Northeast transit leaders look to Biden presidency for much needed relief

11/09/2020 

Politico

In this Tuesday, July 25, 2017 file photo, a New Jersey Transit train traverses the tracks in New York's Penn Station. 

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Facing an unprecedented fiscal and health crisis, Northeast transit leaders have been among those hoping for a Joe Biden victory after years of short shrift at the hands of the Trump administration and months of uncertainty about the future of mass transit.

Biden, whose victory over Trump was called Saturday, is widely seen as a boon for mass transit in the Northeast. Nicknamed “Amtrak Joe” for his frequent trips on the Northeast corridor, the president-elect is an avid supporter of expanding rail and made it a focal point of his presidential platform.

But how much relief transit leaders should expect and how fast it will come is still anyone’s guess.

“There’s definitely reason for more of an optimistic feeling about what can start moving,” said Renae Reynolds, transportation planner for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. “The more sobering component is what happens in Congress and [if] that body becomes an ally and overcomes the barriers of partisanship.”

While Trump made infrastructure a rhetorical focal point of his 2016 platform, the needs of mass transit systems in the region have largely been left by the wayside.

The Gateway Program — a massive effort to repair the Northeast Corridor’s dilapidated tunnels — has been long stalled due to a lack of federal funding. A congestion pricing scheme that would generate much-needed revenue for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has also been delayed by inaction from the Trump administration. And key upgrades to Port Authority facilities remain in the limbo of fiscal malaise caused by the pandemic.

Transit experts interviewed by POLITICO widely agreed these and other major infrastructure projects are poised to move forward under Biden.

“Two administrations is a difference of night and day to New York because transit is our linchpin — our linchpin to jobs, to the economy, to equity, to public health,” said Sam Schwartz, a transportation engineer who served as New York City’s traffic commissioner under Mayor Ed Koch.

But Democrats have so far failed to deliver enough key wins in Senate battlegrounds to establish control of the upper house. That could change based on the outcome of two Senate runoffs in Georgia, but that won’t take place until early January. The result creates uncertainty as to whether mass transit operators can expect federal aid in the next stimulus package.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is facing a $10.3 billion deficit through next year from the economic fallout of the pandemic. It will soon introduce a budget proposal containing severe service cuts after its pleas for a federal bailout fell on deaf ears.

“There’s not a lot of room for the voters on a massive, progressive, AOC-style, multitrillion dollar package,” said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the fiscally conservative Manhattan Institute — referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Gateway

Widely considered the most important rail upgrade in the United States, Trump initially seemed like a natural ally to the effort.

The Gateway Program had already generated widespread bipartisan support prior to his presidency — with the Obama administration agreeing to foot half the bill.

Trump initially signaled support for the $13 billion plan, which involves repairing the dilapidated tunnel below the Hudson River and building a second, new tunnel to increase capacity.

But the project has since languished with the administration putting up a series of roadblocks, preventing it from moving forward. The federal government voided the initial 50-50 funding deal, labeled the project “medium-low” priority for federal funding and held up the approval of an environmental impact statement.

The delays have been linked to Trump’s animosity for Sen. Chuck Schumer, a major proponent of the initiative. Trump even threatened to shut down the government over the project, refusing to sign a spending deal in 2018 that included money for Gateway.

As the years dragged on, transit experts became progressively more concerned that the century-old tunnels, which carried some 200,000 daily passengers before the coronavirus, are nearing the point of catastrophic failure. The concrete inside the tunnels is eroding from damage incurred during Superstorm Sandy. The project's costs grow by an estimated $1.2 million each day it remains at a standstill.

"One more Sandy and it could collapse,” said Ann Shikany, an infrastructure expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council who previously worked on the Gateway Program in the Obama administration. “The economic and human toll of that happening, it's unconscionable."

The Northeast Corridor accounts for 20 percent of the nation’s gross domestic project — with New York City alone accounting for 10 percent. Proponents of the Gateway Program warn that a disruption due to the tunnel could jeopardize the country’s economic vitality.

There has been some recent momentum. After a concerted lobbying effort by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, Trump pledged $766.6 million to replace the Portal North bridge — a swing bridge that often gets stuck when it opens to allow tug boats to pass. Portal North is the first phase of the Gateway Program and costs an estimated $1.8 billion.

But the Trump administration still refuses to move forward on approving and funding the more costly endeavor of replacing and repairing the Hudson tunnels — drawing backlash from stewards of the project.

"I don't understand why we’re proceeding with the Portal Bridge versus the more important pieces of this project that will take longer to accomplish other than the fact that the president decided to fund that,” said Steve Cohen, chair of the Gateway Development Corporation, a nonprofit formed in 2016 to deliver the project.

