Archive for Gateway Tunnel

Will a Trump-Schumer fight torpedo plans for the Gateway Tunnel?

In some alternate timeline — the one without cost overruns for transit projects and on-time delivery — New Jersey’s ARC tunnel would be opening this year. The plan to add Hudson River capacity for New Jersey Transit involved a deep-bore terminal dead-ending underneath Macy’s and was flawed from the start, but it faced solvable problems that could have been resolved. It was also funded and underway when former Garden State Governor Chris Christie pulled the plug. Although New Jersey transit advocates have convinced themselves that Christie saved the state from a mistake due to the design of ARC, in the intervening eight years, the state spent a lot of money that should have gone to transit on roads, and New Jersey Transit has withered on the vine.

As part of Christie’s ex ante rationale for canceling ARC, he challenged the region’s players to come up with a better plan, and Amtrak eventually settled on the Gateway Tunnel project, a massively costly project that would run from $20-$30 billion and involve new tunnels, new bridges and a new rail station in Manhattan. It would allow for real high-speed rail to pass through Manhattan but wouldn’t connect Penn Station and Grand Central, the Holy Grail of rationalizing New York’s regional rail problem. It was to be funded in part by New York and New Jersey and in part by the feds, but that’s when grudge politics stepped in.

The Washington Post broke the news on Friday: “According to four officials familiar with the discussions, Trump has taken a personal interest in making sure no federal dollars flow to a project that is considered critical to his hometown’s long-term economic prosperity.” That’s right: Despite earlier claims that he would hold up the feds’ end of the funding deal, President Donald Trump has decided he does not want to fund the Gateway Tunnel project.

The Post wasn’t clear on the whys and wherefores. Ted Budd, a North Carolina representative, claimed the issue was tax fairness. “North Carolina and the other 48 states should not have to foot the bill for this hall of fame earmark,” he said. But New York and New Jersey are two of the biggest net contributors to federal coffers, and even $10-$15 billion on Gateway spending wouldn’t begin to even out the northeast’s tax deficit vis-a-vis federal spending.

The Times had more and the motives seem personal:

Mr. Trump’s opposition to the project is in part the result of his belief that it is important to Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, according to one person with knowledge of the president’s thinking on the issue. Mr. Trump has told Republicans that it makes no sense to give Mr. Schumer something that he covets — funding for the tunnels — at a time that Mr. Schumer is routinely blocking Mr. Trump’s nominees and other parts of his agenda, the person said.

The move has angered members of Trump’s own party, as The Times subsequently detailed:

Just a few months ago, the idea once again appeared to have gained the support it needed in Washington and, once again, it looks as if one powerful official — in this case, the president — could put a stop to it. The latest and perhaps most ominous threat came late Friday night when it was revealed that President Trump had asked Republican leaders to withdraw federal funding for the project.

Mr. Trump has promised to spur “the biggest and boldest infrastructure investment in American history.” So his opposition to an established project that is widely considered a solution to one of the nation’s most critical infrastructure needs has confounded even veterans of his own party. Some fear that Mr. Trump is jeopardizing commerce along the Eastern Seaboard simply to spite Senator Charles E. Schumer, the Democratic leader from New York. “If the news reports are accurate that he wants to kill it or hold it because he’s mad at Chuck Schumer, that makes no sense,” said Representative Peter King, Republican of Long Island. “This is essential to the national economy as well as the regional economy.”

He said he would not vote for a funding bill that did not include some money for the rail-tunnel project, which is known as Gateway. “I support President Trump on a lot of issues, but on this one he’s wrong,” Mr. King said in an interview on Saturday.

Kathryn Wylde of the Parntership for New York City tried some odd reverse psychology that is bound to have little effect on Trump. “I have no doubt that regardless of what he says, he knows the importance of this project and he does not want it to fail on his watch,” she said, providing no evidence that the president is looking beyond personal grudges or, optimistically, horse-trading. Needless to say, the president doesn’t have a big fan base in the Big Apple and has always flown in and out of New York City. Amtrak Don he is not.

The reaction has been loud and generally in favor of Gateway. Bloomberg News delved into the economics of letting the current tunnels fail, a real reality within the next six to eight years. Gateway, the piece notes, would generate $2.16 in economic activity for every dollar spent, and not to build Gateway while risking a failure of the current tubes could be catastrophic for the country.

