A light at the end for the Gateway tunnel

A view of the west side of Manhattan.
A view of the west side of Manhattan.
Yingna Cai/Shutterstock

A light at the end for the Gateway tunnel

Trump is determined not to fund the project. Can NY and NJ make it happen anyway?
September 23, 2019

The Gateway Program, a critical rail infrastructure project under the Hudson River, has been stalled for years by President Donald Trump. But the project, which would add badly needed commuter rail capacity, hasn’t been completely derailed, as its backers have been trimming its price tag, locking in state funding and setting aside federal money that could eventually benefit it.

“In spite of the president’s threats to veto funding legislation that includes any resources for Gateway, I’ve successfully worked with my partners in Congress … to appropriate billions of dollars to Amtrak and other accounts that can benefit Gateway,” U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer said at an Association for a Better New York event in March. He later added, “With Sen. (Daniel Patrick) Moynihan as my witness up above, I have prioritized Gateway at every step of the process.”

Right now, the existing North River Tunnel, which has two tubes, is the only rail link that connects Penn Station with New Jersey and the rest of the Northeast, resulting in a massive bottleneck at a crucial point in Amtrak’s rail system. The Gateway Program, first introduced in 2011 to update and improve Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, had envisioned a new, two-tube tunnel to allow for more trains. Damage caused by Superstorm Sandy to the tunnel that opened more than a century ago meant adding those repairs to the Gateway Program and made the construction of a new tunnel even more important.

Before the tunnel project gets moving, a federal environmental impact statement must be approved. The Gateway Program Development Corp., a nonprofit that oversees the $30 billion program, submitted the final draft of the environmental impact statement in February 2018. While waiting on the federal approval, Frank Sacr, the nonprofit’s interim executive director, said that the project is nonetheless progressing. It submitted a new federal grant request in August with an updated budget that slashed $1.4 billion from the project’s estimated cost. Originally, the construction of a new tunnel and rehabilitating the existing one was projected to cost $13 billion. Now, thanks to design improvements and various other reassessments, the price tag is down to $11.3 billion.

With the new cost estimate, as well as $600 million in additional financial backing from Amtrak announced at the same time, the Gateway Program Development Corp. is now asking for less federal grant money, reducing its requested share from just shy of 50% down to 44%. Additionally, the latest grant submission states that the new tunnel is about 30% designed, which Sacr said is a good point to engage with the private sector once the environmental approval is complete.

The Federal Railroad Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, had expected to finalize and approve the environmental impact statement by March 30, 2018. But as 2019 draws to a close, that approval has still not happened. When the federal agency missed its original deadline, officials said the project would be approved in the first half of this year. Now, with that decision still pending, Sacr said that getting approval by the end of the year will be crucial to keeping the project on track. “On both the local side and the federal side, that is sort of the linchpin to a lot of what we’re able to do, because we’re not actually able to do a lot of work without that environmental approval,” Sacr told City & State.

The project has run into funding roadblocks, largely stemming from Trump’s feud with Schumer, who has made Gateway one of his biggest priorities. In 2018, Trump threatened to veto a major spending bill if it included any money for Gateway, resulting in the loss of $900 million for the project that had been part of earlier versions of the legislation. Still, Schumer managed to secure $540 million for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor in that spending bill, money that could eventually be used for the Gateway tunnel. February’s spending bill this year, which funds the government through Sept. 30, included another $650 million for the same account. The $1.2 billion sum is not readily available to the Gateway Program Development Corp., however, since the U.S. Department of Transportation still controls the grants that govern the use of those funds. But supporters say the money is effectively banked long-term for when the federal government decides to move forward.

Over the past two years, Schumer also secured $280 million in Federal Transit Administration formula funds for New York and New Jersey to use toward the project, which the Department of Transportation can’t delay.

Congress is currently negotiating its next spending bill, although they are expected to pass a stopgap measure ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline to avoid a government shutdown, and then continue broader budget negotiations until November or December. Sources close to Schumer told City & State that the senator is seeking and expects to achieve similar success in securing funding in the upcoming appropriations bill with the help of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Despite Schumer’s work, the Gateway tunnel continues to struggle to get all of the federal funding it needs to in order to proceed. The Obama administration had originally promised to foot half the bill, but Trump reversed that offer and has adamantly opposed any money for the project, saying New York and New Jersey should pay for most of it. For the past two years, the Federal Transit Administration, a part of the U.S. Department of Transportation that handles the Gateway grants, has rated the project’s priority as “medium-low.” Sacr said that he hopes that the updated application, along with reports and analyses about the need to repair and build a new tunnel, will get the rating changed and the grants approved. That determination will likely come in February or March.

Another recent development came from the state governments of New York and New Jersey. Governors from both states signed legislation passed earlier this year to create the Gateway Development Commission, effectively replacing the current Gateway Program Development Corp. The act created a bistate agency, like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, capable of receiving grant money while also replacing the Port Authority as the sponsor of past grant applications. The new law also reaffirms and makes binding the $5.55 billion in funding already committed by New York, New Jersey and the Port Authority.

“New York and New Jersey stand ready to uphold their commitment to the project,” a Cuomo spokesman said at the time, “and work collaboratively to get the job done.”

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.
20191118