As Gov. Andrew Cuomo stomps his feet and yells, “It’s not my tunnel,” one of New York’s other politicians has proposed a two-state solution for the trans-Hudson rail tunnel issue that may just provide the faint glimmer of a way forward. However, the divide between New York and New Jersey — let alone the feds — on the issue is nearly as wide as the Hudson River itself, and billions remain to be appropriated before we can start celebrating the launch of a new tunnel.
In speaking at NYU’s Rudin Center yesterday, Schumer called for a new agency that would oversee the project. The Senior Senator from New York feels that this new agency would best be able to tap into sources of funding that Amtrak can’t reach and New York and New Jersey aren’t eligible for under the current set-up. Left unsaid is the belief emanating from Washington that the Port Authority, a pre-existing, two-state, trans-Hudson body, isn’t the right organization to be involved with this project. Considering the corruption at the PA arising out of both Cuomo’s and Christie’s dealings with it and the PA’s inability to handle basic problems, I can’t say I blame anyone for the skepticism.
Jillian Jorgensen was on hand for The Observer, and she offered up this take on Schumer’s speech:
Cooperation is necessary, he said—and to that end he proposed a new partnership, dubbed the Gateway Development Corporation, which would bring together the key players in the project: New York, New Jersey, the Port Authority, the MTA, Amtrak, and the federal government. “Without a single agency directing traffic, Gateway could only move forward one inch at a time, grant-by-grant, undertaken by the separate agencies in a piecemeal fashion. That makes a project such as this, with so many moving parts—and a rigid chronology of construction—extraordinarily difficult,” Mr. Schumer said in his remarks. “Input should come from all parties—everyone should have a seat at the table—but the planning and financing and implementation of Gateway should be driven by one conductor: the development corporation.”
In addition to making it easier to direct the program, Mr. Schumer also argued a development corporation would make it easier to pay for it, by allowing various agencies to tap into funding other agencies involved can’t touch. “Amtrak can’t access federal mass transit funding. The Port Authority and regional Transit Agencies can’t access federal railroad dollars the way Amtrak can,” Mr. Schumer said. “We’ll only get Gateway done by adding up several pieces of financing, with an eye toward getting the maximum amount possible from the federal government.”
…Of course, Mr. Schumer had his ideas on how to pay for the project—and, like the governors, he is looking at the feds to provide most of the cash, in part by using profits from Amtrak’s lucrative Northeast Corridor, which presently is used to prop up far-flung Amtrak routes that don’t generate a profit. “There is a bipartisan move in Congress to allow Amtrak to cordon-off the profits it makes on the Northeast Corridor, and use it for capital investment on that corridor. It keeps the money in the Northeast and reinvests it,” Mr. Schumer said.
Schumer’s proposal is the first concrete one that involves a federal representative acknowledging that the federal government needs to take the political and funding lead on this issue. Whether Schumer can collaborate with Republican majorities in the House and Senate on a northeast infrastructure project remains to be seen, and the fallout among Democrats from his opposition to the Iran deal is also unclear. Still, it’s a start, and as Dana Rubinstein reported, the Senator earned praise for his leadership from transit advocates and White House officials alike.
Even Cuomo had something almost nice to say. “I commend Sen. Schumer for making these tunnels a national priority,” the governor said in a statement. “We both agree that they will require significant federal investment and I look forward to working with him to move this critical project forward.”
Yet, even Schumer couldn’t resist some trans-Hudson sniping, and therein lies the rub. During his speech, he jabbed Christie for the ARC cancellation. “There is a special burden on Governor Christie to lobby his party in Congress to move in our direction on infrastructure funding,” Schumer said. “For one, he cancelled the first effort at fixing the tunnels. But far more importantly, the vast majority of riders who use these tunnels, 80 percent, are New Jersey residents who come into the city via New Jersey Transit.” Christie’s office again repeated the spurious claim that no one would help them with cost overruns (when in fact the feds had offered to help), but that’s neither here nor there. To move forward, the parties are going to have to work together and move beyond finger-pointing for something that happened five years ago.
It’s not entirely clear what the next steps are. New York and New Jersey have to commit to this project with the feds, and the money — Schumer and Amtrak have estimated that the entire Gateway project will be around $25 billion with the tunnel accounting for $14 billion — has to materialize. But as this drama has unfolded lately in press releases, press conferences and policy speeches, there seems to be some movement toward action. I worry about what happens though if nothing happens. Will we engage in five years of finger-pointing before launching this effort anew in 2020? Is Amtrak doomed to wait for a tunnel replacement until the old ones are non-functional? I hope not, but recent history isn’t on our side.