Another piece in Crains New York urged planners to go back to the drawing board to reduce the scope. Could a one-tube tunnel for less cost solve the problems? It seems unlikely as tunneling isn’t generally the most expensive part of these projects, and reducing the number of tubes doesn’t equate to a 50% reduction in the costly infrastructure needed for the new rail capacity.

What no one has talked about is cost control. Following the winter’s Times exposes on construction costs, Gateway is primed for an aggressive reform attempt. Were Trump operating in good faith, he would urge New York and New Jersey to tackle the reforms highlighted in the series on the New York region’s cost problems. The feds could make any grant subject to a cap and contingent on cost cutting. Based on standard international multipliers at play in New York City, the entire Gateway project would probably cost around $10 billion in even the most expensive European cities, but our version is going to carry a $20-$30 billion price tag depending upon scope. No one wants to challenge this 800 pound gorilla in the room, and Trump is operating on personal political grudges rather than a good-faith attempt at cost reform.

And so, in a way, we’re having the ARC Tunnel debate all over again. On Saturday, Josh Barro and I engaged in a back-and-forth on Twitter over this very issue. Barro argued that perhaps it’s not bad for the Gateway proponents to try to whittle down the price, and in one sense, he’s not wrong. Gateway shouldn’t be this expensive, and New York and New Jersey should be interested in cost reform so that the dollars they can get go further. But even if the states come back with a more sensible cost proposal, Trump still won’t fund the project; he wants to use this a cudgel to beat Schumer, and everyone in the region, Republicans and Democrats alike, will lose out.

As Chris Christie doesn’t deserve praise for canceling the ARC project for the wrong reasons before later stumbling into a flaw in the chosen route as an excuse, Trump shouldn’t get “credit” for bringing attention to Gateway’s costs. The decision to withhold funds for no good reason is the wrong one; the move to ignore extremely high costs is also the wrong one. But one does not excuse the other. The region needs Gateway, and to get there will require some support from Washington, DC. For now, though, we’ll keep holding our collective breaths over the battle for dollars.

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Cuomo’s plan to turn the Farley Post Office into the Empire Station Complex should not upstage trans-Hudson capacity work.

When Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his plan to fancy up Penn Station without a similar commitment to increasing trans-Hudson rail capacity, the idea seemed to land as if dropped there by a tornado. The newly-christened Empire Station Complex took the old idea for Moynihan Station and rebranded it to look like a cross between a supersized Apple Store and a modern European rail station. At the time, Cuomo vowed to construct the thing for a few billion dollars and promised to release an RFP for the project before the week was out.

Well, that week ended; another began and ended; and now another is two days away from ending. The RFP is no closer to seeing the light of day. Dana Rubinstein spotted the delay for a Politico New York story, but she couldn’t pinpoint the source. Neither Empire State Development nor Amtrak could offer an explanation, but I’ve heard it’s a simple answer. Despite promises to release an RFP in short order, Cuomo’s team simply didn’t have one ready, and it takes longer than three or four days to prepare an RFP of the scope and magnitude dictated by a $3 billion plan to overhaul Penn Station. His team is now working on putting together the joint solicitation RFP/RFEI, but that won’t appear overnight.

It’s fitting in a way that this delay has come about as it seems to indicate Cuomo’s lack of overarching policy leadership. He can criss-cross the state, promoting grand ideas, but if the grand ideas seemed to come out of nowhere, that’s because they did. The officials in charge of the nuts and bolts didn’t have an RFP ready on time because they likely didn’t know they were going to need to have an RFP ready. Press conferences are easy; governing is harder.

