Trump and the tunnels under the Hudson: Beggars can't be choosers | Mulshine

Posted Jan 4, 2018

 

Donald Trump and Phil Murphy may be political opposites, but they have a couple things in common.

Both made a fortune in New York before going into politics. And both face a big problem when it comes to infrastructure: They want to do lots of things but they have little money.

In Trump's case, his vaunted plan to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure has run aground on the reef of reality. That's because it relied on the idea of the public-private partnership.

That sort of thing might work with  golf courses, ski areas and other enterprises where there's money to be made on the private side.  But it doesn't work with infrastructure like roads, bridges and railroads.

Evidently, Trump is aware of this.  The Wall Street Journal recently reported he told members of Congress that public-private partnerships are "more trouble than they're worth" and cited as an example the failed privatization of the toll road in Vice President Mike Pence's home state of Indiana.

Publicly run toll roads, on the other hand, can be cash cows. Take the example of Florida, where "You can't drive around the block without paying a toll" according to one friend of mine with a winter home there.

The Florida Turnpike is heavily invested in something we Jersey drivers dread: congestion pricing. This is the idea of setting aside so-called "Lexus Lanes" in which much higher tolls can be charged for the privilege of skirting rush-hour traffic.

Drivers may not like the higher tolls but politicians love the higher revenues. That's where Murphy's cash-flow problem may find a partial solution. He recently named as his transportation commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, who as executive director of the Florida Turnpike was a leading champion of these expensive express lanes.

When I emailed the transition office to ask if such a move is in the offing, I got no response. But when it comes to infrastructure, the incoming governor needs to get money from somewhere for improvements like the Gateway project to add two new rail tunnels under the Hudson.

He's certainly not going to get it from Trump. That became evident last week when K. Jane Williams, who is deputy administrator of the Federal Transportation Administration, fired off a rather snippy reply to a recent letter from New Jersey-New York officials on the subject of Gateway. In it, they attempted to formalize the terms of a 50-50 funding agreement reached in the Obama years.

"Your letter also references a non-existent '50/50' agreement between USDOT, New York, and New Jersey. There is no such agreement," Williams wrote. "We consider it unhelpful to reference a non-existent 'agreement' rather than directly address the responsibility for funding a local project where nine out of 10 passengers are local transit riders."

Non-existent? That depends whom you ask. Back in 2015, the top politicians from both parties put out a press release trumpeting what they said was an agreement with the Obama administration to fund $10 billion of what was then touted as a $20 billion project.

There were a couple problems. One was that the agreement was informal. No one can find a written copy. The other problem is that the feds, like the two states, don't have the money.

That didn't stop the project's backers from pushing the cost higher and higher. By the time I attended a legislative hearing on Gateway last September, the price tag was in the $30 billion range - and climbing. But the two states can't afford even the most basic part of the plan, a proposed $12.7 billion expenditure that would add two rail tunnels to the two existing 105-year-old tunnels.

One of the sole realists when it comes to this project is Joe Clift, a former Long Island Rail Road executive who is one of the many rail advocates critical of the way the tunnel issue has been bungled by the bureaucrats since the new tunnels were first proposed way back in 1995.

"What we have here is a lot of consultants saying, 'Build everything now' and nobody saying there is a budget beyond which you cannot spend," Clift told me.

Like the ill-fated Access to the Region's Core plan before it, Gateway began as a tunnel project and soon morphed into a plan to build an expensive new station as well as other accoutrements that are nice but not necessary.

Clift said the affordable solution would be to focus on building just one tunnel immediately with the approximately $5.5 billion the two governors say they could afford to spend. That would provide capacity for two rails in one direction  at rush hour as well as a backup as the old tunnels are repaired.

Or we could just wait until $30 billion turns up. Maybe they can find that in the seat cushions of the trains.

But they won't be getting it from The Donald.

ADD - A SIMPLE SOLUTION: If Trump wants to truly accomplish something in the city of his beth, he should demand that the planners do the one thing the original ARC plan would have accomplished: Connect Penn and Grand Central stations.

Those stations have been sitting next to each other since early in the last century. They are separated by a mere 11 blocks, but trains cannot traverse that short distance.

As Clift points out tirelessly, there is no need to build a new station when Grand Central has plenty of capacity - and when many New Jerseyans work closer to Grand Central than to Penn.

That was the original ARC plan from the 1990s. It should have been completed by 2010. But the New Yorkers from MetroNorth didn't want New Jersey trains sullying their wonderful station.

Someone should tell them it's time to enter the 21st century. And that someone could be Trump if he cared to help his home city.

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