On Wednesday, less than 24 hours after 'ruling out' a presidential bid, Governor Andrew Cuomo traveled to Washington for a lunch meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House. Over shrimp, beef and chocolate cake, the governor tried to convince his political nemesis to contribute the promised federal funding for a desperately needed new rail tunnel under the Hudson River.
The Gateway Tunnel, which runs between New York Penn Station and Newark Penn Station, is widely considered one of the nation's most pressing infrastructure projects. The existing 108-year-old tunnel was badly damaged during Superstorm Sandy, and experts warn of imminent emergency repair work that could cut rail capacity into Penn Station by 75 percent, making daily travel hellish for hundreds of thousands of commuters across the region.
While the federal government had agreed to fund half of the project under President Obama, the Trump administration upended that deal last year, and the president has reportedly tried to use the contribution as a bargaining chip for his border wall.
Despite the stakes, and the fact that Cuomo largely campaigned for reelection this year as Trump's antagonist, both politicians painted Wednesday's face-to-face meeting as easy-going and productive—an improvement from last year's "inconclusive" rendezvous. "I have a good relationship with him. I like him. He likes me," Trump told the NY Post in an interview following the meeting. "We're going to look at it."
Cuomo echoed the sentiment, explaining to reporters that both he and the president come from a construction background, and thus understand that governments can't be trusted with building major infrastructure. He also noted that Trump had responded positively to a video filmed last month showing the governor breaking off pieces of the decrepit tunnel with his bare hands. "It's fair to say the president was receptive to what we were talking about," said Cuomo. "The president said he wanted to take next steps to find a way forward."
Those next steps won't include any sort of funding commitment just yet. For now, the two officials have agreed only to tweak the Gateway Program Development Corporation, replacing the Amtrak representative with a federal government official, alongside representatives from New York and New Jersey. The restructured corporation will soon begin the process of soliciting bids from private companies for the tunnel—effectively lopping off the tunnel construction from the larger Gateway Program, which includes projects like the Portal Bridge in New Jersey.
Amtrak, which owns and operates the existing linkage, expects the new tunnel will cost approximately $13 billion, while the full overhaul is estimated in the range of $30 billion (and growing). The state's "maximum budget" is $3.25 billion, or the agreed upon 25 percent of the current estimate for the tunnel, Cuomo said.
The funding breakdown would be revisited once the bidding begins, and both leaders say they're optimistic the final price tag will be lower than Amtrak's estimate. According to one good-government group, the cost of the project increases by about $1 billion each year that it's delayed.
On Wednesday, Cuomo seemed to acknowledge that true progress on the tunnel—which could take a decade to complete—remains elusive. "There is no clock ticking because there is no clock," the governor explained at a press conference after returning to New York. "So we are nowhere right now. The question is how we would start a clock, start a process."
What if the process fails? It's not hard to imagine the president reversing his position yet again, deciding that the commuting prospects of a largely liberal metropolitan region aren't worth his investment, or that the project shouldn't go forward until his border wall gets approval.
"If the president refuses, then the tunnel doesn't get fixed," Cuomo said. "There is no alternative."