WESTFIELD – With the U.S. Senate on the verge of approving a long-sought infrastructure package, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Somerset and Union counties Monday to tout what it would mean for New Jersey.

Buttigieg rode the Raritan Valley Line to Westfield from Somerville after touring a transit village being built near the train station in the Somerset County seat. He spoke with a group of mayors from towns along the rail line and heard, among other things, about residents wanting one-seat rides into New York.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said the $1 trillion infrastructure deal as being approved by the Senate would provide New Jersey, at a minimum, with $6.8 billion for highway programs, $1.1 billion for bridge replacement and repairs and $4.1 billion for public transit.

“We have an opportunity like we haven’t had in my lifetime to modernize our transportation infrastructure, to make people’s commutes safer, faster, more reliable,” Buttigieg said.

The Senate is expected to pass the bill Tuesday – perhaps even overnight before the sun rises.

Malinowski sure House will pass the bill

Despite concerns raised by progressives, U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-Ringoes, said he’s certain the bill will be passed by the House with “overwhelming Democratic support.”

“This is not just rebuilding Eisenhower’s interstate highway system for the 98th time,” Malinowski said. “And that was the test for most Democrats. This is about doing something as big and as bold today as the interstate highway system was in the 1950s.”

Malinowski said the bill, which is expected to be supported by about one-third of Senate Republicans, “fixes our democracy as much as it fixes our roads, bridges and trains.” He dismissed former President Donald Trump efforts to pressure Republicans to oppose it.

“There are people in this country who want to create jobs, and there are people in this country who want to create chaos,” Malinowski said.

A pathway for Gateway

Among the projects the bill could fund are the Hudson rail tunnel replacements that are the centerpiece of the Gateway Project, which Buttigieg called “one of the most complex and expensive public works projects in American history.”

“Up until now, the single biggest obstacle across all of the different complexities, engineering and permitting and cooperation, the biggest obstacle has been funding,” Buttigieg said. “And this is our chance to do something very big about that biggest obstacle.”

Buttigieg said the Senate bill amounts to about two-thirds of what President Joe Biden had proposed.

“And what the president first put forward is a generational investment, so that continues to be the order of magnitude that we’re on,” he said.

“While that bill may not give us everything that we want, no compromise could,” Malinowski said. “It does give us everything that we in New Jersey desperately need.”

Tour in Somerville

In his stop in Somerville, Buttigieg took a quick tour of the construction near the train station, where about 740 dwellings are being built, ranging from one-bedroom apartments to three-bedroom townhomes. The idea has been discussed for decades, with the current concept in the works since 2009.

“What you see in Somerville Station is when common sense prevails over everything else,” said Ralph Zucker, president of Somerset Development, who said it took effort to end “segregationist zoning” that didn’t allow for transportation and housing to closely coexist.

“It’s a model for what can happen in the state and the rest of the country,” Zucker said.

Somerville Mayor Dennis Sullivan said the borough is “an old community, it’s a little tired in spots” but loves its infrastructure and transportation. He said a nearby landfill is being cleaned up so that it can be converted to a solar farm, allowing residents of the new community to buy in for renewable energy.

Sullivan said the main concern residents voiced about the development was the impact on schools.

“So far, we’ve built about 400 luxury rentals in the last several years, and at least count I think we had two or three school-aged kids. That’s it,” he said. “All the research shows that these types of projects are people-friendly but not kid-friendly because where do you put the tricycle? Where do you put the sandbox? Where do you put the swing set? You put them in a house like mine a half a mile away.”

Sullivan said some young families that started in the new development liked Somerville and moved to a bigger home in town. Malinowski said the housing option is one accessible for young families who might not otherwise be able to afford a first home in Somerset County.

“But they also want to be closer to transit. They want to be closer to a downtown and restaurants and places to go out,” Malinowski said.

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Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said it’s a way to keep young people from moving away.

“They don’t leave because we can’t offer this type of community to them,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. “And as you know, transformational transportation right now is the walkable, livable community so different from the one I grew up in.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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