The state of play for Gateway: Wake up, Feds | Editorial

Posted Sep 1, 2019

Motivated either by political malice or clay-brained negligence, the Department of Transportation snatched tens of millions in rail improvement money that Congress had intended for the Gateway Project two weeks ago, and re-allocated the funds to a passenger terminal in New Orleans and new coach cars in Wisconsin.

Such a diversion doesn’t surprise anyone anymore, and it hardly matters that members of Donald Trump’s own party tells him that Gateway is the most urgent public works project in the country. The president has an inherent hostility for projects that benefit blue states, and he isn’t above playing politics with the lives of commuters from New Jersey and New York.

Nor does Trump seem to fear the catastrophic effects of a prolonged repair or potential shutdown of the Hudson River Tunnel or the Portal Bridge, two Amtrak assets that are part of Gateway, and the most fragile segments of a Northeast Corridor region that produces 20 percent of our nation’s GDP.

What is encouraging, however, is that Gateway advocates are undaunted, as they demonstrated twice last week.

First, the Gateway Development Corporation submitted a revised financial proposal for a new tunnel and for a repair of the existing one, dropping the bottom line from $12.7 to $11.3 billion. That trims the federal outlay from $5.6 to $4.4 billion.

A day later, a dozen New Jersey politicians made their annual plea for Trump to release the federal share of funding to replace the decrepit Portal Bridge, a $1.6 billion project that is shovel-ready. Gov. Murphy brought six members of Congress along to remind the DOT that New Jersey is committing $600 million to that project.

If this seems like an exercise in futility, maybe it is: The tunnel and bridge are still near the bottom of dozens of projects vying for federal mass-transit grants and loans, because that’s how Trump wants it. DOT commissioner Elaine Chao asserts that they are not high priorities, despite the expert consensus that either can fail at any time.

There are faint signals that the administration is softening on the Portal Bridge, not only because it’s cheaper, but because design work and environmental studies are complete, and because New Jersey boosted its funding commitment.

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-7th Dist.) who sits on the House Transportation Committee, put it this way: “I never count my bridges before they’re built, but the message we’re hearing is much more positive. As for the tunnel, we’re not any further along, though the revised proposal can’t hurt. My sense is that it’s still wrapped up in politics.”

So let’s issue this perfunctory reminder for those who still need it.

The Hudson River tunnel opened in 1910, when only 2 percent of American households had electricity, 8 percent had a phone, and the Model T was state of the art.

It cost the Pennsylvania Railroad $90 million to build, which is a pretty decent investment for something that has lasted 108 years.

Everything has changed since then.

Everything except this tunnel, which is now dying — an irreversible surrender to salt, traffic, and time.

♦ It was never intended to sustain this kind of traffic. The tunnel was built for intercity trains running at 2-hour intervals, not the heavier commuter trains rumbling over the country’s busiest link at 6-minute intervals. Now, 220,000 riders take 450 NJ Transit and Amtrak trains through those tunnels every day between New Jersey and Penn Station.

♦ It was never intended to hold up for a century. By any plausible engineering standard, it is long past its useful life, but it survives because Amtrak is good at patching wounds and keeping it viable. It will reach a point when Band-aid fixes cannot work.

♦ It was never intended to withstand Hurricane Sandy. The 13 million gallons of corrosive salt water didn’t really recede. Its corrosive chlorides live inside the tunnel’s bench walls, and they still chew at the 12,000-volt cables like bulimic hyenas.

“And beyond all that,” Amtrak chairman Tony Coscia points out, “you don’t need two tracks, you need four.”

Yes, the region is expanding, and capacity must grow with it.

As the delay drags on, however, it is likely that a new two-track tunnel cannot be built before the existing two-track tunnel undergoes emergency repairs.

Imagine that nightmare. If one of its two tubes is closed for what would probably be a four-year overhaul, peak-time service would be cut by 75 percent without a new tunnel already in place. That’s the risk Trump is forcing on this region.

A Regional Plan Association report laid out the fiscal damage: New Jersey home values would plummet as much as $22 billion over those four years, the state would lose $3 billion in property taxes in Bergen, Essex, Union and Middlesex alone, and the national economy would take a $16 billion hit.

It would also put another 12,000 cars on New Jersey’s roads every day, because 38,000 NJT riders would need to find another way to get to work, the RPA said.

Can’t you just feel the MAGA vibe?

Trump thinks states should pay for these upgrades, even though they are federal assets, and his Federal Transit Administration persists in ranking them as “medium-low” priorities.

Want to know what the FTA considers a “medium” priority? Here’s one: a 5-mile, $1.3 billion light rail extension in Phoenix, where the feds will assume 59 percent of the cost.

And here’s the FTA’s idea of a “medium-high” priority: an 8-mile, $900 million rail extension for Indiana commuters who want a one-seat ride to Chicago. The feds will pay for half of that one.

These are probably worthy projects. But they do not serve regions as integral to the American economy as Gateway.

So the campaign continues, and Malinowski is optimistic. During recent testimony, FTA Administrator Jane Williams told him that Gateway is “making progress” and could have its medium-low rating reconsidered this fall.

It would be a welcome step. Until then, however, Trump is content to ignore the economic benefits, the construction jobs, the quality of a commuter’s life, and the promise he made to rebuild our infrastructure.

This president may stonewall Gateway because of political enmity and financial uncertainty. But to suggest that it’s a low-priority project tells you all you need to know about his dishonesty, and that must be fought. This is no time to stop paying attention.

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