Christie to talk with Trump transportation chief about rail funding
No funding was included in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for the vital Gateway rail infrastructure projects, but Gov. Chris Christie is not outwardly concerned.
Christie said he is scheduled to talk early this week with U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao regarding funding for Gateway, a series of projects enhancing rail service between New Jersey and New York estimated to cost $20 billion and take seven years to complete.
The work is needed not only because train demand is rising but also to avoid major problems if the two existing, aging tunnels, which were significantly damaged by Superstorm Sandy, were to fail.
“She’s the first person that I’ve got to make sure is on board. She sounds like she’s on board, given the testimony that she gave before Congress. And then we’ll talk to the president as well,” Christie said.
Christie said he has had conversations with Trump about Gateway already.
“The president understands, not only as the president but as a real estate owner in New York City, how important this project would be to the future of the economy of the region,” he said. “So I don’t think the president’s going to miss this one. It’s not going to slide through the cracks.”
The Gateway Program would upgrade the Northeast Corridor section between Newark and New York Penn Station. It is a series of projects that would replace rail infrastructure that’s more 100 years old in some places and expand the capacity of the tracks, tunnels, bridges and station.
Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. Department of Transportation committed to pay for half of the program. New Jersey and New York, in part through the Port Authority, agreed to split the other half.
Trump’s budget plan doesn’t include money for the transit New Starts program, except for projects already underway. That’s expected to be the primary source of funds for the federal half of the project.
Janna Chernetz, the director of New Jersey policy for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said if Gateway is important to Trump, it should have been in his budget.
“I will be concerned until I actually see pen to paper and guarantee that Gateway is going to be funded,” Chernetz said. “This is a priority. Everybody recognizes this is a priority – the governors, our elected officials, even Secretary Chao. However, we still don’t see that reflected in the budget. This shouldn’t be a negotiation point. This must be in the budget, and it should be in the budget from the get-go.”
Martin Robins, the director emeritus of the Alan Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, said it’s encouraging that Christie will talk with Chao about Gateway.
“We need Chris Christie’s support,” Robins said. “He’s got some influence with the Trump administration. This is the case where it really could come in handy.”
Robins said Chao “needs to correct a misfire” between her department and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
“It’s so imperative that these projects not be sidelined and snagged by funding snafus,” Robins said.
“With regard to the tunnels, we’re operating on borrowed time. They’ve been very much harmed by Superstorm Sandy. There’s all kinds of sulfates that are working their destructive, corroding ways on the concrete walls and the signal system and the electric traction system,” he said.
“We really cannot afford delays because we will, if we don’t get this tunnel built quickly, as quickly as we can, we could find ourselves with a transportation catastrophe here in northeastern New Jersey and Central New Jersey,” Robins said.
Last week, a delegation letter signed by 12 of New Jersey’s 14 members of Congress – covering both senators and all the House members except Republican Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen and Tom MacArthur – urged Chao to continue federal funding for the Gateway Project.
Christie said Trump’s budget plan is the starting point for negotiations, not the final word. Robins said that’s nice to say, and not inaccurate, but that “you’d rather that the proposal be on the side of the project as opposed to undermining the project.”
“Honestly, I don’t understand why the Trump administration did what it did and caused this problem,” Robins said. “If they’re so much in support of the project, why didn’t they think through what they needed to do while they formulated their budget so that it didn’t require a lot of energy and jujitsu to restructure and revive the funding formula?”
The first phase of the program would include building two new rail tunnels below the Hudson River, fixing the two existing tunnels, replacing the century-old Portal Bridge in Hudson County and extending concrete casing to allow for new rail tunnels on Manhattan’s West Side.
The second phase would increase cross-Hudson capacity through other projects in the region, such as building a second, parallel Portal Bridge south of the existing one, expanding New York Penn Station, replacing the Sawtooth Bridge in Kearny and building the Secaucus Loop.