NJ Spotlight

Amtrak train exiting the north tube of the outmoded Hudson River Tunnel from New York into New Jersey


Just weeks after celebrating a significant appropriation for the Gateway transportation program and its trans-Hudson rail tunnel, New Jersey’s congressional delegation is back on high alert thanks to a new push by some Republicans to cancel the infrastructure spending.

The threat to the Gateway funding comes from a group of 27 GOP representatives that is encouraging the use of a parliamentary procedure known as “rescission” to remove an estimated $541 million that was just allocated for the infrastructure project in a more than $1 trillion federal spending bill signed into law by President Donald Trump late last month

While it’s far from certain the rescission gambit will work, members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation are taking it seriously, forming a bipartisan front to defend the approved Gateway spending. Part of their response involves highlighting how many of the representatives who signed an official rescission letter hail from states that, unlike New Jersey, receive more funding from the federal government than their residents typically pay in taxes. Some of the representatives’ own states also just a received a significant amount of aid from the federal government — with the support of New Jersey’s delegation — after recent natural disasters.

“This attack on New Jersey is ridiculous, in my opinion,” said U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th).

Rescission is the formal process for removing a previously approved federal appropriation. Under the 1974 Impoundment Control Act, it begins with the president proposing to Congress the rescinding of funds that were approved for a specific purpose. The letter penned by the 27 GOP representatives last week urges Trump to officially use the rescission process to reverse the Gateway funding.

To work, the rescission effort would need to win much more support, since a successful rescission requires majority votes in both the Senate and the House of Representatives within 45 days of the request being made.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center, rescission was last used successfully during the tenure of President Bill Clinton.

What’s in the omnibus spending bill?

In all, the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that was signed into law by the Republican Trump in late March ccontained more than $2.5 billion for mass-transit investment, including $541 million] to help advance Gateway, thanks to a bipartisan deal struck by majority Republicans and Democratic leaders. The House had initially approved $900 million for the project, largely due to the efforts of Appropriations Committee Chair Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th), but Trump told GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan he would veto the bill if that sum was included in any final version of the spending bill. Trump eventually allowed for the smaller allocation for Gateway since he prioritized higher spending on the military that was also included in the bipartisan deal.

At $13 billion, the proposed rail tunnel between North Bergen and New York’s Penn Station is the most significant feature of the nearly $30 billion Gateway program, which transportation advocates have argued is absolutely necessary to preserve convenient rail service along the Northeast Corridor, which contributes some $3 trillion to the nation’s overall gross domestic product.

Right now, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak rail service rely on a 107-year-old rail tunnel under the Hudson River that features two tubes to allow for traffic running in each direction. But the tunnel sustained heavy damage in 2012 during superstorm Sandy and needs to be repaired. Federal officials say the tunnel is still safe to use, but they have also warned that closing just one of its two tubes for emergency repairs would be a disaster, requiring a reduction of hourly capacity from 24 trains to just six.

Replacing Portal Bridge

Another key element of the Gateway project is the planned replacement of the Portal Bridge, which spans the Hackensack River near Secaucus Junction. Just like the tunnel, the swing bridge is used by both NJ Transit and Amtrak, and it, too, is prone to frequent breakdowns. A new, $1.5 billion bridge has already been designed, and construction is largely ready to begin.

Under the federal spending bill signed into law by Trump last month, millions of dollars that were allocated to several different transportation-funding programs could ultimately be used to advance Gateway, including the tunnel project and the bridge. But it’s those pots of money that were targeted in the official rescission letter that was sent by the GOP lawmakers last week to Mick Mulvaney, director of the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget. They include the Federal-State Partnership for State of Good repair account, the Northeast Corridor grants in the National Railroad Passenger Corp. account, and the general State of Good Repair Grants account.

U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7th) said during a news conference organized by U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5th) in Washington, D.C., on Friday that even if the rescission proposal makes it through the House of Representatives, he believes it will ultimately be blocked in the Senate by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who was instrumental in striking last month’s bipartisan deal on the spending bill.

“I assure the people of New Jersey, the people of New York, the people of the East Coast, and indeed the people of the entire nation, that I will advocate as forcefully as I can for retention of the Gateway project,” Lance said. Gottheimer also raised the issue of fairness, stressing the fact that New Jersey residents get back just 74 cents from the federal government for every dollar they pay in federal taxes. By contrast, residents of North Carolina, where the rescission effort began, get back $1.41 for every dollar paid in federal taxes.

“The fact of the matter is we need the investment in New Jersey, and that’s what we agreed to in this piece of (spending) legislation,” Gottheimer said.

Following the recent hurricanes that devastated parts of Florida and Texas, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1st) said he recalled how much of a fight some representatives from those states put up against a federal aid package that was eventually provided to New Jersey in the wake of 2012’s superstorm Sandy.

“My initial reaction was treat them the way they tried to treat New Jersey, but we are the United States of America, and we all come together in times of challenge,” Norcross said.

“We’ve shown up when it’s necessary for other regions of the country,” added U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12th). “Our colleagues need to show up for us.”

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