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.