Archive for Gateway Tunnel
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday, for the third day out of four, stressed his view that a trans-Hudson tunnel will not happen without significant federal support and again stated his opposition to even a meeting on the issue. Speaking to reporters after a day of Amtrak testimony in front of the New Jersey Senate, Cuomo continued his game of high-stakes chicken.
“It’s not my tunnel,” he said, showing more of his cards than he probably intended. “Why don’t you pay for it? It’s not my tunnel. It is an Amtrak tunnel that is used by Amtrak and by New Jersey Transit.”
The New New York Bridge, on the other hand, is his bridge, and Cuomo grew defensive when challenged on this project — one inarguably far less important to New York City than trans-Hudson rail capacity. Here’s how Dana Rubinstein of the newly-rebranded Politico New York reported on the exchange:
“There’s no moral, legal or ethical reason why the state should be looked at to fund it, or the states plural, New Jersey and New York,” said Cuomo on Monday. “The federal government said they would provide funding and it turns out they would provide a loan and no more than a loan. My problem is not the loan. My problem is repaying the loan.”
A reporter asked him why he was willing to take on debt for a new Tappan Zee Bridge. “Because the Tappan Zee Bridge is a state bridge,” he said.
I said my piece on Cuomo’s misguided opposition to supporting a trans-Hudson rail tunnel in yesterday’s post, and he’s just making it worse. On the need to draw out federal dollars, Cuomo has a very valid point, but his rhetoric is parochial nonsense that hurts New York far more than it helps. Meanwhile, Gov. Chris Christie, he of the canceled ARC Tunnel, at least committed to meet with the feds later this month because Senator Cory Booker requested it. Cuomo can’t even seem to bridge that divide, and I don’t see how this is helping us — the New Yorkers who are his constituents.
Meanwhile, Amtrak has suggested a way forward. In a Senate hearing during which the rail agency presented a rather dire picture of future operations without substantial capital support and a new tunnel, agency officials proposed a funding solution involving the feds. It may be enough to silence Cuomo and get him to the table, but it would also require Capitol Hill to pick up over $11 billion of what is today expected to be a $14 billion project. Larry Higgs had more:
Amtrak officials told a state Senate panel that it needs at least $1 billion a year to bring its system into a state of good repair and that the canceled ARC tunnel would have provided some help if a Hudson River tunnel were forced out of service for repair.
Stephen Gardner, Amtrak Executive Vice President and Chief of NEC Business Development, said it would take a recurring investment of at least $4 billion a year to replace aging infrastructure, including the 105-year-old Hudson River tunnels and the century old Portal Bridge…
Senator Robert Gordon, D-Bergen, who called the hearing said he’s hoping it will convince Christie and federal lawmakers of the seriousness of the problem. Gordon said he was heartened by Gardner’s testimony that the federal government could put up 80 percent of the estimated $14 billion funding for Gateway through a federal railroad reconstruction program that has $35 billion in uncommitted funds and a loan program that could help states fund their share over 35 years.
As The Times noted in its coverage of the hearing, Gardner noted that the proposed funding split was “common for aviation projects…and Amtrak carries three times as many passengers between New York and Washington as all the airlines put together.”
So we have an idea without a sponsor in D.C., a New Jersey governor who is a skeptic but will listen, and a New York governor who will show up only if the feds are, in his words, “serious” about contributing money rather than loans. Meanwhile, one line of argument from Amtrak is guiding this stand-off. As Gardner said yesterday, “The tunnel is under stress. To maintain the current level of service is a challenge.” It’s all a challenge.
It was the perfect Friday afternoon news dump for Andrew Cuomo, but it’s a story that didn’t disappear into the ether of a summer weekend. The New York Governor effectively told the feds to pony up or take a hike when it comes to funding a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel, and after proclaiming the odds “not particularly bright” for action on new tubes any time soon, Cuomo has been forced to defend his words all weekend.