Luckily, some agencies that aren’t New York state are doing a better job of focusing on delivering the needed transportation improvements, and in today’s Times, Emma Fitzsimmons checks in on the progress on the Gateway Tunnel. He reporting offers up more detail on the initiative than we’ve had in some time. To whit:

In a presentation to [U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony] Foxx, Amtrak officials said the entire project could cost as much as $23.9 billion, with the largest share of about $7.7 billion going toward building the new Hudson tunnel and repairing the existing tunnel. The project includes a host of other elements, including expanding Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan at an estimated cost of $5.9 billion, and replacing rail bridges in New Jersey…

After Mr. Foxx toured the tunnel on Wednesday, he said he would continue to advance the plans during the final year of the Obama administration. “I’d like to have a financing package that is solid enough by the time we walk out of the door that everyone has the certainty that the project will happen, and the funding set aside to get it done,” he said…

Amtrak officials have been reluctant to provide specific figures for the cost of the project while they are still in the early stages of planning. On Wednesday, they cautioned that the numbers were preliminary estimates, and the real costs would be determined after conducting engineering work and an environmental plan and considering available financing. The expansion of Penn Station, by adding tracks to the south, could start in 2024 and be completed by 2030, according to the presentation. Work to replace the Portal Bridge in New Jersey, an old swing bridge that often causes delays, could start next year. There was no timeline provided for the Hudson tunnel project, but Amtrak officials have said that work could take about a decade.

As Fitzsimmons also noted, Amtrak officials have finally stated as well that the current tunnels are “structurally safe, but that service was becoming less reliable” due to the flooding during Superstorm Sandy. How much longer Amtrak can go before it absolutely must make repairs remains to be seen.

What we know is that New York, New Jersey and the feds have agreed to somehow split the costs for this massive project; we know it wasn’t included in Cuomo’s $100 billion State of the State infrastructure spending spree; we know Foxx is likely to be replaced in 12 months; and we know Gateway, with the expansion of Penn Station — a separate expansion from that proposed by Cuomo — will be expensive. This is the important work and not that fancy rendering I’ve slapped on top of this post. I hope Cuomo is paying attention, and I hope he’s more prepared for this heavy lifting than he was with the RFP for his pet project that’s still being drafted.

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Somewhat oddly, because why now and why not earlier, momentum on a new trans-Hudson tunnel continues to build. Construction may be a few years away (even though low interest rates would make lining up funding now a great idea), but the politics are falling into place. On Monday, we learned that the feds were considering a plan to create a new entity to oversee the project, and today, we find out that’s just exactly what’s going to happen, although the Port Authority will have more of a role in this than originally anticipated.

Additionally, following a September offer from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to have the two states pay 25 percent each and the feds pay 50, the funding scheme may be in place too, and it will look exactly as proposed. It’s not a bad deal for the states as they shift most of the funding to the feds, but it’s still not clear how much this project will cost or when it can begin.

The details of the partnership will be unveiled tomorrow, but Emma Fitzsimmons broke the news in The Times on Wednesday night. She writes:

Federal and state officials announced an agreement on Wednesday to create a corporation within the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to oversee long-awaited plans to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River.

The entity, called the Gateway Development Corporation, will coordinate the project and assemble the billions of dollars needed to pay for it. It will be controlled by a four-member board with representatives from New York, New Jersey, Amtrak and the federal Transportation Department.

As part of the agreement, the federal government and Amtrak said they would be responsible for financing half of the project, which could cost as much as $20 billion. Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican, and Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, had pushed for the cost-splitting and said the two states would line up the money for the other half.

The announcement, from the governors and Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Cory A. Booker of New Jersey, both Democrats, signaled the most significant progress yet on an effort federal officials have called one of the most important infrastructure proposals in the country. The century-old rail tunnel used by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit that runs under the river is deteriorating and needs repairs because of damage by Hurricane Sandy.

In comments to The Wall Street Journal, various stakeholders seemed optimistic Gateway would become a reality. “Our shovels are ready. Literally, if you don’t build this tunnel, you would greatly imperil train service,” Cuomo said, apparently channelling Chris Traeger. Amtrak Chair Anthony Coscia called the move “a real turning point.”

What the Gateway Development Corporation likely does not include is a cost-control mandate. Even if the new corporation can issue bonds, no one has mentioned spending reform or any effort to drive down the project costs. We may well get our tunnel yet, but at what cost?

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Amtrak wants a tunnel through Port Authority's jurisdiction. A third party may emerge to claim this turf battle.

As momentum grows to move forward on the Gateway Tunnel, an interesting and obvious turf battle is taking shape. According to a story published late on Friday, our region’s politician are working out a deal for a new trans-Hudson tunnel that may lead the much-maligned Port Authority to be a participant rather than a leader on this project. Considering how much of what the PA has touched lately has turned to lead, it’s a plus to keep their hands off this project as much as possible, and the move seems to indicate a certain lack of trust federal officials have in this bi-state entity right now.

