The Trump administration has made another move that calls into question its commitment to building a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River.
On Friday, a lawyer for the federal Transportation Department sent a letter to the Gateway Program Development Corporation saying the feds will "permanently withdraw" from the board of the organization, created to coordinate the efforts of stakeholders in the tunnel project.
"It is not DOT’s standard practice to serve in such a capacity on other local transportation projects, and DOT’s Trustee has had to recuse from several board actions already," acting general counsel Judith Kaleta wrote in the letter, according to the Wall Street Journal.
A new rail tunnel would help alleviate the strain on the two tunnels currently serving New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains bound for Penn Station. The tunnels opened in 1910 and flooded during superstorm Sandy. Were just one of the tunnels to be closed for emergency repairs before the completion of new tubes, rail capacity into Penn Station from New Jersey would be diminished by 75 percent.
The project also includes replacing the Portal Bridge, which carries NJ Transit and Amtrak trains over the Hackensack River. Also opened in 1910, the bridge moves to allow boats to pass, and has been known to get stuck in the turned position.
The Department of Transportation did not respond to a call from Gothamist seeking comment, but regarding the move to withdraw, a spokesman told the Journal, "The decision underscores the department’s commitment to ensuring there is no appearance of prejudice or partiality in favor of these projects ahead of hundreds of other projects nationwide." The spokesman warned that the surprise move "should not be misinterpreted as a final decision" about the project.
The development corporation was created in 2015 with board members from New York, New Jersey, Amtrak and the DOT, after the relevant officials reached a deal roughly outlining funding for the project. It is estimated to cost $24 billion. The deal followed an earlier decision by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in 2010 to put the kibosh on another cross-Hudson tunnel plan, after ground had broken on it, so that he could avoid raising the state's gas tax (he later raised it anyway). The Obama administration committed to funding half of the Gateway project, and pledged to speed up the environmental review process.
A draft of the environmental review was due Friday, but that too was postponed by the Trump DOT. The DOT spokesman told the Journal it would be released "in the near future" as one of "several project announcements regarding the Northeast Corridor."
Donald Trump made rebuilding U.S. infrastructure a central campaign talking point, and has continued to stress its importance in the six months since he took office.
Speaking at a rally in Cincinnati in June, Trump said, "We build in foreign countries. We spend trillions and trillions of dollars outside of our nation, but we can't build a road, a highway, a tunnel, a bridge in our own nation. And we watch everything falling into disrepair. It's time to rebuild our country, to bring back our jobs, to restore our dreams, and yes, it's time finally to put America first."
Later in the speech, he said, "It should not take 10 years to get approvals for a little, small piece of infrastructure, and it won't. Because under my administration, it's not going to happen like that anymore. We will work directly with state and local governments to give them the freedom and flexibility they need to revitalize our nation's infrastructure."
Trump says that he wants Congress to pass a bill detailing $1 trillion in spending on infrastructure, some of which is supposed to come from private sources.
And yet, Trump's proposed budget calls for a 13 percent cut to the Department of Transportation, including cuts to the capital investment program, from which Gateway tunnel funding was supposed to come, and an elimination of another grant program that was supposed to fund the Portal Bridge replacement. Local funding is lined up for the bridge construction and preliminary work is on track to start within weeks despite the uncertainty about the federal piece of the equation, according to the Journal.
Speaking to WNYC, Gateway Program Development Corporation interim director John Porcari emphasized that 450 trains a day, carrying 200,000 passengers, pass over the bridge and through the existing tunnels each day.
"We have a real sense of urgency, because without an additional bridge and tunnel to provide redundancy, the entire region's economy is in jeopardy," he said. He also noted that there is ample precedent for the federal government to have a seat on the board of a corporation overseeing capital improvements, citing the planned Penn Station expansion in the Farley Post Office building, as well as the redevelopment of Union Station in Washington, D.C.
The issue that matters most, according to Porcari, is whether or not the feds actually end up funding the bridge and tunnel overhaul.
"Whether or not they're actually on the board I think is less important than whether they'll be a funding partner for what is arguably the most urgent infrastructure project in America," Porcari said, adding, "There's no alternative route. There's no other way into New York. It's the lifeblood of the regional economy. There's no more compelling case for infrastructure anywhere in America."
The New York City metropolitan area generated $1.6 trillion in 2015, or about 10 percent of the United States' gross domestic product.