A little less than two weeks after Anthony Foxx, President Obama’s current Secretary of Transportation, sent Governors Cuomo and Chris Christie a letter asking for a meeting on strategizing for a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel, Cuomo effectively said, “Thanks, but no, thanks.” And then he said it over and over again. His first denial came in the form of a letter [pdf] he Tweeted out to the public shortly before 2:30 p.m. on Friday.
His decision to spurn the offer to meet boiled down to dollars. As with anything in politics, the future of a trans-Hudson rail tunnel is going to be a contest over money. Estimating that the project will cost $14 billion, Cuomo wrote:
After many discussions by all parties, it appears that, by the end of the day, your Department to date is only offering a loan to build the tunnel and the loan calls for debt service payments due in year six of an estimated twelve-year construction schedule with literally no grant or other funding support from Amtrak or the federal government. This is not viable. The Port [Authority and New York and New Jersey] cannot shoulder this massive financial burden. It is simply not appropriate for Amtrak and the federal government to look to the States and to the Port Authority to bear the large financial burden of an Amtrak asset that has fallen into disrepair through lack of Amtrak investment over the decades.
As your letter to me recognized, this tunnel is a vital rail link for the entire Northeast corridor. The federal interest and Amtrak’s responsibility dwarf the NY-NJ connection. I urge you to obtain actual funding from the administration or from Congress. The federal need is evidenced by your interest and involvement. But we need to know what federal resources are available to repair these vital Amtrak facilities.
Now, in a certain sense, Cuomo isn’t wrong. The federal government can’t simply be a loan facilitator for the Gateway project or any other trans-Hudson rail tunnel. They too need to contribute actual dollars to the project. But Cuomo didn’t stop with this letter, and his subsequent comments nearly parallel Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC Tunnel without seeking a better funding solution.
In comments on New York 1 on Friday and again to reporters during the Dominican Day parade on Sunday, Cuomo talked money. On Friday, he somehow claimed that the funding would “make the price of the ticket explode.” This, of course, hasn’t been a concern of his while building a new transit-less Tappan Zee Bridge without a firm way to pay for the multi-billion-dollar effect. The likely outcome is that the price of the New New York Bridge tolls will explode, but Cuomo isn’t wringing his hands over it.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, he again told reporters that “there’s no reason to meet now, because it’s very simple…I don’t need your advice; I know we need the tunnel. We’ll build the tunnel — I’ll go out there with a shovel myself — but we need the money.”
The feds had a different take. In response on Friday, they reiterated the need to meet to ensure all three partners — the feds, New York and New Jersey — are aligned on the best way forward. Lack of equity and alignment ultimately doomed ARC as Christie had the unilateral power to cancel the tunnel, an outcome the feds hope to deter this time around. Still, Cuomo isn’t interested in meeting, and in eschewing this meeting, he is coming across as derelict in his duties.
To me, this reeks of Cuomo’s recent moves regarding new ideas. If they aren’t his, they aren’t worth following through. The feds aren’t asking for action; they’re asking for a meeting. And if a new tunnel is going to take twelve (!) years to build, posturing over the funding split today isn’t going to resolve tomorrow’s problems. Cuomo and Christie should sit down for a meeting with the feds to plot out what the parties feel is an equitable split of the costs and responsibilities, and afterwards, they can begin to plan out who should fund what and how.
Overall, this project suffers from something of a credibility gap. Amtrak hasn’t presented a sufficiently detailed explanation of the costs, benefits and needs, but the perception exists that, without a new tunnel before the mid-2030s, regional travel could be severely compromised. Meanwhile, the competing narrative suggests that Northeast Corridor high-speed rail isn’t possible without a new tunnel for a variety of reasons. These storylines are seemingly at odds with each other, and this conflict has led many who would otherwise be on board with a new rail tunnel keeping these projects at arms’ length. But Cuomo’s willingness to dismiss Foxx’s letter off the bat won’t help us now or in the future, and if he’s going to dig in for the long haul, we’re all in trouble.