Biden — whose platform commits to “spark the second great railroad revolution” — has already pledged to build a new, safer Hudson River Tunnel. The agreement made under the Obama administration could be back on the table.

"I have a sneaking suspicion the conversations will begin mid-November about what that deal would look like,” Cohen said. “I suspect by the time he raises his hand and takes that oath of office, we’ll have a deal to fund Gateway.”

Others note the project could have greater significance in the years ahead in reinvigorating the regional economy amid a pandemic that has dramatically curtailed transit ridership throughout the globe. The Gateway Development Corporation estimates the tunnel project alone would result in about 72,000 jobs and generate $19 billion in direct economic activity.

Congestion Pricing

Even before Covid-19 hit New York, environmentalists and transit advocates were pinning their hopes on a first-in-the-nation congestion pricing scheme to pay for much-needed upgrades to the MTA’s infrastructure and cut down on emissions from vehicles. But the policy, approved after years of fighting by New York in 2019, is stuck at the federal level.

Top transit officials approached the Federal Transit Authority in April for clarity on whether the congestion pricing plan will require either a comprehensive environmental impact statement or a less rigorous environmental assessment to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. But transit leaders have openly complained that the federal government hasn’t provided the necessary guidance, preventing the new system from moving forward.

“Their non-response over a substantial period of time has been disappointing and baffling, frankly,” Pat Foye, chairman and CEO of the MTA, said last month. “At this point, I don’t think there’s any reason to believe there will be any action in the remainder of the year.”

The MTA had initially planned to launch the system in January 2021, which would toll drivers entering Manhattan’s central business district south of 60th street. It was supposed to support $15 billion in debt for the transit authority’s $51.5 billion capital plan, which includes projects like signal upgrades and more accessible subway stations.

A spokesperson for the Federal Highway Administration has said the proposal is still under review.

Transit advocates, who see the delay as an extension of Trump’s open animosity toward New York, are hopeful the policy would get the green light under Biden.

“We've had pretty clear signals from [the Biden team] that they're particularly interested in making sure we do two things: improving our infrastructure and making sure we have a green transition, and congestion pricing checks both of those boxes," said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

‘Fiscal tsunami’

With negotiations over a federal stimulus package still at a stalemate, mass transit agencies must contend with passing their budget proposals for next year with massive deficits.

The MTA, which is running reduced service and still burning through $200 million every week, is considering cutting service up to 50 percent — a move that would increase wait times for buses, subways and trains and further slow the city’s economic recovery. Layoffs of thousands of workers and fare and toll hikes beyond planned increases are also on the table.

Foye has repeatedly called on the Trump administration to provide $12 billion in aid to help the cash-strapped agency and directed his ire at Senate Republican leadership for the logjam. He has warned the authority is facing a “fiscal tsunami” from the steep drops in ridership that decimated its farebox revenue.

Bob Foran, the chief financial officer of the MTA, said he will present two budgets to the MTA board in November — one that assumes the transit authority gets financial aid and another that assumes the worst. Board members will vote on a final budget in December, but there’s room to pass updates early next year, Foran said.

The MTA plans to borrow $2.9 billion from the federal reserve, which could buy it time to wait for additional aid under a Biden presidency.

“Obviously the refusal of … the Republican leadership in the United States Senate to agree on funding for mass transit ... is terribly disappointing and problematic and leaves us facing the largest financial challenge that the MTA has ever faced by orders of magnitude,” Foye said in October.

Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has asked the federal government for $3 billion to make up its historic revenue shortfall from the pandemic. Without an influx of aid, the bi-state agency had warned it may have to cut planned capital projects — including much needed upgrades to the bus terminal in midtown Manhattan and a redevelopment project for John F. Kennedy Airport.

“The impact of the Covid-19 virus on our expense lines has been devastating,” Cotton told POLITICO in a June interview.

Mass transit operators collectively received $25 billion in aid under the CARES Act, the federal stimulus package passed in late March. That included $3.9 billion for the MTA that it has already used up because of the continued economic fallout.

But negotiations over a new economic stimulus package have been at an impasse with Trump giving mixed signals over what he wants out of a new bill and Senate Republicans raising alarms about the size of the $2 trillion proposal on the table.

While current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently called to pass a coronavirus package before the year’s end, funding for state and local governments has remained a sticking point. And it’s unclear if the makeup of the Senate will shift enough to change the main contentions with the stimulus package.

“I think the prospects of us getting the full $12 billion the MTA is asking for are dimmer than they might have been a few weeks ago,” Gelinas said.

But a Biden presidency does improve the odds of money for mass transit, she said.

“The opposite argument would be Biden owes his victory to three cities: Philadelphia, Detroit and Atlanta,” she said. “All of them have transit systems that need aid, but on a much smaller scale.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2020-11-09 02:56:04 -0800