Rail tunnel officials confident despite funding questions
Dec. 21, 2017
NEW YORK (AP) — The group overseeing the building of an estimated $13 billion rail tunnel into New York City said Thursday it's confident the project will be fully funded despite recent pushback from the federal government.
The Gateway Development Corp. is overseeing the massive project, which has been in the works since 2011, a year after Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie canceled a previous tunnel project over fears of cost overruns.
Last week, Christie and Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced how their states, along with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, would pay for 50 percent of the first phase of the project, about $5.5 billion. New York will finance its portion through an annual appropriation and New Jersey through a surcharge for rail riders who travel into New York.
The federal government was to pay the other half under an agreement with then-Democratic President Barack Obama. But Republican President Donald Trump hasn't indicated whether he'll make the same commitment. Through a spokesman, the federal Department of Transportation last week called the states' proposal "not a serious plan."
A senior Trump administration official with direct knowledge of the project, but who wasn't authorized to comment publicly, cast doubt last week on whether a 50/50 agreement still exists, and said the states' request was "unprecedented" and that no previous projects had been funded on a similar 50-50 basis.
The official also said concerns had been expressed that the federal government would be footing the entire cost of the project up front, even though the states would pay back their shares over time under a low-interest federal loan.
Steven Cohen, a former Port Authority vice chairman who sits on the Gateway board and will take over the rotating chairmanship on Jan. 1, said the board remained confident.
"We believe, and every piece of evidence we've ever looked at, every conversation we've had, is that there is a 50-50 deal," Cohen said. "That was always the premise going forward. If there's an issue, we're going to discuss it."
Cohen expressed optimism that Trump would support the project, and brought up Trump's success, as a real estate developer in the 1980s, in refurbishing New York's iconic Wollman Rink skating facility, which had fallen into disrepair despite millions spent by the city to fix it.
"There was squabbling between him and the mayor, but that project got built and it has been an enormous success," Cohen said. "This is a much bigger version of that, and it will get done, and there will be squabbling and there will be disagreement and there will be confusion and posturing, but it will get built."
The tunnel project — as well as an associated project to build a new rail bridge over New Jersey's Hackensack River to replace a malfunction-prone, century-old span — is seen as critical to the economy of the corridor stretching between Boston and Washington, D.C.
Amtrak owns most of the infrastructure on the corridor and uses it along with several commuter railroads that carry hundreds of thousands of people daily.
The Hudson River tunnels are more than 100 years old and sustained heavy saltwater damage during 2012's Superstorm Sandy. Amtrak has estimated one or both tunnel tubes could fail in the next 10 to 15 years, which would bring rail traffic in the Northeast to a near-standstill.