It’s hard to say where all of these meetings, editorials and statements about the need for a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel eventually lead to. For a few weeks — spurred on by an unfortunate assist from Hurricane Sandy and necessarily relentless coverage of delays caused by problems in Amtrak’s North River Tunnels — journalists, editorial boards, federal officials, transit advocates, and, yes, even elected representatives have been pushing forward on finding a way to build new tunnels. At $14-$20 billion depending upon the scope of the project, the ask is so far large and largely unjustified, but as the political dance continues, we have reason to remain cautiously optimistic that forces are aligning to do something. What that something is remains to be seen.
As we try to make sense of the latest developments, let’s turn to New Jersey where the Garden State politicians met yesterday with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. The meeting involved Gov. Chris Christie and Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker. Picking up on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s cues last week, the team discussed the need not for loans but for federal grants. With Christie on board, an annoying if necessary piece of the puzzle considering he’s one of the reasons why we’re in this mess, the group released a statement:
“Transit across the Hudson River carries an enormous and increasing share of this region’s workforce and economy, and it is clear that something must be done, and done now, as commuters continue to endure serious daily challenges that come with an aging infrastructure.
“We had a substantive and productive meeting today and all of us are committed to working together on a path forward on this critical project. Senator Booker, Senator Menendez, and Governor Christie will work with Secretary Foxx to obtain a substantial Federal grant contribution toward the Hudson River tunnels. In addition to grants, we will also work on other funding and financing options.
“The state of New Jersey supports the Gateway project and is committed to developing a framework with the Federal government to begin it. We all recognize that the only way forward is equitable distribution of funding responsibility and the active participation of all parties. As commuters can attest, we cannot afford further delay.”
It’s not clear what exactly is next for the Garden State pols, but Emma Fitzsimmons’ coverage in The Times notes that, as with any meeting, there were some takeaways. “There was a growing sense of optimism on Tuesday among officials that the project would advance, according to an official who attended the gathering,” she writes. “Another official said that attendees left the meeting with specific assignments or tasks to move the plans forward.”
But as with the tunnel, the politics runs across the Hudson. It may be true, as Cuomo has pushed, that New Jersey stands to lose more if Amtrak’s tubes fail than New York, but that’s a provincial, short-term look. New Yorkers use and need access to the rest of the country via the Hudson River rail tunnels, and New York is going to have to be a willing participant in this Herculean funding mission. Cuomo may be coming around, and he just may be playing the right angle now after a few weeks of recalcitrance.
In a piece I highly recommend you read, Dana Rubinstein explores how the tunnel is New York’s problem whether Cuomo recognizes it or not. The Port Authority, a body some in Washington are intent on pushing aside for the purposes of a new trans-Hudson tunnel, is his problem, and Cuomo will have to cooperate. His statements are all over the place.
Noting that he was “encouraged” by the New Jersey meeting — although not invited to the Garden State summit — Cuomo again called for direct federal contributions. “I think we all recognize the need to make up for years of discussions that did not produce tangible forward progress. I believe deeply in the need for this country and my state and region to invest in new infrastructure to maintain our economic prowess, and I stand ready to expedite any and all state processes to move this project forward. We in New York have invested in major road reconstruction, undertaken the largest single bridge project in the country in decades with the Tappan Zee Bridge and announced the only total reconstruction of a major airport in the country today,” he said. “In the same vein, I strongly support the construction of the new Hudson River tunnel – and a federal grant package that makes the project viable is an essential first step.”
This morning on New York 1 he kinda sorta rolled that back. He claimed his statements are working in that he is “provoking” the bureaucracy to do something, and in that sense, perhaps he’s playing a long game. Additionally, he has questioned the $20 billion price tag — a key line of argument that must be challenged as the project moves forward. What are we spending this money on and why does it cost so much more here than elsewhere? But his constant comparisons to the new Tappan Zee Bridge and LaGuardia Airport projects remain problematic as he hasn’t been transparent on costs or funding. Still, Cuomo pledged that New York would “do its fair share” and again called on the federal government to “step up” with funding.
So that’s a lot of talk. What next? The money. When? Your guess is as good as mine, but the sooner the better.