With Biden presidency, could NJ finally see the Gateway project move forward?

Daniel J. Munoz//November 10, 2020//

With Biden presidency, could NJ finally see the Gateway project move forward?

Daniel J. Munoz//November 10, 2020//

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Some of the region’s top elected officials and heads of transportation on Monday said they are confident with a Joe Biden presidency work could finally begin on the long-delayed Hudson River tunnels.

Known as the Gateway Project, they had initially gotten a green light from the Obama administration but had been stonewalled under President Donald Trump. Much-needed funding had been denied, and environmental reviews collected dust.

Gov. Phil Murphy and a federal delegation tour the Hudson River Tunnel. – EDWIN J. TORRES/GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

“I’m highly optimistic that will get green-lighted — President-elect Biden knows this project very well,” Gov. Phil Murphy told Bloomberg TV over the weekend. “Literally it is shovel-ready. You could envision putting a shovel in the ground, first quarter of next year.”

The former vice president – often called “Amtrak Joe” for his frequent use of public transit on the Northeast corridor – clinched the presidency over the weekend. And he’s frequently campaigned as an avid supporter of mass transit projects, such as expanded rail.

That attitude could be sorely needed for the 110-year-old Hudson River tunnel, which serves as a chokepoint for the most heavily-traveled section of railway in the nation. The tunnels were badly damaged during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Proponents warn that if one of the tunnels were to be taken out of commission hundreds of thousands of commuters who depend on transit would be devastated.  The region accounts for roughly 20% of the nation’s gross domestic product, 10% of it alone from New York City.

Tony Coscia

“The president-elect was very vocal about being supportive of the Gateway program and what it means to the nation’s economy,” Anthony Coscia, board chair of Amtrak, which owns much of the Northeast Corridor including the Hudson River portions, said in an interview.

I think there are a lot of reasons. In an effort to recover from the economic impact of COVID, that infrastructure will be front and center,” with Gateway taking the lead, Coscia added.

A replacement of the tunnels to increase capacity is slated to cost roughly $12 billion, though an updated financial plan over the summer calls for both states, Amtrak and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to put up over half of the funds.

But the Trump administration scuttled a 50-50- financing agreement with New Jersey and New York. Trump in 2018 said he would not sign a spending bill that included funding for the project.

His animosity toward it has been traced back to his tensions with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York.

Trump finally committed over the summer to $766 million for the Portal North Bridge, a swing bridge that sits several miles south of the tunnel entrance. It’s been famously considered a choke point for the route because of how often it becomes stuck after allowing boats along the Hackensack River to pass underneath it, snarling rail traffic.

The planned replacement would raise the height of the bridge, eliminating any such need altogether.

But it falls short of the Hudson River tunnel.

The Gateway Development Corporation, which formally oversees the tunnel’s construction, estimated that the years-long project would add over 72,000 direct jobs and $19 billion in economic activity.

“President-Elect Biden has prioritized infrastructure and the Hudson Tunnel project specifically, which is good news,” GDC spokesperson Stephen Sigmund said in a statement.

“And the right investment for any administration is to partner with us to build Gateway – providing tens of thousands of jobs, improving reliability and capacity, and protecting 20% of the nation’s GDP from a potential closure of a vital link to the nation’s economic heart.

With the project to likely take upward of a decade, that economic windfall could be in the region for years to come, suggested Greg Lalevee, business manager at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825, which represents construction workers.

“Considering that President-elect Biden used Amtrak to get back and forth to work on a regular basis, I think he understands the importance of the Northeast Corridor, and I hope his administration sees a path forward,” Lalevee said.

Coscia said that with the pandemic driving down rail traffic, Amtrak will have the opportunity to at least do some rehabilitation work on the existing tunnels. Those plans will be announced later this month.

“When you take these tracks out of service, you have to take them out of service for a significant amount of time, so the light traffic helps somewhat,” he said. “We’ve got chunks of time we could take them out of service because there are fewer trains.”