Dana Rubinstein and David Giambusso broke the story on Politco New York. The two write:

Multiple sources have told POLITICO New York the two states, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and federal officials are now hammering out a framework for a new entity dedicated solely to building the project. Negotiations are continuing, but one source said the entity’s board would likely be populated by two Port Authority representatives, one representative from Amtrak and another from the federal transportation department. The structure of the board is still in flux, the source said…

According to several sources knowledgeable about the state of discussions, the various parties are now negotiating the terms of a compromise. A final proposed framework is expected to be agreed upon soon, according to one of those sources. Neither governor responded to a request for comment. [New York Senator Chuck] Schumer’s spokesman, Angelo Roefaro, would only say that since his speech in August, the senator has been meeting with stakeholders “to make the case for a separate authority.”

While the Port Authority’s reputation is a factor in this debate, another driving factor motivating Schumer involves political control. The New York Senator has long stated his preference for a new entity that better access federal funding sources while both New York and New Jersey governors have pushed the Port Authority as the entity responsible for building out the tunnel. As we’ve seen over the years, Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie have turned the Port Authority into fiefdoms of patronage, and Schumer knows maintaining federal control over this project involves removing decision-making capabilities from the states. As we learned during the ARC debacle, allowing one party to unilaterally cancel a project harms the entire region, and a new entity can dissipate power while ensuring equality in funding obligations.

What I hope a new agency can do as well is rein in costs. It’s not quite clear how much the bill will be for the Gateway Tunnel. Recent estimates have ranged as high as $20 billion, but that figure could include additional work prepping the area around New York City for a high-speed rail line. It’s also an exceedingly high figure and one that could derail the tunnel before work begins. As with the MTA’s projects, we need to find a way to control costs on a new Amtrak tunnel that enables us to build competitively. Planners should first identify how much this project should cost based on similar tunneling efforts throughout the world and then work backwards to understand why New York’s costs are so inflated. Then we can build.

So the discussions and the political negotiations are moving forward while money remains an unknown. For now, that’s OK, but if Schumer and the feds reach a deal with the Port Authority and its two bosses, the dollars will take centerstage. Perhaps we shouldn’t wait much longer to begin that planning effort. As we’ve seen with the Second Ave. Subway, waiting accomplishes nothing, and the region shouldn’t be waiting around much longer for more trans-Hudson rail capabilities. It can’t really afford to.

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As something of a follow-up to Monday’s post on the status of the trans-Hudson tunnels, take a gander at this video the Regional Plan Associate has produced. As part of its effort to drive the conversation regarding both rail capacity and a new Penn Station, the RPA has created an easy-to-understand video highlighting why they think we need to invest sooner rather than later in the infrastructure necessary to overcome capacity constraints and stability issues regarding Amtrak’s tunnel. We can debate what should happen to Penn Station (and how much it should cost) for hours, but the video helps put into image the countless words that have been written on the tunnels.

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It's not entirely clear what problem Amtrak is trying to solve with its Gateway Tunnel or how urgent the problem may be.

Amtrak was briefly in the news over the weekend when Chris Christie made a stir in the Quiet Car. Rushing for an Acela from D.C. to the Garden State, the New Jersey Governor either didn’t realize he was in the Quiet Car or didn’t care. One story has him huffing his way out of the Quiet Car after complaints of loud phone calls while another has him apologetically leaving once he realized his mistake. He’s no stranger to Amtrak, and I’m inclined to believe he simply didn’t notice at first that he was in the Quiet Car. The way the story went viral on Sunday though is indicative of the way the Quiet Car has been a success story. If only the rest of Amtrak were this successful.

Meanwhile, the long-range plans for Amtrak’s Hudson River tubes were in the news last week as Crain’s New York took a look at ways the region can increase trans-Hudson capacity before Gateway comes to fruition. Noting that the current condition of the North River Tunnels is “a daily threat to transport and commerce,” Veronica Vanterpool, head of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, argued that we could and should act now. Generally, she argued for ferries (…) and prioritizing buses through current crossings. I’ll come back to her ideas later this week as they’re worth revisiting on their own.

