Spending Deal May Breathe New Life Into Gateway Rail Tunnel Project

The man who oversees the Gateway rail tunnel project says a major infrastructure venture tends to be a series of near-death experiences — and Gateway appears to have survived one of those brushes with extinction this week.

Despite efforts by President Trump to block federal funding for Gateway, a new link for trains under the Hudson River, the project could receive as much as $540 million from a spending bill Congress was hammering out on Wednesday, congressional aides said. That would be much less than the $900 million that previously had been intended for Gateway, but not the shutout that Mr. Trump had been pushing.

A leading regional infrastructure expert expressed relief. “The idea that there’s something like half a billion dollars in there for Gateway is a bright story about bipartisan leadership,” said Thomas K. Wright, the president of the Regional Plan Association, which has advocated for Gateway as a critical bolster for the economy of the Northeast. “If they missed this, it would be at least a year and I’ve heard more like three years added to the project, which translates to billions in additional costs.”

A senior administration official disputed the Democrats’ assessment, saying that most of the money they were counting toward Gateway was a result of increased spending and might not go to that project. He emphasized that the $900 million once intended for Gateway was not in the bill, fulfilling Mr. Trump’s demand.

Gateway had built bipartisan support among representatives of New York and New Jersey and received the blessing of former President Barack Obama. The two states had pledged to cover half of the cost of the most critical parts of the project — the tunnel and improvements along Amtrak’s rail line between New York City and Newark. Those segments have an estimated cost of more than $11 billion.

But the Trump administration reversed course late last year and declared that there was no agreement for the federal government to provide the other half of the funding. Mr. Trump pressed House Speaker Paul Ryan, a fellow Republican, to leave any money for Gateway out of the spending bill that Congress is completing this week, according to people with knowledge of the conversations.

That stance angered some Republicans from the region who had stumped for the project, including Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen from northern New Jersey and Representative Peter King from Long Island. Mr. King had vowed to vote no on a spending bill that failed to fund Gateway.

Congressional aides said that the latest draft of the spending bill included about $540 million in allocations that could be used on Gateway and about $2.9 billion in grants to the Department of Transportation that Gateway’s planners could apply for. The project’s supporters are wary about the chances of receiving discretionary funding because the secretary of transportation, Elaine Chao, has opposed the notion that the federal government should supply a significant portion of the project’s funding.

Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat, said in an interview on Wednesday that Gateway “is too important to not get funded.” But he was reluctant to celebrate prematurely, saying only that he was hopeful. Senator Charles E. Schumer, the Democratic leader from New York who has been a vocal supporter of Gateway, declined to comment.

John D. Porcari, the interim executive director of the Gateway Program Development Corporation, who in January said the project would continue “plowing full-speed ahead” despite the threats of its demise, declined to comment before the budget negotiations were completed.

Officials of Amtrak, which owns the 110-year-old tunnels that run under the Hudson to Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, have said a new tunnel must be built soon. The existing tunnels filled with salt water when Hurricane Sandy inundated the region in 2012 and will eventually have to be closed for extensive repairs.

All trains running along the busy Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington pass through one of those single-track tunnels. Commuter trains carrying tens of thousands of New Jersey residents back and forth to their jobs in New York City also use the tunnels. The loss of one of them would be disastrous for the region’s transportation network and the regional economy, which accounts for more than 10 percent of the nation’s output, transportation planners say.

With an early pledge of funding from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Gateway team has begun work on the first piece of the project: replacing a century-old swing bridge over the Hackensack River west of Manhattan that often gets stuck and causes cascading delays along the corridor.

“Moving forward on the Portal Bridge is really critical right now,” Mr. Wright said, as he rode a New Jersey Transit train from Penn Station to Princeton. “Any time lost with this first step essentially translates on the back end to the whole thing.”

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