by Nancy Spannaus
Oct. 9, 2018—On September 4, dozens of elected officials, and leaders from the labor and business community in New Jersey held a press conference in Secaucus to demand that action be taken now to unblock federal funding for the Gateway Project that would replace the antiquated bridge and tunnel system that links the two states across the Hudson River. Gateway Development Corporation trustees Jerry Zaro, Tony Coscia, and Steven Cohen issued the following statement after the event:
With 200,000 daily passenger trips, riders from New Jersey, New York and up and down the Northeast Corridor, and 10 percent of the nation’s economy dependent on a reliable and resilient rail link to New York City, there is simply no room and no excuse for failure. We’ve waited too long and allowed too many riders to suffer far too frequent delays and lost productivity. We must finally replace the deteriorating century old, one-track-in, one-track-out tunnel system with modern transportation infrastructure.
Just three days later, on Friday night Sept. 7, 1100 passengers on two New Jersey Transit trains crossing the Hudson River Tunnel saw why building Gateway was so urgent. Electrical wiring came loose, creating explosions, blackouts, and smoke throughout the cars. One car had its ceiling punctured by a hunk of metal. While no one was seriously hurt, and repairs were cobbled together by rush hour Monday morning, the reality of a possible imminent disastrous incident on the highly travelled New York-New Jersey transit corridor couldn’t be missed.
Infrastructure Bank Needed
Where is the major infrastructure program promised by the Trump Administration, and many members of Congress?
The answer is, nowhere. Both Congress and the President have refused to seriously take up the question of funding the necessary multi-trillion dollar national program needed to prevent the catastrophic breakdown of transit, water, and power systems around the nation. Are they waiting for an Italian-style collapse of a bridge, like the one in Genoa this summer which killed dozens? If so, it’s bound to happen.
Unlike in the rest of the country, a solution to the dangerous condition of the bridges and tunnels between New York and New Jersey has already begun to be implemented. According to the Gateway Development Corporation, which oversees the project, construction on the Portal North Bridge is proceeding on schedule and on budget. A structure to protect the water pipe which supplies water to Jersey City has been 95% completed, according to a Sept. 28 GDC press release. Plans for replacing the Hackensack Bridge and the main tunnel system are on the drawing boards, and ready to go.
One of the roadblocks to continuing has come from the Trump Administration, which has held up the environmental permits and given the project the lowest priority in competition for funds, apparently on the spurious claim that it is a “90% local” project. To the contrary, the North-East corridor is, in the words of the GDC, “the most heavily used passenger rail line in the U.S., with more than 2,000 trains per day carrying approximately 800,000 daily riders across eight states and Washington D.C.” States all along the East Coast are directly involved, and much of the nation as a whole.
The more knotty roadblock, however, is funding. New Jersey and New York have already committed to paying half the cost of the project, which runs to at least $15 billion, and up to $30 billion if connecting systems, such as Penn Station and the New York subway, are upgraded as they must be. A small amount of Federal funding has come through, but the flow has now been stopped. Current plans do not include bringing in private partners who would demand user fees, raising the cost for commuter and freight transport. Federal funds are desperately needed.
Congress could, and should, simply allocate the funds to move along this particular Hudson River project in its budget. But there is no excuse for delaying the adoption of a full national program of upgrading the nation’s collapsing infrastructure. There are many more disasters waiting to happen in an infrastructure grid that in many places dates back to the major infrastructure programs of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, or even earlier. The Hudson River tunnel where the sparks were flying was built over 100 years ago.
The FDR model for funding the necessary national upgrades would be a good place to start. Roosevelt used the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) as a de facto national bank, providing Treasury guarantees for grants and loans, the latter of which were largely paid back over time. Another option would be to adopt a more direct Hamiltonian method by creating a National Infrastructure Bank, capitalized with already existing Federal government debt, and charged with lending long-term at low interest rates to necessary capital projects, from high-speed rail and rapid transit to nuclear desalination and fourth generation nuclear power plants.
Both New York and New Jersey political, business, and labor leaders are revving up their mobilization for Federal action. They held a Transport Summit on Sept. 12 to again stress the need for action. They called upon corporations up and down the Northeast Corridor to pressure their Congressmen. The spirit required was summed up by Zaro: “Failure is not an option! The tunnel will have to be built!”