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.