As Trump throws up barriers, NJ lawmakers claw for Gateway funds | Editorial

Updated Feb 25, 2019

New Jersey’s congressional delegation took a significant step toward dealing with an authentic national emergency last week.

Spoiler alert: It had nothing to do with walling off the marauding hordes of Honduran tots in Pampers at the Southern border.

Actually, this action demonstrated why it was critical to elect a new Congress to write the spending bills and transportation bills as we inch toward a funding solution for the Gateway Project.

Because even though President Trump is unable to acknowledge it, the condition of the Hudson River rail tunnel represents a genuine crisis, as the ghost of Superstorm Sandy continues in its baleful creepthrough the crumbling, 109-year-old labyrinth.

The salt water damage makes the tunnel more unstable every day, which means we are watching one-fifth of the national economy teetering in real time. Erosion, accelerated by salt and chlorides, eats away at the pitted walls and steel. Cement chips drop off and have to be removed from the track. Compacted stones on the tunnel’s shoulders blocks drainage. The 12,000-volt electrical cables, many past their life cycle, are fraying.

Every work shift brings a new challenge. And because these tubes are used by 200,000 riders daily, Amtrak can only do two hours of maintenance each night.

It also means that just one more nasty weather event might be catastrophic.

You’d think that Trump would recognize the potential economic consequences of such calamity – a paralyzed Northeast Corridor, a fractured business climate, lost jobs, diminished home values – but as former Assemblyman John Wisniewski used to say, “He apparently skipped that class at Wharton.”

So it’s up to our members of Congress to restart the process of getting Gateway financed, and they did it last week by adding two key elements to the bipartisan spending bill that averted a second government shutdown.

The bill contained $650 million in funding that could be used for Gateway projects – a new tunnel and the Portal Bridge replacement being the most urgent – but it also clarified that a state can use a federal loan as its share of the cost in a transportation project.

That had been Trump’s most obnoxious roadblock to date. He had changed rules upheld by previous administrations, which allowed such loans to be factored into the local match for transportation funding, and as Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-7th) says, “That was like the administration saying, ‘You’ve taken out a mortgage, but you’re not actually paying for the house.’ Which is nonsense.”Malinowski, who spearheaded this Funding Fairness Act with Sen. Bob MenendezRep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11th) and others, is aware that more obstacles are coming. “We’ll address them one by one,” he says. “There was the refusal to count federal loans as state contributions. Then the administration sitting on the environmental review for a year. And then, of course, there’s the politics.”

Indeed, if the $13.5 billion tunnel project is to advance, Congress must appropriate the federal funds, and Trump has to be convinced to sign it. But as Malinowski puts it, “At least there’s enough funding in the system to get started on the first piece of it.”

It’s hard to negotiate in this environment, given the president’s contempt for the legislative process. But this is the most urgent infrastructure project in the country, and Malinowski affirms there are “quite a few Republicans” on his transportation committee who agree it needs to be funded.

The alternative is unthinkable. The Regional Plan Association is days away from releasing a report that will show the grim economic impact of closing one tube for repairs without a new two-track Gateway tunnel being built – which appears to be an unavoidable scenario, one that could reduce the capacity for rush hour commutes across the Hudson by 75 percent.

That’s something for our Parliamentarians to ponder, if they ever need a reminder what a real national emergency looks like.

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