As Trump threatens veto over Gateway, regional economy hangs in balance

If Pres. Trump vetoes a budget including the Gateway Access project, the Northeast's transportation and economy could suffer.

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In February, Congress passed a temporary government funding bill through March 23, creating a possible spending crisis just in time for spring. President Donald Trump has threatened to veto any subsequent spending bill if it includes funding for the Gateway project, which would build a new rail tunnel underneath the Hudson River to complement the two aging tubes now in use and makes some additional infrastructure upgrades on both the New York and New Jersey sides.

Experts warn that failing to fund the Gateway tunnel project could cause cascading transportation and economic problems for the entire region, resulting in greater delays for Amtrak and NJ Transit, increased traffic congestion and lost productivity. Building the additional tunnel, however, would double current rail capacity under the Hudson, alleviating overcrowding. Trump has previously knocked down a proposal by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for the federal government to provide half the funding for the new tunnel, in keeping with an agreement by the Obama administration to pay for half of the project that Christie had previously abandoned. The Trump administration has argued that this agreement was not formalized, and pushed for the two states to provide more of the funding.

Trump’s vendetta is perplexing on the merits: A real estate developer who made his name and fortune in Manhattan, Trump – and his close advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, the scion of a New Jersey real estate fortune – should understand the importance of reliable Hudson River crossings. Trump also campaigned on a promise to rebuild American infrastructure.

Washington insiders speculate Trump’s Gateway opposition may stem from his animosity towards Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, a Democratic senator from New York who considers the project a priority. Trump has urged Republicans to vote against any Gateway spending. However, the tunnel is also supported by several Republican lawmakers, including House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, who is retiring this year, and Long Island Rep. Peter King, a Trump supporter.

If Trump makes good on his promise to veto any bill that includes spending for the Gateway tunnel, it would force commuters to rely on a crumbling transit system in constant need of repairs and vulnerable to losing three-quarters of its carrying capacity if one of the tubes fails, and with no backup if both tubes are out of commission. Here is a guide to exactly what losing Gateway would mean for New York and its neighbors, from delaying the transfer of goods to burdening already overcrowded airports:

Why is Gateway so important?

The Gateway program would update a critical stretch of the Northeast Corridor (NEC), a rail line owned primarily by Amtrak which connects Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The NEC covers eight states and accommodates 820,000 passengers per day on 2,000 trains. The 10-mile segment of the NEC between Newark Penn Station and Penn Station in Manhattan carries 200,000 Amtrak and NJ Transit passengers on 450 trains every day.

The most significant phase of the Gateway program entails building a new tunnel underneath the Hudson and repairing an existing one, which was built in 1910 and is quickly deteriorating. This would also cost nearly $13 billion out of the total $30 billion price tag for the program.

If the current tunnel fails – which Amtrak estimated in 2014 would happen within 20 years – nearly one out of four NEC passengers will be affected, and so will the economy in the Northeast. In total, the NEC serves a region that is home to 17 percent of the country’s population and contributes 20 percent of its GDP.

The local impacts would be huge, because, according to Bloomberg, almost 13 percent of Manhattan’s workforce resides in New Jersey.

What happens if the tunnel fails?

Dani Simons, a vice president at the Regional Plan Association, a research and advocacy organization that studies economic growth and sustainability in the tri-state area, estimates that emergency repairs to the tunnel could take over a year.

“This is really back-of-the-envelope calculations, but it would take somewhere between 14 to 18 months optimistically to get it back up to a state that it could be reopened for service again,” Simons said, based upon Amtrak forecasts. She added that this would not solve the problem, as the tunnel would just be back to its previous conditions.

The tunnel has two tubes, so even if only one tube was out of commission and needed emergency repairs, it would still significantly reduce capacity. In fact, train traffic would be cut by three-quarters instead of one-half because the tunnel currently allows for 24 trains to travel in each direction per hour. If only one tube were usable, trains would have to alternate directions and the capacity would be reduced to six trains per hour, according to a study by the RPA.

Simons also said that New Yorkers should not take comfort in the fact that the tunnel may not fail for a decade or so, as it could take that long to build a new one.

Simons said that commuters are already feeling the effects of the failing system, as recent electrical signal problems have caused delays that prevent people from getting to work on time, and businesses from functioning properly.

“People are going to make different decisions about how to travel or even whether they want to work in New York City anymore,” Simons said.

What would that mean for New York?

In 2016, the Partnership for New York City, a coalition of the city’s largest business interests, estimated that the city’s employers would lose $5.9 million for every hour that NJ Transit is out of service if one of the tubes fails.

If the tunnel were out of service, or even if service was reduced to one tube, hundreds of thousands of people would be forced to shift their commuting habits. If people commuting from New Jersey opted to take private cars or buses, that would increase congestion on the region’s highways, bridges, and car tunnels, which are already gridlocked at peak hours. The Partnership for New York City recently released a study finding that traffic congestion already costs the city $20 billion per year.

“Gateway is vital to the New York economy, to millions of New York workers, to jobs and wages for 50 million Americans throughout the Northeast Corridor,” Schumer said in a press conference earlier in March.

How about everywhere else?

The tunnel closure would slow the movement of freight, as many goods in the region travel by truck.

“When you put more traffic congestion on the Northeast corridor, you’re not just impacting people who are commuters and driving to work, you’re impacting people trying to deliver the goods up and down the East Coast that are critical to the functioning of our economy,” Simons explained.

For Amtrak customers traveling to various locations along the East Coast and passing through New York, the reduction in service may lead them to choose traveling by plane instead of train. Simons said that shifting a portion of Amtrak riders to air travel would overburden the region’s airports, which are already operating at peak capacity, leading to delays in air traffic. JFK and LaGuardia have among the worst on-time arrival records in the country. JFK had the longest arrival delays in 2017, while LaGuardia had the second longest arrival delays and the most canceled flights. “The delays that are happening at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark are felt throughout the entire air travel network in our country,” she said.

Although it may seem like bad tunnel service only affects Acela passengers jetting to Washington, D.C. or perennially disgruntled NJ Transit commuters, failure to build the Gateway project could have national repercussions, and lawmakers of both parties are urging the president who campaigned on infrastructure and fixing the economy to realize its importance.