NJ, NY TRY TO GET HUDSON RAIL TUNNEL GOING BY BOOSTING KEY AGENCY’S ROLE

JOHN REITMEYER | JUNE 10, 2019

NJ Spotlight

A primary goal of the Gateway project is to replace the existing North River Tunnel, which is more than 100 years old.

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A new push is underway in both the New Jersey and New York legislatures to expand the role of a key agency that is helping coordinate efforts to build the proposed Gateway rail tunnel under the Hudson River.

A measure that lawmakers in both states are hoping to pass before the end of the month calls for a major revamping of the Gateway Development Corporation, which right now is a small agency staffed with representatives from New Jersey, New York and the federal government.

Perhaps most importantly, the legislation would give the GDC the official authority to receive government grants and loan proceeds that are critical to the broader financing for the tunnel and other planned regional infrastructure improvements. The latest version of the GDC bill would also expand the agency’s governing board and codify the terms of a financing agreement between the two states. New transparency and oversight rules would also be established as the agency carries out the multibillion-dollar infrastructure work.

The measure is already advancing in New York, and New Jersey just introduced an identical version with a goal of getting it through both houses of the Legislature by the end of June. And while getting the billions of dollars in necessary federal funding for Gateway is anything but certain with President Donald Trump in office, transportation advocates say the revamping of the GDC is important to ensure the two states will be ready to move forward as soon as the federal gridlock is resolved.

“Our congressional delegation is anxious to see this passed because we have to designate an agency to receive the funds,” said New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) in an interview Friday.

A primary goal of the Gateway project is to replace the existing North River Tunnel, which is more than 100 years old and was heavily damaged during superstorm Sandy in 2012. Owned by the federal government, the tunnel is used by both Amtrak and New Jersey Transit to move an estimated 200,000 riders in and out of New York City each day.

Feds say existing tunnel is safe to use

Federal officials have repeatedly said the tunnel is still safe to use even as its condition is deteriorating but they’ve also warned that closing just one of its two tubes for emergency repairs would reduce the number of hourly trips allowed during peak times from 24 to six. While the new tunnel will cost more than $10 billion to build, a closure would deal a $16 billion blow to the national economy, according to a recent study from the Regional Plan Association.

Amtrak spearheaded the Gateway project after former Gov. Chris Christie canceled a prior tunnel project known as ARC in 2010. Former President Barack Obama’s administration named Gateway the nation’s top-priority infrastructure project, and the federal government pledged to provide 50 percent of the funding. But Trump has taken a different approach to the project, with federal transportation officials raising questions about the proposed federal funding at numerous turns since he took office in 2017.

However, Trump, a Republican, is facing new pressure to advance the project after the House of Representatives flipped into the hands of Democrats earlier this year. More recently, several members of Congress have been pressing to insert full funding for Gateway — which also involves other major infrastructure projects along with the tunnel, including a replacement of the Portal Bridge near Secaucus Junction — into the latest federal appropriations bills.

If the project is eventually funded, local officials want to be sure they will be ready to move Gateway forward immediately. But right now, the GDC’s three-member board does not have the legal authority to accept the federal grants or loans that are a key element of the current finance plan.

The bill now under consideration in both New Jersey and New York would address that problem by giving the agency the legal power to “apply for and accept financial assistance, loans, grants or any other funding for such purposes under federal, state or local laws.” The size of the board itself would also be expanded, from three members to nine.

Equal representation among New Jersey, New York and the federal government would be maintained in the new organization, as each entity would be able to appoint three members instead of the current format of a single representative. Weinberg said this was an important change made from an earlier version of the bill, as it will ensure more voices are included in the decision-making progress.

States agree to split costs

The legislation would also codify an important financing agreement between the two states that calls for the equal sharing of project costs that aren’t funded by the federal government. It also spells out the specific projects that are to be administered by the agency, which include replacing the Portal Bridge in New Jersey and the Sawtooth Bridge in New York.

Also added to the legislation was language granting the governors in each state the authority to veto the GDC’s actions. The agency would also have to abide by the open public records laws in the respective states, and its members would have to appear before lawmakers when called upon.

The agency would be renamed the Gateway Development Commission. And it would disband within three years of the completion of the infrastructure work, according to the bill.

Weinberg said lawmakers in both states have been in talks with each other and with their respective governor’s offices to ensure the New Jersey and New York bills are essentially identical. Like issues related to the bi-state Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, that’s a key requirement if the proposed changes are to take effect.

New amendments could still be made if ongoing negotiations require changes to be made to the bill, but Weinberg was adamant that the transparency and oversight requirements remain part of the effort given the importance of the infrastructure work to the broader Northeast region.

“I’m glad responsible people were looking at this before it slipped through,” she said.

The measure has the support of leading transportation advocates, including the influential Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

“We’re glad to see a strong two-state partnership, which shows Congress that New Jersey and New York have stepped up — and now it’s time for the federal government to do the same,” said Nick Sifuentes, the group’s executive director.

A spokesman for the GDC declined comment when reached Friday.

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