It has been particularly difficult of late to ignore the mounting problems with the Northeast’s vital rail system. After a week of extensive delays plaguing trains attempting to cross the Hudson River and a weekend of political grandstanding from Gov. Chris Christie, The Times ran a big front-page article on the aging rail infrastructure. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, to prove the point, a brief power outage in Amtrak’s Manhattan-bound tube led to delays as trains had to be single-tracked into and out of Penn Station for a brief period of time. In other words, the need for some sort of action on a trans-Hudson tunnel has never been more obvious.
Enter Anthony Foxx, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. In the long wake of Christie’s decision to cancel ARC and as New York and New Jersey have played a game of political chicken over formulating and funding plans for a new trans-Hudson Tunnel, Foxx has emerged as more critical voice on the process. At a conference last week, he called a new tunnel “the most important project in the country right now that’s not happening” and called further inaction “almost criminal.” Now he wants the region’s leaders to find a way forward, but it will all boil down to one key concern: money.
Earlier this week, Foxx formally requested a meeting amongst the feds, Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to plan a new tunnel. The Times has a copy of the letter request, and in it, Foxx noted that the current administration “remain[s] committed to advancing needed repairs and replacements” for a new rail tunnel. Discussing the fed’s support for Amtrak’s Gateway tunnel and calling “the condition of the trans-Hudson tunnels…a major threat to the region,” Foxx wrote:
We are willing once again to explore Federal financial assistance. The Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak have been in discussions about possible federal financing tools that could get the project started, but the project will not become a reality without your active participation and willingness to prioritize it. Neither Amtrak nor your individual States, acting alone, can replace these tunnels. It will take all of us working together.
Foxx’s letter comes on the heels of a similar missive directed toward the Secretary’s office concerning state inaction from New York and New Jersey, and the request from the feds has so far received a response from the region that straddles the border between a lukewarm embrace and outright hostility. Christie stated that he and Cuomo would discuss with Foxx “if we can have a real conversation about how this is going to be funded and the equity for both states and the people of the region.” But separately, the Port Authority, which wasn’t an addressee of Foxx’s letter, responded harshly to the overtures: WNYC reported:
On Tuesday it was the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which the governors control in a shaky power-sharing arrangement, wrote back, even though he was not addressed in the original letter…The letter by Port Authority Chairman John Degnan letter was testy, at one point noting that the U.S. transportation secretary had failed to accept the Port Authority’s invitation to speak at a special transportation summit in May that it co-hosted. (Foxx sent his undersecretary, Peter Rogoff, instead.)
At another point, Degnan wrote, “If discussions aimed at furthering this project are to be fruitful, we need to better understand whether adequate funding can now be made available to move this project forward.” Degnan also said the Port Authority “would obviously” need the federal government to expedite the environmental review process to get the project done quickly.
The PA, an important stakeholder in this process, seems to want a guarantee from the feds that they’ll chip in more than $3 billion — the supposed cap on their ARC Tunnel contributions — for Gateway or any replacement trans-Hudson Tunnels. It seems evident then that while Christie himself accepted Foxx’s overtures, the Port Authority letter at the least carries with it his imprimatur and Christie’s constant complains, accurate or not, that grew out of his decision to cancel the ARC Tunnel. The politics of the Port Authority certainly allow a governor to send one message while his underlings send another, and that’s what’s happening here.
So where does this go from here? As always, it’s about the money. In an extensive piece of news analysis, Herb Jackson of The Record delves into the key financial questions involving the two northeast states and the federal government. New Jersey’s move to shift ARC dollar and nearly empty its state transportation fund following the tunnel is under investigation by both the SEC and Manhattan DA, and it’s not clear, short of raising the gas tax, where Garden State money would come from. Amtrak is hoping Congress will reform its economics to allow it to invest Northeast Corridor profits in its own capital plan, and New York State is coming to grips with the MTA’s own spending request at the same time the tunnel plan is percolating.
