Amtrak took some House Transportation Committee members underground into the crumbling, century-old Hudson River train tunnels that were damaged during Superstorm Sandy and inside the bench walls where there were submerged 12,000 volt cables.
The tour — a bid to secure funding support for the stalled Gateway Tunnel and Portal Bridge projects — only intensified Committee Chairman Pete DeFazio’s determination to write Gateway into the list of items in the proposed $2 trillion federal infrastructure bill that the president approved, in concept, on Tuesday.
“If we do the ambitious infrastructure bill we talked about, with real federal investment, this would be a project of national significance that would be part of that bill,” said DeFazio.
Ironically, while Trump backs an infrastructure bill, he and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao have doggedly blocked funding for Gateway by downgrading the project’s priority status for being too local, and refusing to certify New Jersey’s share of funding because it’s borrowed federal money. Gov. Phil Murphy told the committee at a special roundtable hearing on Friday that Chao has avoided his phone calls.
“We had a call scheduled that was canceled, at least once, if not twice, so it’s been frustrating. And I do feel like, you know that phrase, ‘And then they moved the goal posts?’ I don’t think it’s ever applied more appropriately — at least in my experience — to this project,” Murphy said.
“Without a willing federal partner in the executive side, we are in a cul-de-sac and can’t move forward. And we so much appreciate you being here, and making this point in a way that we hope will be heard and get us out of that cul-de-sac,” said Steven Cohen, Gateway Development Corporation New York trustee.
“It’s time to stop playing political games. This project is essential. It’s essential for New York, it’s essential, frankly, for the United States of America. And I know that there’s strong support in both the Senate and the House and we have got to make sure this gets done,” said New York Congresswoman Nita Lowey.
Environmental permits for the tunnel have sat on Chao’s desk for a year. The Portal Bridge project is shovel-ready and only needs a legal go-ahead. Committee members plan to send Chao a letter urging more consideration.
“The bureaucracy is throwing hurdles and obstacles that are unnecessary, if not immoral, in the sense of moving this project forward,” said New York Congressman Adriano Espaillat.
DeFazio’s plan for dealing with Trump’s intransigence on Gateway?
“It seems to be somehow personal with him and I really don’t understand it. But ultimately if we move forward a big package, it’ll have things all around the country, including a bridge that’s actually vital to the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And of course he has a fairly close relationship with the Secretary of Transportation so I think that we will find support around the nation,” said DeFazio.
The committee’s Democrats vowed support, but no Republicans toured the train tunnel. It’s the Republicans and the Trump administration who need to get on board for the project to move forward.