New Hudson River rail tunnels suddenly face uncertain future under Trump

By Larry Higgs | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on November 12, 2016

The Gateway Project that would build new rail tunnels under the Hudson River suddenly faces a murky future in the wake of President-elect Donald J. Trump's unexpected victory.

From experts to commuter advocates, opinions vary about the fortunes of the project under a Trump administration, after funding was thought to be almost guaranteed under Democratic rule.

"I think the Hudson River Tunnel project, if not un-killable, would be difficult to stop, because the need is so obvious," said Donald Winship, Lackawanna Commuter Coalition communications director. "The larger Gateway Project will be a heavier lift, because the cost is so significant."

The project would build two new tunnels, replace the aging Portal Bridge across the Hackensack River in Kearny, and build two new tracks between Secaucus Junction and the new tunnels. The existing, storm-damaged, 106-year-old tunnels would be repaired after the new ones were built.

The Gateway Project would also build an annex to Penn Station, a loop in Secaucus to connect Bergen County rail lines with the Northeast Corridor and a second Portal bridge.

Gateway's cost has been informally estimated in the $23 billion range, although work that would pinpoint a price tag is ongoing. Half of that funding would come from New Jersey and New York.

While there's no official position on Trump transition website about Gateway, it generally talks about a $550 billion infrastructure program, including "tunnels and transit systems." Having Port Authority Commissioner Richard Bagger on Trump's transition team could help Gateway, several experts said.

"(Bagger) is very knowledgeable on Gateway," said Martin Robins, director emeritus of the Voorhees Transportation Institute at Rutgers University. "I wouldn't speculate on what (Trump) favors. What is on his transportation page is vague, but positive. If he means what he says, it could be a policy orientation that helps."

Last November, Bagger was one of two Port Authority commissioners named to oversee the Gateway Development Corporation, created to oversee the bi-state project.

"I don't think it's in danger. I spent three spent three years moving it and Gov. Christie was there every part of the way to get it going," said U.S. Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J. "We are fortunate he is in the inner circle and I'm confident it will move forward."

However, Christie and Bagger's roles were diminished after Trump put running mate and Vice President-elect Mike Pence in charge of the transition team and made them advisors.

Booker cited legislation written "in a bipartisan way" to allow Amtrak and the two states to apply for low interest federal railroad infrastructure loans as helping the project. Gateway is the first project to apply for that $35 billion railroad loan program.

Other steps included putting Gateway on the presidential dashboard to fast track permits, as was done for the Bayonne Bridge deck raising, and getting it on the USDOT's New Starts funding track, said U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, D-N.J.

"While we successfully fought to get the project into the New Starts pipeline, it will be up to the new administration and Republican-led Congress whether it gets full funding," Menendez said. "I hope President-elect Trump is sincere when he talks about investing in our nation's crumbling infrastructure."

The first test could be whether Trump includes the $940 million replacement of the aging Portal Bridge in his budget. That first part of Gateway has been designed and is ready for construction.

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Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Portal Bridge funding would be in the fiscal year 2018 federal budget, which assumed a Hillary Clinton victory.

"What is on the brink now is the Portal Bridge," Robins said. "That will be left to Trump whether to put it in (the budget) or not."

Others see Trump's New York roots as a sign that he understands the potential economic devastation if one of the existing tunnels has to be closed before Gateway is built.

"It certainly can help with one aspect, the 200,000 commuters-a-day using the existing tunnels. The entire economy of the New York and New Jersey and the region depends on that, and health of real estate market depends on that," said John Porcari, Gateway Development Corporation interim director. "I expect (Gateway) will continue to be on track and accelerated."

Twenty percent of the nation's gross domestic product is generated here, said   Porcari said.

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