Gateway Project idles while politicians dispute progress

Members of Congress want funding to move forward for rail tunnel projects connecting NYC with New Jersey and Washington
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WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao came under fire Wednesday at an appropriations hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives, with transportation subcommittee chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., charging the Trump administration with “neglecting to include even one cent for the Gateway project” in its fiscal year 2020 budget request.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s proposed budget contains no funding for the construction of a new tunnel, which would allow the aging and hurricane-damaged older tubes to be repaired without disrupting train service. A forced closure of just one of the 111-year old tunnels that carry 2,000 commuter and Amtrak trains a day under the Hudson River would create economic and travel disruptions reverberating throughout the New York region for years, according to a recent report from the New York City-based Regional Plan Association.

The Federal Transit Administration’s funding recommendations give “medium-low” ratings to grant requests for building the new tunnel and replacing the obsolete Portal North Bridge in New Jersey, both part of the Gateway Program.

In a testy exchange at the hearing, U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., pressed Chao on why the Portal Bridge project was downrated on the basis of inadequate local funding, even after New Jersey last year agreed to provide $600 million. The Secretary insisted that “the $600 million by the New Jersey governor is not yet committed.”

However, Steve Sigmund, spokesman for the Gateway Development Corporation, tells Trains News Wire, “On the Portal Bridge we have all of the local share in hand with the $600 million bonding commitment from NJTransit.”

The transit agency is on record as announcing in the spring of 2018 that it approved a financing commitment for construction of a new Portal Bridge.

The tunnel project also awaits a record of decision on the environmental impact statement submitted 14 months ago to the transportation department.

“The administration has essentially shelved it since then,” Sigmund says.

U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., and more than 20 bipartisan members of Congress signed an April 1 letter to Chao asking the department to complete and publish the environmental statement. Asked at the hearing by Watson Coleman why the statement has not been approved, Chao replied, “This impact statement is not ready, but even if it were this project is not ready.”

There has been no shortage of political weight thrown against an apparently unyielding administration, and it has come from both sides of the aisle.

Reps. Peter King, R-N.Y., and Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., introduced what they call a “doomsday bill” to force the Trump administration to reveal how it would handle a tunnel shutdown.

“Either they put up or shut up,” King said in a statement. “Either they come up with a plan to show how they’re going to work around this or they get started with this project, release the money and stop slow-walking it.”

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has proposed legislation that would allow New York and New Jersey to front the money needed for “shovel-ready” parts of the Gateway project, with a guarantee they will be reimbursed once federal funding is approved.

Yet, despite hearings, meetings, letters, statements, and legislative proposals, prospects for breaking the federal logjam are dimming.

“I'm skeptical of the ability of Congress to come together to devote funding for that project,” says Yonah Freemark, a member of the Urban Mobility Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies transport politics.

Traffic nightmares, increased airfares, declining property values, and a $16-billion hit to the national economy over four years are projected by the Regional Plan Association if just one of the twin tunnels were forced to close.

“We have been pushing for a new tunnel across the Hudson River for decades,” says Chris Jones, chief planner and author of the association’s report.

The two tunnels currently have a peak capacity of 24 trains per hour, which would drop to six with one tunnel serving traffic in both directions. Reduced capacity and delays would force New Jersey commuters onto roads, ferries, or Port Authority Trans-Hudson trains. Amtrak service between New York and Washington would likely be cut in half, pushing time-sensitive travelers onto limited airline schedules. New York airports are at capacity, so the additional demand would translate to dramatically increased airfares. Truckers would experience delays as more drivers crowd roads in the region.

While hopes were high earlier this year for a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package that could have included funding for the Gateway project, Washington insiders have become less optimistic. Speaking at a recent Politico event, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said, “The chance of us getting something done in a big way on infrastructure is very small.”

His comment was echoed by other legislators including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill.

What little hope there is rests on changing minds in the White House or getting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to include Gateway funding in must-pass legislation that the president would sign. Observers don’t think either are likely.

Asked if there is much more that can be done at this point, Sigmund says, “No. We need the federal government and the administration in particular to issue a record of decision on the Hudson Tunnel in order to continue to move forward on the work.”

They also need the money.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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