March 17th, 2017
By Ryan Hutchins
In a move that endangers the ability of the federal government to pay for construction of the Gateway rail tunnel, President Donald Trump proposed a budget this week that eliminates New Starts, a key infrastructure grant program that was expected to be one of the largest funding sources for the tubes under the Hudson River.
The president’s budget would limit New Starts funding to projects that already have existing full-funding agreements in place, according to a summary released Thursday. Any new transit initiatives would be paid for “by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects,” the White House said in announcing plans to cut transportation funding by 13 percent.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, said the elimination of the Federal Transit Administration program puts Gateway on the chopping block.
“President Trump’s proposal to eliminate the New Starts program — and the Gateway Project along with it — is irresponsible, short-sighted, and demonstrates a complete failure of leadership,” Menendez said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “President Trump is single-handedly trying to derail Gateway and send a catastrophic ripple effect that will cause irreparable harm to our regional and national economies.”
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, who represents New York, said the budget would “stop the progress of the vital Gateway Tunnel project dead in its tracks.”
The proposal came as a shock to many involved in the project because Trump had promised to launch a $1 trillion investment in the nation’s infrastructure. The new rail tunnel was expected to be among his top priorities.
The Gateway Program, which includes the new tunnel and other improvements to ease congestion along the busiest stretch of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, would replace the aging tubes that run under the Hudson River, linking New Jersey to Manhattan. Those tubes are nearing the end of their useful life and may need to be taken out of service within the next two decades.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have agreed to have their states split half of the cost of the project and had anticipated the federal government to cover the remainder. The Obama administration had made the project one of its top transportation priorities. The project is expected to cost about $20 billion.
The first phase of the Gateway project, which includes the new tunnel and replacement of the troublesome Portal Bridge in New Jersey, was accepted into the New Starts pipeline last year but had not yet received a full funding commitment, said John D. Porcari, interim executive director of the Gateway Program Development Corp. Gateway, he said, is “the most urgent infrastructure project in America.”
“Zeroing out funding for New Starts will interrupt both of these critical projects and delay the start of construction, which in the case of the Portal Bridge, was anticipated to begin this year,” Porcari said in a statement. “Any proposed cut to transportation programs like New Starts is a major concern.”
At a press briefing in Washington, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said cuts in transportation and other programs did not necessarily mean more funding won’t arrive later. He said the infrastructure initiative may not be unveiled until this summer or fall and could include one-off funding for projects.
“The infrastructure program is something we just recently started” working on,” Mulvaney said.
In a statement, Christie’s office said the governor, a close friend of Trump, will “fight any federal funding cut.”
“The Governor has worked hard to develop a project which will ease commuting to New York City without all the practical and fiscal shortcomings of the ARC tunnel project,” spokesman Brian Murray said, referring to a similar project Christie unilaterally killed. “Gateway tunnel is that project. New Jersey and New York are committed to funding their fair share. He will do all he can to fight any federal funding cut to this project of regional and national importance.”
Still, Menendez said Trump’s decision was jarring given the president’s commitment to infrastructure and his background as a New York real estate developer.
“President Trump’s campaign rhetoric about investing in our nation’s infrastructure has proven to be just that — empty words used to win an election that he has no intention of delivering on,” said Menendez, who estimated a Northeast Corridor shutdown would cost $100 million a day. “Dismissing transit infrastructure as ‘localized’ projects is an outdated and dismissive mindset that fails to recognize transit’s central role in our regional and national economy.”