The Hudson River Rail Tunnel Gets Boost From Congress but Problems Loom

AP Photo/Mel Evans, File

A view of the train tunnel under the Hudson River as seen from the back of an Amtrak train bound for New York's Penn Station. 

Little noticed in the maelstrom over the shutdown-averting deal and the president’s border wall emergency declaration was some good news for New Jersey and New York. Among the appropriations that kept the government running was $650 million for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the busiest and most profitable segment of the national rail network. 

Portions of that funding will go to the $30 billion Gateway Program to revitalize crumbling rail connections between New York and New Jersey, some of them more than a century old. Yet despite the signed, sealed and delivered deal, the Trump administration continues to resort to Nixonian tactics to block Gateway funds and delay replacing the Hurricane Sandy-damaged tunnel.

Department of Transportation officials manage to do Trump’s bidding on Gateway by other means. Last March, the president retreated from a threat to veto any budget with money for Gateway. The executive branch is obligated by law to spend money appropriated by Congress, but the department could simply delay signing a grant agreement that conveys the funding to Amtrak and accomplish the same goal. 

Which is exactly what the Transportation Department is doing. The department continues to sit on the $541 million that Congress allocated to Amtrak last year. Typically grants only take 30 to 45 days to process. The department could use a similar stratagem to avoid spending the $650 million allocated this year. Congress would have to force the department’s hand, but so far no action has been taken.

In addition to the $650 million Amtrak allocation, the budget deal also freed up federal loans that Federal Transit Administration officials declared last year could not be used on Gateway, even though states usually decide if federal loans can count toward the federal or state share of a project and pay back the money(The Amtrak funds are not specifically designated for Gateway, but a “significant portion” will go to tunnel construction, currently estimated at $13 billion, according to Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat.)

Representative Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat, included language in the agreement that would spell out state authority’s to count federal loan programs toward a state’s share of funding projects. The provision eliminates the Transportation Department’s ability to meddle in those determinations, which the congressman argued were specially designed to thwart Gateway. The agreement also included another $130 million worth of transit grants that can be steered to the project.

Gateway’s federal environmental permissions have already ground to a halt. One year ago, program officials completed a project Environmental Impact Statement in a streamlined 22 months. Federal environmental approvals for megaprojects typically take three to four years. Yet Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao still has not signed off on the review, which is only valid for three years—one of which has now elapsed.

These maneuvers recall President Nixon’s attempts to block funds for programs that he did not support, which led Congress to pass the Impoundment Control Act of 1974, (which requires a president to formally request that Congress rescind allocated funds he wants to withhold) shortly before his impeachment.

Trump’s opposition to Gateway has forced New Jersey and New York state officials and members of Congress to try to somehow work around his animus toward one of the country’s most urgent transportation projects. In late November, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo floated a trial balloon that appeared to be designed to make Gateway more palatable to Trump. First, Cuomo stage-managed a tour of the decaying tunnel with a camera crew in tow, to document the conditions.

“I actually think if anything is going to convince the president, seeing is believing,” Cuomo told reporters in October. “He actually has a construction background and I think if he sees the level of damage and he sees what we’re talking about, eroding steel, falling concrete, that he’ll see it in a different context—that it will strip away the politics and the rhetoric and the jockeying.”

According to Crain’s, the governor then went to Washington and pitched an idea to fund only the tunnel (a cheaper option); replace Amtrak’s representative in the Gateway Program Development Corporation (the New Jersey, New York and Amtrak partnership that oversees the project) with a federal (i.e., Trump administration) representative; and bid out the project without a federal funding commitment (Cuomo said that he did not want to rely on Amtrak cost estimates) or an environmental review (which likely would not pass legal muster).

In early February, Trump said that he had "set aside” money for Gateway, adding ominously “we’ll see what happens.” But when Cuomo visited Trump again last week, he failed to emerge with an encouraging report, and the White House issued only vague platitudes about “the need to update outdated infrastructure.”

In his most recent State of the Union address, Trump called for a bipartisan approach “[to] deliver new and important infrastructure investment.” Despite his rhetoric, infrastructure is not a priority for this president. But bipartisan horse-trading over rural and urban rail appropriations continues and could be one way to get Gateway done. 

Trump’s intransigence confounds the people who thought they had secured his support for Gateway after a 2017 White House meeting. Instead, the president has turned into a one-man wrecking ball. Trump sees few contradictions in his Gateway obstructions and his oft-touted support for a national infrastructure program. 

Trump’s obstinacy is fueled by resentment against Cuomo, Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, other leading Democrats from the region, and Barack Obama, who pledged support for a 50-50 federal-state Gateway funding split, a well-intentioned gesture that was never formalized through a binding agreement. Instead, every day hundreds of thousands of rail passengers are at the mercy of a president who continues to play politics neither wisely nor well.

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