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Gateway Program hopes ‘Amtrak Joe’ will mean the end of its woes

Trump thwarted efforts to replace 111-year old tunnel under Hudson River

The effort to replace and upgrade tracks, bridges and tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey could get a boost under President Joe Biden.
The effort to replace and upgrade tracks, bridges and tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey could get a boost under President Joe Biden. (Alex Wong/Getty Images file photo)

Proponents of the Gateway Program, a long-awaited $30 billion, multifaceted rail project aimed at easing congestion in the Northeast Corridor, say they are hopeful that a new administration and a Senate led by one of their own will be a game-changer that finally makes the project a reality.

The program struggled during the administration of President Donald Trump, which was particularly reluctant to approve federal dollars to replace and repair a 111-year-old tunnel under the Hudson River linking New York City and New Jersey.

The subject became a sore point between Trump and now-Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer in 2018, with New York and New Jersey senators accusing the Republican president of holding up federal dollars for the project as revenge for Democratic opposition to a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

The tension culminated last February, when the Federal Transit Administration gave an $11.3 billion project segment to rebuild and expand the tunnel under the Hudson River a “medium-low” rating, making it more difficult to secure a $5.5 billion federal grant requested for the project, which includes a $9.5 billion new tunnel and $1.8 billion to rehabilitate the existing tunnel.

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While the Hudson River tunnel effort struggled, Gateway has seen progress on other fronts: The $1.7 billion effort to replace the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River, another component of the overall project, received a $766.5 million federal Capital Investment Grant in the waning days of the Trump administration. The project will also receive a $261 million contribution from Amtrak.

The tunnel itself handles 450 trains a day, most of them New Jersey Transit commuter trains into and out of New York City.

President Joe Biden, whose love for Amtrak is no secret, made completing the tunnel a campaign promise, mentioning it by name on his campaign website.

Team Gateway

He named John Porcari, a Transportation Department official in the Obama administration who served as interim executive director of the Gateway Development Corp. from July 2016 to early 2019, to serve as a key member of his transition team.

And he nominated former New York City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, who is deeply familiar with the project, to serve as deputy secretary of Transportation. Trottenberg is a former Schumer aide.

During his confirmation hearing on Jan. 21, Transportation secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg said he was quite familiar with Gateway.

When asked by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., whether he supports moving the project forward, Buttigieg said, “I’ve heard this loud and clear from … you and your colleagues and counterparts in the region.”

[Biden’s infrastructure challenge: Finding common ground]

Stephen Sigmund, a spokesman for the Gateway Development Corp., said the organization is hopeful that the new administration will move their project forward.

“The right investment for the Biden Administration, Congress, the region and the nation, is to partner with us to build Gateway — providing tens of thousands of jobs just when they are needed most, improving reliability and mobility, reducing carbon emissions, and protecting 20 percent of the nation’s GDP from a potential closure of a vital link to the nation’s economic heart,” he said in a statement.

Carlo Scissura, president and CEO of the New York Building Congress, a trade group for the construction industry, said the addition of Trottenberg to the administration will help. In New York City, he said, she embraced “bold ideas” such as a campaign to eliminate traffic deaths on the streets of New York. But she “filled potholes too. They fixed the streets, they got things done.”

‘Ready to go’

“She gets it,” he said. “I have a funny feeling the next four years will be the greatest infrastructure years in our history. I think with Polly Trottenberg at U.S. DOT, whatever bureaucratic hurdles that are in the way of Gateway, she will resolve them immediately.”

That goes beyond Gateway, he said. “I think her purpose is going to be really getting projects moving and really getting projects ready to go.”

But Yonah Freemark, a researcher at the Urban Institute, said Trottenberg is a New York City person, not a New York state person, meaning her involvement in Gateway was minimal.

“Not to say she’s against it,” he said. “But it wasn’t exactly the focus of her attention as DOT commissioner in New York City.”

Freemark said he’ll be curious as to whether U.S. DOT bureaucrats are interested in changing the FTA funding rating from medium-low. He also questions whether the federal government will be willing to make a significant investment at a time when it’s already going into significant debt trying to dig the nation out of its current crisis.

“I don’t want to argue Gateway is not a good idea,” he said. “But I do think it’s worth asking about the clarification of project finances.”

Alon Levy, a transit analyst, was more blunt.

“If someone told you you had $30 billion to produce the vaccine, you’d immediately move to spend that $30 billion, right?” Levy asked. “I think people get that Gateway does not have that level of importance.”

But Scissura argues that Gateway may be one of the keys to an economic resurgence.

“How do you get out of the darkest days in history?” he asked. “You build. You create monumental projects. You invest.”

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