Gateway 2020: A tunnel in peril, and an oblivious president. This is a recording. | Editorial

Posted Feb 10, 2020

The president mentioned infrastructure exactly once in his State of the Union Address Tuesday, as a yawning prelude to how Congress should pass a highway authorization bill, but he never said one word about all the things that needed fixing decades ago.

All together, Donald Trump read 6,200 of his best words, and not one was “rail” or “transit” or “bus.” He never mentioned “airports” or “bridges” or “water systems.” America First? Not in ways that actually help Americans.

This was predictable but still infuriating, especially if you were among the thousands stranded for three hours the night before by a power failure on a New Jersey Transit train, parked inside a Hudson River tunnel that is still — broken record alert — in danger of failing.

So Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11th Dist.) used this opportunity to run off yet another exasperated statement aimed at Elaine Chao, suggesting, flatly, that the Transportation Secretary get the lead out.

The statement also reminded Trump’s transit lackey that the longer the administration withholds the funding of a new Gateway Tunnel, the more it will jeopardize the safety of commuters throughout the Northeast Corridor, as we move closer to a transit network catastrophe that would kneecap the national economy.

Funding for Gateway is more than just a regional concern — it is a national priority, and our economy depends on getting shovels in the ground,” Sherrill wrote. “The stonewalling should be unacceptable not only to New Jerseyans, but to all Americans.”

Every day the feds delay is another day that salt water left behind by Hurricane Sandy does its corrosive razor dance to 12,000-volt cables, to crumbling benchwalls, and to tracks, bringing a tunnel catastrophe closer to reality for 200,000 riders a day.

This is also personal, Sherrill admits: Among the enraged constituents who regularly carpet bomb her voicemail about their commute to New York is her husband, who was among those stuck on Monday. That meant their kids — like thousands of others throughout the region — had to find another way home from swim practice.

Maybe she’s just shouting into the void. Clearly, Trump has shown no interest in funding Gateway, either because he thinks good governance is all about tormenting the libs, or because he would rather save the money for a weapons system we cannot afford to use.

So he moves the goalposts. In July 2017, an environmental impact statement for a new tunnel was submitted. This must be reviewed before they move on to the engineering phase, and the Federal Railroad Administration, under Chao’s direction, said it would finish the review by March 30, 2018.

Since then: crickets. So Sens. Bob Menendez, Cory Booker and 13 others joined Sherrill’s chorus Thursday and ripped off an angry letter to the FRA, reminding the agency that its deadline passed two years ago, and that this federal fiddling is an invitation to disaster.

To wit: A study from the Regional Plan Association showed that just a partial tunnel shutdown — to repair one of the two existing tubes — would cost the US $16 billion in economic activity. In New Jersey, 38,000 NJ Transit riders would have to find alternate ways to get to work, and property values would fall by $22 billion.

So Sherrill goes back to work. Later this month she’ll testify for a House infrastructure package that prioritizes Gateway. She will remind her colleagues of the imminent failure that will send the nation “into an immediate recession.” She will remind them that the need for a new tunnel is a quality of life issue. And she will warn that inaction “will damage our national prestige.”

If only we had a president and transportation secretary who didn’t treat such a thing as a worthless abstraction.

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