National News

Backers of Hudson Rail Tunnel Brace for Bad News

Posted January 2, 2018 8:13 p.m. EST

Building a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River between New York City and New Jersey has been one of the nation’s top infrastructure priorities for several years. But transportation officials in the region entered the new year wondering if President Donald Trump had decided to block the plan just as work was getting started.

The latest wrench thrown in the gears of the project, known as the Gateway Program, came Friday afternoon in the form of a letter that scuttled a funding agreement for the first phase of the project, which was estimated to cost about $11 billion. Amtrak and the states of New York and New Jersey had hoped that the federal government would cover half of that cost, but a Trump administration official disputed that notion, calling any such agreement “nonexistent.”

The letter, from K. Jane Williams, the acting administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, came just weeks after the governors of the two states outlined how they might pay for the other half of constructing a tunnel with two tracks to carry trains between Manhattan and New Jersey. The tunnel, which would supplement one built more than a century ago, is considered critical to maintaining a rail link between New York City and points to the south and west, including Washington.

That connection is threatened by the deteriorating conditions inside the existing tunnel, which was damaged by the floodwaters of Hurricane Sandy. The tunnel, used by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, suffered repeated power outages last week as ice formed on the catenary wires that provide power to trains. Amtrak crews removed the ice by knocking it from the overhead wires with poles.

Some close observers of the Gateway project saw the response as a negotiating tactic by the Trump administration. But others said it gave them a chilling sense of déjà vu, seven years after Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey scrapped a previous plan to build a rail tunnel under the Hudson.

“I don’t think that they killed Gateway,” said Thomas K. Wright, the executive director of the Regional Plan Association, an urban policy organization, referring to the Trump administration. “I think they took a very hard position as an early negotiating tactic.” But, he added, “They are threatening to kill the hostage.”

The tone of the response surprised some elected officials, given that Trump and his secretary of transportation, Elaine Chao, had a positive meeting about Gateway in September with Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, and other delegates from the region, including Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.

On Tuesday, at a news conference on Long Island with King, Schumer said, “Peter and I both support Gateway.” He added: “There was an agreement. They should stick to it.”

“The president hurt us on the tax bill,” Schumer said, alluding to the potential effect on New Yorkers of the tax plan Trump signed last month. “They should not hurt us on Gateway.”

John Porcari, the executive director of the Gateway Development Corp., which is planning the tunnel project, said he remained confident an agreement would be reached with the federal government.

“A major project like this is a series of near-death experiences,” Porcari said. “I think last Friday qualified as one of those near-death experiences. But the project goes on.”

He said that planners would continue “plowing full-speed ahead” while negotiations continue on the funding. Work will begin soon at the site in northern New Jersey of a replacement for the Portal Bridge, a swing bridge that carries trains to and from the exiting tunnel, he said.

The new bridge would be one element of the overall Gateway project, which has been estimated to take a decade to complete at a total cost of as much as $30 billion.

Last month, Christie and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York wrote to the Federal Transit Administration to explain how they planned to fund their shares of half of the first phase of the project.

Christie said New Jersey Transit would add an escalating charge to train tickets between New Jersey and Manhattan. Both said they intended to borrow part of the cost from a federal loan program.

But in her letter on Friday, Williams criticized that proposal as “a move toward even greater federal dependency.”

Cuomo’s budget director, Robert Mujica, responded in a letter over the weekend, likening the states to homeowners with a mortgage and saying that the obligation for repaying the loans would fall on them, not the federal government.

Mujica closed by saying that Cuomo and his staff looked forward “to hearing details of the federal plan for reviving the nation’s infrastructure, and hope that any national program with the ambition to improving our infrastructure must begin with Gateway.”

Christie said in an interview last week that he believed Trump and Schumer would get together and work out a deal that would include federal funding for Gateway. In a statement released by his spokesman, Brian Murray, Christie said: “There is no doubt the administration understands the economic significance of the Hudson tunnel project, and the urgency of moving this forward for the Boston-Washington corridor. We are confident that, as the White House advances an infrastructure proposal this year, federal funding for the most important transportation project in the United States will be addressed.”

Before Trump was elected, officials from New York and New Jersey said the federal government had designated the tunnel project as the nation’s top priority in transportation infrastructure and had tentatively agreed to cover half of its cost. The federal government often covers more than half of the cost of big transit projects — sometimes 80 percent or more — and has loan programs for state and local governments to borrow some or all of their share of the balance.