$30 billion New York rail project hangs on recovery funds

Backers say if Congress passes a bill aimed at reviving the economy, it should include money for their long-sought project

Sen. Charles Schumer and then Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood were among the officials touting the Gateway Project in 2013. (Mario Tama/Getty Images))
Sen. Charles Schumer and then Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood were among the officials touting the Gateway Project in 2013. (Mario Tama/Getty Images))
Posted May 28, 2020 at 6:55pm, Updated May 29, 2020 at 1:04pm

Corrected Friday, 1:04 p.m. | Supporters of the Gateway Program, a $30 billion infrastructure project repairing a 10-mile stretch of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, have a new argument for their proposal: It could revive the economy of one of the regions hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a board meeting of the Gateway Program Development Corp. on Thursday and a White House meeting between New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and President Donald Trump on Wednesday, the program’s backers said if Congress passes a bill aimed at reviving the economy in the wake of the pandemic, it should include infrastructure money targeted at their long-sought project.

“If he gives us the green light, this is not going to be years of discussion,” Cuomo said of Trump. “I have a shovel in the trunk of my car, we'll start this afternoon, right?”

Cuomo argues finishing the project — specifically the century-old tunnel under the Hudson River — would help “supercharge” an economy hobbled by the pandemic. 

[Amtrak sees service cuts without an additional $1.48 billion for 2021]

Steven M. Cohen, chairman of the development corporation, said during Thursday’s board meeting that he’s “hopeful in the coming weeks that attention will be paid to Gateway,” arguing federal dollars for the project could “generate jobs, get people back together and stimulate the economy in a host of areas.”  

“The reality is when it comes to big ticket, close-to-shovel-ready projects, this should be and I believe is at the top of the list,” Cohen said.

Board interim executive director Frank Sacr told reporters after the meeting that despite the lag in Amtrak use during the pandemic-driven economic slowdown, “none of that uncertainty changes the core need we have for our rail customers to be able to rely on reliable, resilient transportation from New York under the Hudson River.”

This week, Cuomo got a boost when the Federal Railroad Administration announced it would award $55.1 million to one component of the project: the replacement of the Portal North Bridge, a 2.44 mile span over the Hackensack River in northern New Jersey. The total cost of the project is $1.7 billion.

But the bridge is only one component of the overall project, which seeks to rehab 10 miles of passenger rail line that carries some 2,000 trains per day and links eight states and Washington, D.C.

Tunnel

More problematic is the new $9.5 billion Hudson River Tunnel, which the federal government has not yet deemed qualified for the federal Capital Investment Grant program. New Jersey and New York have pledged to offset some of the cost and are seeking $5.4 billion in federal grants. 

The federal government also needs to provide a positive record of decision on the environmental impact statement before the project can proceed. 

The tunnel was built in 1910 and heavily damaged during Super Storm Sandy in 2012.

Project leaders hope to repair and rehabilitate the existing two-lane tunnel, which would cost $1.8 billion and add a second two-lane tunnel to alleviate bottlenecks.

In 2018, the tunnel became a political hostage to a dispute between Trump and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., with Trump reportedly trying to use funding for the tunnel to help secure financial support for his coveted wall on the southern border.

More recently, however, Trump seems to have mellowed in his opposition. He told the New York Post May 5 that he’d like one of the first projects in an infrastructure bill to be the Gateway Tunnel, calling it “very important” to the region’s economy. 

Trump has also made his desire for infrastructure investment a frequent refrain in his push to revitalize the economy.

House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has repeatedly emphasized the need for infrastructure legislation since before the pandemic. Trump himself suggested a $2 trillion figure during one package. “He volunteered it,” Neal said. “I went in looking for a trillion.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on April 1 advanced a five-year, $760 billion infrastructure plan first unveiled in January before abandoning the proposal two days later. House Democrats are currently drafting highway legislation that could be introduced in early June. 

Cuomo, in his meeting with Trump, pushed for support for the tunnels as a key part of infrastructure investment.

“If there is a problem in those tunnels, you stop train service to the entire northeast United States,” he said.

Doug Sword contributed to this report.

This report was corrected to attribute a quote about close-to-shovel-ready projects to Steve Cohen, chairman of the Gateway Program Development Corp. board.