Op-Ed: President-elect Biden will put Hudson rail tunnels back on track

Greg Lalevee | November 17, 2020 | Opinion, Transportation
Under new administration, we can expect rebuilding of tunnels that are vital to the region’s livelihood
Greg Lalevee

NJ Transit and Amtrak riders who have been held hostage for the last four years are soon to be released based on the election outcome.

It is safe to declare that under a Biden administration, the funding for new rail tunnels under the Hudson River that has been willfully held up by President Trump will soon be approved. This means the project will quickly move forward. It is desperately needed.

Funding had been held up for the crassest of political reasons by the Trump administration, putting the region at grave economic risk if the current tubes failed. Now, we can expect an almost immediate change in policy. The benefits for our region — and the country — are almost incalculable.

Rebuilding the tunnels will be the transportation equivalent of heart bypass surgery. The current tubes are a century old and barely usable following bad damage once saltwater from Superstorm Sandy breached them. Despite heroic efforts from Amtrak trying to maintain them, it’s a slowly losing battle. And, like an artery to the heart, these tunnels are vital to the region’s livelihood as the only way to get to Manhattan by train along the Northeast Corridor from New Jersey.

Most used passenger rail line in U.S.

The corridor is the most heavily used passenger rail line in the U.S., with more than 2,000 intercity and commuter trains supporting approximately 800,000 daily passenger trips across eight states and Washington D.C., before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The project will increase resiliency and capacity along a 10-mile stretch of the corridor between Newark and Pennsylvania Station in New York City.

The Gateway Program Development Corporation (GDC), a New Jersey nonprofit, was formed in November 2016 to oversee and build the tunnels. It works closely with stakeholders, including the U.S. Department of Transportation, Amtrak, NJ Transit, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to advance this critical program. Some partners have been more cooperative than others since the Gateway corporation was formed. Now there will be unanimity in purpose.

Helped immensely by Amtrak’s leadership, GDC managed to pry enough federal dollars free this year to undertake substantial work on the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River — vital work but it still won’t help if the current tubes are no longer usable.

We’ve lost four years

We’ve lost four years under the Trump administration. For most of his term, Donald Trump and his administration dithered and withheld funding as a threat to U.S. Sens. Schumer, Menendez and Booker, who made funding that had been earmarked by the Obama administration for the project a priority in Congress only to be rebuffed at every turn by the now outgoing president.

Make no mistake: Joe Biden’s victory is so important to New Jersey’s well-being. If the current rail tubes are forced to close, the impact on New Jersey’s economy would be devastating. Imagine coming out of COVID-19 if no trains could cross the Hudson. The increased number of cars and buses would not be able to be absorbed by the Hudson vehicular crossings. For the hundreds of thousands of commuters who want to live in the suburbs but whose jobs are in Manhattan, New Jersey would become the last choice of residence, compared to Long Island and Westchester and Rockland counties.

Home values would be diminished, and job losses would follow. That’s why it’s such a relief there will be a change in the White House. We will have a president who puts the region’s needs above his personal petulance. Even better, President-elect Biden is no rookie when it comes to transportation projects.

Remember that in 2009, then-Vice President Biden was charged with implementing the $787 billion Recovery Act. As he oversaw the stimulus — “The Sheriff,” President Obama called him — he obsessed over any hint of waste or fraud while at the same time making sure that “shovel-ready” projects were funded and hit their deadlines.

The tunnel project will quickly be shovel-ready. Now with a new administration, let’s recoup our federal dollars and get this project completed. Finally, and before it is too late.