Let’s look though at the argument surrounding the condition of the North River Tunnels. As now, it’s not exactly clear what the risks are to Amtrak’s tunnels. Seemingly in order to spur political action, the company has warned of potential defects and urged timely action. They’ve been pursuing this line of argument since Hurricane Sandy swept through the 100-year-old North River Tunnels, and in doing so, they’ve obscured the debate to their benefit.

There are essentially three different but intertwined arguments. The first is that trans-Hudson capacity is a problem because it limits the number of people who can enter into and pass through Manhattan in a timely fashion. This is a hinderance to rail expansion and a high-speed rail network running along the Northeast Corridor. The second is that a lack of redundancy makes the Hudson River chokepoint particularly vulnerable to disruptions both now and in the future. The third is that the aging infrastructure needs to be updated but can’t if there isn’t enough redundancy to weather the traffic. By conflating the three, Amtrak can argue that it needs more tunnels because the old ones are in danger of damage, and the system doesn’t have the redundancy required to pick up the load.

That’s all well and good (and perhaps, in a sense, true), but if Amtrak is truly worried that its tunnel is going to collapse, why is it running trains through it on a daily basis? Is this some sort of Russian roulette with rail passengers or a ploy? If the tunnels are going to fail in the future, the argument for investment can focus on needs; if the tunnels are at risk of failing tomorrow, then the time to act was yesterday. One way or another, Amtrak should be clear on these risks. Support for a multi-billion-dollar tunnel hinges on it.

Categories : Gateway Tunnel
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A glimpse at the Gateway Project area. Click to enlarge. (Via Amtrak)

Some key questions surround the early plans to build a new trans-Hudson tunnel. (Map via Amtrak)

Momentum continues to build for some sort of action on a new trans-Hudson tunnel. It’s not yet clear what proposal will emerge from talks, how much this monstrosity will cost or who will pay for it (though Amtrak is considering a surcharge on their tickets to generate some revenue). Meanwhile, early planning is moving forward, and The Times checks in on the effort.

Emma Fitzsimmon’s article has a few key takeaways, some of which are discouraging and some of which lead to more questions that must be answered. First is the news that both New Jersey Transit and Amtrak will be involved in the development and engineering work for this project. With Port Authority on board as well, I worry that too many cooks are stirring the soup. As we’ve seen with East Side Access, lack of cross-agency cooperation has slowed the project down to a standstill, and we shouldn’t repeat the same mistakes on the other side of Manhattan.

Second, Fitzsimmons reports that, despite the fact that planning for ARC involved many similar studies, all involved expect the environmental review process to take 2-3 years. This is a major barrier to transit progress in the U.S. today. To build a new rail tunnel, the project’s supporters will have to study environmental impact, including air quality concerns. As a point of comparison, it took the MTA nearly five years to produce a final environmental impact statement for the current iteration of the Second Ave. Subway. Considering the need and similar scope of recent projects, this is just an inexcusably slow process badly in need of reform.

With this background on hand, Fitzsimmons raises a series of key questions:

How would the states pay for their share when leaders are already struggling to fund existing infrastructure plans? Could Congress, already wracked by leadership questions, be persuaded to provide significant federal funding? And would the Port Authority, shadowed by scandal and a continuing federal investigation, be the best agency to oversee one of the biggest construction projects in the country?

From where I sit, the Port Authority is never the best agency to oversee construction projects. Of late, their best and perhaps only successful projects have been massively overbuilt and insanely expensive buildings that have little transportation value. The Port Authority board recently admitted that it has no idea how to rebuild its Manhattan bus terminal, as one New Jersey-based commissioner said, “We are so out of our league, we don’t know what the hell we’re doing.” Their $4 billion mall/transportation hub at the World Trade Center shows no signs of wrapping construction even as the group promised a 2015 opening date, and that project is hardly a bellwether for future Port Authority transportation success. And the agency is essentially a pit of patronage, making the MTA look fully competent and efficient.

So that’s where things currently sit, and that seat is very tenuous. We need a trans-Hudson tunnel, but we need one that’s well-planned and efficiently built. The years will tick by, through new administrations in the White House and Trenton and Albany, and the money may or may not flow. Hopefully, forward progress continues, but these questions need answering now, not in three or five or ten years.

