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.