tunnels is a compelling enough sight, we believe you and your team would also benefit from meeting with our constituents, who are impacted each week by countless delays, in order to better understand the urgency of moving the project forward,” the senators said.
Officials from the DOT did not respond yesterday to questions about the senators’ request.
Wrapped up in red tape
Meanwhile, Booker and Menendez also pressed Chao to explain why sign-off on a key environmental review for a new rail tunnel — part of a broader infrastructure-renewal project known as Gateway — remains held up by an administration that has taken pride in slashing red tape. They said a formal “record of decision” has now been delayed for 18 months.
“Thank you in advance for your prompt reply, and we look forward to working together to improve the safety and reliability of our region and nation’s infrastructure,” the two senators wrote.
Spearheaded by Amtrak, the Gateway infrastructure project became a top priority during former President Barack Obama’s tenure 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 rail tunnel was severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Federal officials say the tunnel, which opened in 1910, is still safe to use. But they also warn it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain for daily train traffic. Last year, Gov. Phil Murphy and members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation toured the tunnel in a special car outfitted with large glass panels to see the conditions for themselves. Following the tour, Menendez called the tunnel a “ticking time bomb.”
Despite calling for major infrastructure renewal as a candidate, the administration of President Donald Trump, a Republican, has held back approval of the federal funding needed to move ahead the new trans-Hudson tunnel, which is estimated to cost more than $10 billion. An original funding framework for Gateway — which includes several other rail-infrastructure upgrades — was established during Obama’s tenure. It called for 50% of the infrastructure work to be covered by the federal government, with the remaining 50% paid for by New Jersey, New York and the Port Authority.
Questioning local commitment
But the Trump administration has raised numerous questions about the local funding commitment and the tunnel project has never received a high-priority ranking from DOT. There has also been open speculation about whether politics have influenced the decision-making process given that Trump has frequently clashed with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY).
In yesterday’s letter to Chao, Booker and Menendez urged her to consider the economic ramifications of continued inaction on the tunnel project. Right now, the existing 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. But closing just one side of the tunnel for emergency repairs would reduce the number of hourly train trips allowed during peak times from 24 to six.
“The economic impact, while often viewed as only affecting the New York and New Jersey region, will surely reverberate throughout the entire country, costing the nation’s economy billions of dollars in lost productivity,” the two senators wrote.
“The linchpin of the Northeast Corridor, this trans-Hudson crossing moves a workforce that contributes 20 percent of the national GDP,” they wrote. “Each day the project is delayed, costs rise, and the economic cost of inaction grows.”
Going nowhere without environmental review
In addition to the economic concerns, Booker and Menendez also urged Chao to address questions about the “record of decision” (ROD) for the tunnel’s final environmental review. Submitted to federal regulators in early 2018, a final ruling is still pending, and the tunnel project cannot move forward without it. Transportation advocates say the ROD is needed before the end of the year to keep the project on schedule.
“Are there any specific additional steps the Gateway partners should take now to receive a ROD and if so, how have those steps been communicated to the Gateway partners?” the two senators asked.
While Booker and Menendez had previously challenged Chao to personally view conditions inside the tunnel, a story published last month by Politico indicated they were unaware that Chao and other transportation officials toured the tunnel as part of a broader inspection of Northeast Corridor infrastructure in April 2018.
“We would have welcomed the opportunity to join you on the tour to discuss how we could partner to advance the Gateway Project, but please know the invitations we have previously extended still stand,” the senators said yesterday.