Planner to New York and New Jersey: Forget Trump, pay for Gateway yourselves

One prominent planner has a message for New York and New Jersey leaders: Give up on the Trump administration and pay for the new cross-Hudson rail tunnels yourselves.

“We are continually exposed to dire predictions of what might happen if Gateway is not funded, and yet the very sensible response to that, at least from my point of view, is not remotely being contemplated,” said Eric Kober, a scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation and the former director of housing, economic and infrastructure planning at the Department of City Planning.

On Friday, the center will release a report by Kober arguing that Manhattan’s job centers and New Jersey’s bedroom communities are so inextricably linked, so co-dependent and so integral to the region’s economy that New York and New Jersey should waste no time waiting on the Trump administration to follow through on an Obama-era commitment to split the cost of the new, $13 billion tunnel project, known as Gateway.

POLITICO received an copy of the report in advance of its release.

Right now, there are two, single-track tubes connecting New Jersey to Manhattan’s Penn Station. They are more than a century old and were in poor shape even before Superstorm Sandy flooded them with brackish waters, leaving corrosive salts in their wake.

Amtrak executives have said they have anywhere from 7 years to 20 years before they have to take one or both tubes out of service for emergency repairs. That bodes ill for the region’s economy, and if you believe Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, for the country’s as well.

A tunnel failure could trigger “a deep recession in the New York metropolitan area and a recession probably in the whole country,” Schumer, the Senate minority leader, said in 2016.

After former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stopped construction of a prior, funded plan to build new rail tunnels in 2010, Amtrak followed up with a multicomponent program of its own, called Gateway. At the tail end of the Obama administration, the federal government, Amtrak and the states of New York and New Jersey agreed to split its cost. Then Trump took office and derailed their best-laid plans.

Congress’ last omnibus funding bill included more than $500 million in funding that might be used for Gateway. But the president himself has been steadfast in his opposition to the project — on which some of his real estate holdings rely — and his transportation department’s leadership has slow-walked its approval of the tunnel’s final environmental impact statement.

“The current discussions about the L train shutdown are kind of a dress rehearsal for what might happen if the Hudson River tunnels had to be shut down,” Kober said, referring to the impending 15-month closure of the subway line between Manhattan and Brooklyn for repairs.

Some Republicans in Congress have made an argument that echoes one of Kober’s: New York and New Jersey are rich states, New York City is a rich city, and the region can pay for new tunnels itself.

It’s an argument that makes some transit advocates recoil, if only because Penn Station and the existing tubes are Amtrak-owned, and fixing this bottleneck along the Northeast Corridor is essential to Amtrak’s future. More broadly, the nation’s economy relies in no small part on the health of its financial capital.

“This is a project of national significance,” said Tom Wright, president and CEO of the Regional Plan Association. "And we have a lot of support in Congress, too. So I’m surprised he’d be arguing that at this time. To my way of thinking, it’s too soon to give up on federal support.”

Kober, however, doesn’t see the point of placing any hope in the federal government: “I certainly don’t see the feds being helpful, at least for the next couple years, at least until 2020.”

Instead, the region should get about building the tunnels themselves. And that, he argued, includes New York City, which has been content to sit on Gateway’s sidelines, even though its economy is at stake.

In recent years, New York has “dominated regional growth in employment, but has not produced a sufficient number of housing units to provide for its expanded workforce,” Kober writes in the report. “The city thus needs to import more workers from its suburbs. New Jersey, on the other hand, has built far more housing than it needed to support its modest increase in employment.”

Last year, “northern New Jersey alone outstripped all of New York City as a source of new building permits.” And yet, the region hasn’t built new cross-Hudson rail links since 1910, Kober writes.

The east side of Manhattan is a different story. Eighteen subway tracks cross the East River to Brooklyn alone. Eight subway tracks and four rail tracks connect Manhattan to Queens.

The demands on cross-Hudson transportation are only expected to grow. At the moment, there’s no capacity to accommodate that growth. Not at Penn Station, and not at the nearby, equally dismal, Port Authority Bus Terminal, which experts say needs to be rebuilt.

“Outsourcing the economic future of the City of New York to the states of New York and New Jersey is risky since the states do not necessarily perceive an incentive to act in the City’s best interests,” Kober writes.

Seth Stein, a spokesman for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, said in an emailed statement that tunnels “are critical for the success of the regional and national economy.“

“The Gateway project is the most important infrastructure project in the country, and it is essential the Federal government pays its fair share,” Stein said.

A spokesman for the Gateway Program Development Corporation, the entity tasked with building the new rail tunnels, declined comment. So did spokespeople for the governors of New York and New Jersey.

Should they want any advice for how to pay for new rail tunnels, Kober has some handy. For one thing, he recommends they rid themselves of any unnecessary transit projects.

Like what?

“Some critics in New Jersey have suggested that the expansion of PATH to Newark Airport might be one such project,” Kober said in an interview. “So that could be an example.”

At the very least, he wants the region to think harder about what’s at stake.

“There needs to be a more realistic plan for the region than waiting for Federal largesse,” he writes in the report.

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