Categories : Gateway Tunnel
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A glimpse at the Gateway Project area. Click to enlarge. (Via Amtrak)

Will New Jersey and New York fund Amtrak’s Gateway Tunnel or something else similar but of its own creation? (Map via Amtrak)

While Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio are fighting over everything transit these days as part of their Albany-City Hall feud, Cuomo has found a transit ally across the river in an unlikely source. On Tuesday, he and Gov. Chris Christie told the feds they were willing to pay for part of a new trans-Hudson tunnel. They didn’t quite endorse Amtrak’s Gateway Tunnel project, and this may become a key point soon. But for two governors who haven’t show much willingness to support any transit project, this latest development is one we should welcome with open arms even if we need to maintain a healthy bit of skepticism about it.

In discussion his new-found support a few hours after sending a letter co-signed with Christie to the feds, Cuomo uttered one of the better quotes of this whole debate. “It is inarguable that the tunnel has to be built,” he said. “There’s only one tunnel now. It’s leaking. There have been significant delays because trains get stuck in the tunnel. It has to be done today. Everyone says that. Senators, congressmen, short people, tall people. Everyone says it has to be built.”

So as short people and tall people finally find a reason to come together, Christie and Cuomo have too. Their letter [pdf] is a thing of beauty. It’s the most conditional of condition support with so many conditions attached that their plan has essentially done away with Gateway without saying as much. As they say, “the obstacle to progress is funding,” and the two governors are finally ready to deal with what they peg is a $20 billion price tag. (Keep that number in mind and revisit Alon Levy’s August post on costs.)

The two wrote to President Barack Obama:

“We are writing jointly in an attempt to move the stalled project forward by putting a funding proposal on the table that we believe is realistic, appropriate and fair: split the responsibility for the cost. If the federal government will provide grants to pay for half of the cost of the project, the Port Authority, New York and New Jersey will take responsibility for developing a funding plan for the other half, convening all relevant agencies, and utilizing the proposed federal low-interest loan, local funding sources, and other funding strategies necessary to complement the federal grant commitment. This funding framework is comparable to previous structures proposed for a new tunnel.

Due to the nature of this project and to make it a reality on a timely basis, we would also need the federal government to expedite all environmental and planning approvals, as we will on our side. New Jersey will also make available all the planning work accomplished during discussion on the ARC tunnel.

At our direction, the Port Authority is prepared to take the lead in this effort, and is prepared to take Senator Schumer’s suggestion to create a dedicated staff and an entity within the Port Authority to develop such a plan and to get the right agencies and parties involved.”

Do you see this brilliance? Cuomo and Christie have completely twisted Schumer’s intentions to fit their Port Authority fiefdom. New York’s Senator had intentionally eschewed the Port Authority here and had called upon the states to create a new agency. Instead, Christie and Cuomo are willing to add a department to their favorite patronage body to funnel $10 billion in federal funds to their states. It’s the best sleight of hand since Keyser Soze surfaced only to disappear again.

Meanwhile, Cuomo and Christie — and then Cuomo later on in a press gaggle — pointed out numerous times that Amtrak’s ownership of the tunnels was a concern. If you read their entire letter, not once do they mention the Gateway Tunnel as the endpoint of this project. In fact, Amtrak is acknowledged only once, as the owner of the current tunnel, and as far as Cuomo and Christie are concerned, they can keep that tunnel. The northeast wants it tunnel and control of the project. “We assure you,” the two wrote to Obama, “that, if we have the funding, we will get it done. Our shovels are ready!”

Interestingly, as I noted, the word “Gateway” makes no appearances in this letter, but the two acknowledge the need to facilitate a northeast high speed rail corridor. The ARC tunnel, in the form of planning documents, makes an appearance, and I’ve heard some whispers that the New York and New Jersey delegations may wish to revisit ARC’s Alt G plan that saw through-running from Penn Station to Grand Central via dedicated tracks that could be used for high speed rail. It’s not a sure deal, but neither is Gateway as planned and conceived by Amtrak.

