The Trump Contingency: Exploring new ways to stave off a Hudson tunnel disaster | Editorial

Posted Apr 8, 2019

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board

The ASCE, which publishes that report every four years, also gave U.S. infrastructure an overall grade of D-plus, which matched New Jersey’s grade and the national mark given in 2013.

Trump said he’s got this. He campaigned on a pledge to rebuild the country as only a developer can. During his first year in office, he promised to deliver “the biggest and boldest infrastructure investment in American history.”

Then in his State of the Union speech eight weeks ago, the president covered this monumental task with what sounded like an rhetorical hiccup: He gave the subject exactly two sentences, one of them a perfunctory call to “unite for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure,” before he pivoted to other topics.

It’s getting hard to believe that Trump grasps the gravity of that crumble.

His recent budget proposal hacks 22 percent off the Department of Transportation’s discretionary budget. It slashes Amtrak by 23 percent. It even lops off 40 percent from capital improvement grants, the funds that provide a federal match for new transit projects. None of that will hold up, thankfully.

But here in New Jersey, where twice as many people use public transportation than the national average, we acutely feel Trump’s depraved indifference, notably his refusal to uphold his predecessor’s promise to fund the Gateway Project.

The most humbling reminder came Tuesday, when the Gateway Development Corporation – which oversees the efforts to build a new Hudson River tunnel to replace the 108-year-old fossil currently serving 200,000 New Jerseyans a day — floated a Plan B designed to forestall the kind of catastrophe that comes with frayed wires and crumbling walls.

The contingency is an electrical repair involving the installation of new 12,000-volt cables on racks along the tunnel walls. That might be an innovative solution for the BMT tunnel in Canarsie, which is where they got the idea, but subway riders to Brooklyn have options. Our rail passengers to Penn Station do not. The only way to save this tunnel is with a shutdown – to repair cables, track, walls, ballast, drainage – and that cannot happen until a new tunnel is in operation.

But no one believes that the racking strategy obviates the need for Gateway.

“It would obviously be just a Band-Aid,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-7th Dist.) says. “They do have to plan. But in Washington, we have to move forward with Plan A.”

Indeed, our congressional delegation leads the Gateway fight, but progress is glacial because Trump has laid tripwires every step of the way. His DOT still believes Gateway, the most important infrastructure project in the country, is not eligible for federal funding. In fact, Trump’s $4.7 trillion budget didn’t include a penny for a new Hudson Tunnel.

And now the DOT is slow-walking the project’s environmental impact study, which was submitted for approval a year ago.

Malinowski sent a letter co-signed by 22 members of Congress — from both parties — to DOT secretary Elaine Chao Monday, reminding her that the EIS is 11 months overdue. Once released, Gateway can green-light certain actions, including land acquisition and early construction under Hudson Yards on the Manhattan side. So far, he’s heard crickets.

That followed a recent bipartisan bill authored by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5th) requiring DOT to prepare a “doomsday plan” in case the tunnel fails.

And it will fail, eventually. Until then, as Gateway chairman Jerry Zaro put it, “Gateway is a political pawn – a political hostage of Washington.” That means the congressional pressure must jump another pawl in the ratchet, because we have a president content to preside over a land of broken toys.

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