It’s a game of political intrigue and one without an obvious end. Yet, as Foxx has said, the region can’t wait much longer. It’s going to take true leadership and some economic sacrifices to see this project through. Can Cuomo and Christie meet the feds on this one? The region’s future and their legacies may depend on it.
There is a question hovering around Amtrak’s Hudson River tunnels that no one really wants to ask. Faced with the wake-up call that was Superstorm Sandy and the lingering fallout from Gov. Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC Tunnel, will we act on additional trans-Hudson capacity before it’s too late? Will we even know when it’s almost too late to act? A rational society would have started work on Gateway or a similar project three years ago, but welcome to America in 2015, where only Amtrak seems to be driving forward with eye on a potentially calamitous future.
The backstory is simple: Even before Sandy, Amtrak’s tunnels were nearing the end of their life. The North River Tunnels opened for passenger service in 1910, and the need to supplement them so top-to-bottom overhaul doesn’t severely disrupt Northeast Corridor travel has been a pressing concern for a while. The ARC Tunnel plan was supposed to lighten the load so that most New Jersey Transit traffic would shift out of Amtrak’s tunnels. A few years after Christie’s move, Sandy dumped a load of corrosive saltwater into the tunnels, thus pushing them ever closer to A Problem.
What that Problem — with a capital P — may be is still open for debate. Barring a total catastrophe, the solution will likely require shutting down one of the two tubes for some period of time, thus reducing trans-Hudson capacity from 24 trains per hour to around six. That’s a Problem, and even the threat of such a future — which isn’t exactly too hard to imagine — should spur action.
Lately, it has in fact spurred some action but from an unlikely source. Amtrak is taking the charge, and the national rail agency is using every ounce of political support it can muster to push through Gateway. As a recent piece in Crain’s New York detailed, the agency’s leaders think they just might be able to succeed. Andy Hawkins had more on Amtrak’s Chair Anthony Coscia’s attempts to drag this project from an idea to reality. The story begins with Coscia stating, “We’re doing it” and goes from there:
Mr. Coscia said Amtrak could begin the environmental review process this fall, and has already spent about $300 million on preparatory work and land acquisition, even though the estimated $15 billion needed for the larger Gateway project, which includes the tunnel, has not been lined up.
“We’re taking precious resources and spending it on a project we don’t have all the money to build,” he said. “It’s either a very silly decision or a very critical one.”
He’s betting on the latter. By his reckoning, a tunnel has to be built sooner or later, and sooner is better. The two heavy-rail tunnels connecting New Jersey and New York are more than 100 years old. and are showing their age. Twenty-four trains pass through the tunnels each hour—20 from New Jersey Transit, four from Amtrak—and officials predict that within 20 years, one or both tunnels will need to be closed for repairs. That would reduce capacity to six trains per hour, because trains traveling in opposite directions would need to wait for the lone remaining tunnel to clear…
Mr. Coscia said Amtrak has sketched out a potential financing package that includes federal funds, infrastructure bonds and Amtrak’s own cash. He said it would premature to discuss who might contribute what. However, the project’s numerous stakeholders can be expected to chip in. They include the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New Jersey Transit, New York City, the states of New York and New Jersey, the federal government and of course Amtrak.
As Hawkins notes in his article, Gateway is both incredibly necessary and incredibly daunting. It would increase capacity across the Hudson River at a time when transit absolutely must expand to support growing the East Coast, and without Gateway, the worst-case scenario is pretty bad. Meanwhile, Amtrak has to scope the project and assess the costs of land acquisition on both sides of the river as well as a new or expanded terminal in Manhattan and plan for potential connections eastward and northward.