So today, short and tall people alike are cheering Christie and Cuomo for coming to the table. It’s barely an accomplishment, but it’s part of the way forward. Can the feds find $10 billion? Can New York and New Jersey find $5 billion each? The feds are ready to deal and say they will “engage with local officials immediately to initiate the work necessary to assign more reliable cost figures and eligibility for federal grants within existing programs.” Cuomo is no longer saying “it’s not my tunnel,” and that light at the end of the proverbial tunnel may be a watt or two stronger right now. There’s a long way, and at least $20 billion, to go, but this is a first step, albeit a very political one.

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As the efforts to bring plans for a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel to fruition take off, political infighting is going to be a significant challenge. Just a few days after Gov. Chris Christie met with the feds, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer engaged in some unprovoked sniping over Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC Tunnel and was appropriately dismissed by Christie’s team. While I’ve been long critical of the ARC move, at this point, Christie is willing to talk, and moving forward on a new tunnel is more important than rehashing the past over the old.

Stringer’s words and Christie’s response are both indicative of the petty bickering that could hamper this project. New York and New Jersey are going to have to present a unified front, and they’re off to a rocky start. But the Stringer incident is small beans compared with the in-fighting that could threaten New York’s side of this project. We’ve also seen Gov. Andrew Cuomo dig in on the funding issues, and now other New York City representatives are chiming in. The latest comes from — where else? — Staten Island. As first reported by Politco New York’s Dana Rubinstein, newly elected Congressman Dan Donovan is skeptical of the tunnel for all the wrong reasons.

In a press release, Donovan “voiced reservations” over the tunnel plans because he feels Staten Island’s priorities should come first:

“Modern, efficient public transportation is obviously critical to our region, and we need to do what we can to relieve congestion.” Congressman Donovan said. “But for decades Staten Island has been ignored and forgotten, and the results are clear: no community in the entire country faces a longer commute than us. It’s disheartening to sit in traffic while listening to news updates about multibillion dollar investments for another underwater rail tunnel from New Jersey to Manhattan. It’s time to get serious about viable transportation alternatives here at home.”

Through the gas tax, Staten Islanders likely pay more per capita into the Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund than the residents of any other borough. The federal government distributes those transportation dollars to state and local governments, which then prioritize projects for funding. New York City’s OneNYC plan did not identify any near-term transit expansion projects for Staten Island.

Options exist for the borough, such as a light rail on the West Shore and Bus Rapid Transit along the North Shore. Both would bring relief and opportunity by providing what the rest of New York City takes for granted – meaningful access to public transportation. The West Shore light rail alone, which would connect the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system in New Jersey and stretch 13 miles to Richmond Valley Station, could see 13,000 riders per day. Congressman Donovan concluded, “I understand the importance of maintaining the regional infrastructure on which millions of people rely, and I will work toward a long-term transportation bill to provide funding certainty to regional planners. Still, it’s about time Staten Island got the attention it deserves. State and local planners have to prioritize this borough’s spiraling transportation challenges.”

On the one hand I understand Donovan’s call. He’s one of the few Staten Island voices actually arguing for transit for the borough, and his references to an expansion of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail or the West Shore line are the right ones. On the other hand, he shouldn’t be couching this pro-transit argument in an anti-Hudson tunnel press release. First, there’s no reason we can’t have both, and second, the scale just isn’t the same. The trans-Hudson tunnel is a vital connection for the region that serves nearly 20 times as many people as an HBLR expansion might.

Now, I can forgive Donovan here; he’s a bit new to this game. But in the back of my mind, I keep thinking about how hard it is to take calls from Staten Island for better transit seriously. To rehash the near past, certain S.I. politicians have complained about nearly every transit improvements. State Senator Andrew Lanza railed against bus lanes and then had the audacity to call for more Staten Island transit. He’s also spearheaded a lengthy opposition to flashing lights on SBS vehicles, and he’s not the only State Islander similarly complaining. The borough wants more transit but doesn’t seem to want the density that comes with it.

Still, as the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation fights for light rail, Donovan should push the MTA to include funding for a study in its capital program proposals. But it doesn’t have to compete against trans-Hudson tunnels. That’s just counterproductive for all of New York.

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New Jersey officials discuss the future of a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel. (Via Sen. Cory Booker)

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.

Categories : Gateway Tunnel
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