As we’ve seen, massive transit projects in the East Coast happen in half-decades (or longer) rather than in any sane timeline, and Gateway will be no exception. At a time of major political divides in Congress, Amtrak needs all the support it can get. It’s promising that the agency is going out on a limb to spend money today for something it may not be able to build tomorrow. At least they’re thinking about the future when few other agencies, both local and national, are. Can they deliver? It, of course, remains to be seen, but it’s not particularly hyperbolic to state that New York’s economic future may depend on it.
For the past few years, I’ve argued that big-ticket transportation items in New York City see the light of day only when they have a political champion lined up to fight for dollars. Senator Schumer delivered money for the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway; Mayor Bloomberg ushered in the 7 line extension; for better or worse, Al D’Amato shoulders the thanks (and blame) for East Side Access; and Gov. Andrew Cuomo is responsible for the mysteriously funded New New York Bridge. Without these politicians fighting for their projects, construction wouldn’t have begun, and money wouldn’t have flowed.
A few years ago, a trans-Hudson rail tunnel — with its flaws and all — had a champion in then-New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, but as we know, his successor has been no friend to transit. Now, with the Hudson River Tunnels suffering from damage inflicted by Sandy’s floodwaters and the general limitations of a century’s-old piece of infrastructure, the need for a replacement or a additional tunnels has never been greater and the silence from various leaders has never been so deafening.
As the Hudson Yards development kicks into gear, provisioning is in place for a future trans-Hudson tunnel, and Amtrak has amorphous and unfunded plans to build the Gateway Tunnel as part of a Northeast Corridor high-speed rail plan that you could be forgiven for thinking is a pie-in-the-sky idea. But the trans-Hudson tunnel is just crying out for someone to take the lead. In fact, from recent reports, it sounds as though the feds want to give money to this project, but no one is asking with enough specificity to satisfy grant requirements.
Andrew Tangel of The Wall Street Journal has the story:
A top federal transportation official on Thursday expressed support for digging new passenger rail tunnels under the Hudson River, as the current aging ones irk commuters with delays between New York and New Jersey. But Peter Rogoff, the U.S. undersecretary of transportation for policy, cited two major hurdles in jump-starting a tunnel project: money and coordination among various government agencies. “We would like to get on with it, but we are going to need funding growth to be able to address those kinds of projects,” Mr. Rogoff said.
Mr. Rogoff, who was in New York City for a meeting Thursday of the region’s top transportation officials, touted the Obama administration’s fiscal year 2016 proposed budget that calls for billions of dollars of additional funding for transportation projects across the country. Amtrak’s proposed “Gateway” project, which includes the tunnels and other major upgrades, is estimated to cost $15 billion to $20 billion, a steep price tag in an era of tight budgets. “For a project of this size and scope, you need a game-changing pot of funding specifically for construction,” Mr. Rogoff said.
Mr. Rogoff pointed to the president’s proposed budget, which includes about $50 billion in funding over six years that could potentially fund a tunnel project. Top transportation officials in New York and New Jersey have been holding informal meetings about the Amtrak project in recent months. The talks have included Amtrak officials, and Mr. Rogoff has said federal transportation officials have also taken part…“This project is not currently funded because we only get to the point of requesting those construction dollars when we have a fully baked project and the funding partners have all of their contributions nailed down,” Mr. Rogoff said following his speech at a meeting of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. “Well, we don’t have nailed-down contributions from either New York or New Jersey on funding their portion of the construction, so we wouldn’t put it in our budget it until we did.”
I’m guilty here of excerpting the key parts of the whole story, and I don’t have too much more to add. So I’ll wrap quickly: The trans-Hudson tunnel badly needs and should have a champion today, tomorrow, yesterday. It’s need is so blindingly obvious, and the region will practically collapse if anything even more serious happens to Amtrak’s current tunnels. That this hasn’t happened when the feds are basically throwing New York and New Jersey in the form of billions of dollars is dismaying. The short-term and long-term futures depend on it; who will step up and take on the challenge?