Transportation infrastructure underfunding is a “national disgrace,” former Vice President Joe Biden said in New York.

“You’re really up against it like no other time in modern history,” he told a gathering of urban and transit planners Friday at the Regional Plan Association’s 27th annual assembly at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Midtown Manhattan.

"xxxx xxxxx," said former Vice President Joseph Biden.
“You need to shout about how bad things are. Holler," said former Vice President Joseph Biden.

RPA, which awarded Biden the inaugural John Zuccotti Award for leadership in the metropolitan region, is an independent, tri-state region nonprofit civic organization. It intends to release its long-range plan later this fall.

"The harsh reality is that we need you even more than ever before. That’s how high the stakes are,” said Biden, who was vice president under Barack Obama from 2009 to 2016 and was previously a U.S. Senator from Delaware. “We have to get you out of your comfort zone.

“You need to shout about how bad things are. Holler … holler, because we need major investment just to keep where we are.”

During a speech in February 2014, Biden likened LaGuardia Airport in New York to a “third-world country.” State officials have since commenced a $4 billion renovation under a public-private partnership.

Biden on Friday referenced the proposed $24 billion Gateway tunnel project connecting New Jersey and New York across the Hudson River, which he called the most important infrastructure project in America. Uncertainties about federal funding have cast a shadow over the project.

“The Hudson tunnels are on their last legs,” said Biden, recently named the Benjamin Franklin presidential practice professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Folks, it’s hanging by a string. What happens when the string breaks? What if we lose a tunnel or a major bridge?”

Three Penn Station-related commuter delays the past two weeks, including one that stranded 1,200 commuters in a tunnel for three hours on Apri1 14, could cost a year’s worth of debt service for the Gateway tunnel project alone, said RPA president Tom Wright.

“We’re paying the price dearly for not investing in our systems,” said Wright.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie scuttled a previous tunnel project seven years ago, called Access to the Region’s Core tunnel, or ARC.

On his “Ask the Governor” show Thursday night on radio station WKXW-FM, Christie defended his opposition in 2010, saying his state would have had to bear excessive costs. He also blamed Amtrak for two recent New Jersey Transit train derailments and threatened to withhold payments due next month to the quasi-public federal train operator.

“I don’t want to be in a circumstance where I’m withholding payments. I understand that that’s a very, very aggressive maneuver. But I need to get their attention. I will tell you, I believe we’ve now gotten their attention,” Christie said.

Amtrak owns and maintains Northeast Corridor infrastructure.

The Gateway project has also become a focal point for discussions about national infrastructure policy.

President Trump, while campaigning last year, called for a 10-year, $1 trillion infrastructure plan, though details have yet to emerge. It could offer up to $137 billion in federal tax credits to private investors. Speaking Tuesday in Kenosha, Wis., without elaborating, Trump said his administration could link a bill to tax overhaul efforts.

"Until we learn more specifics, however, it’s difficult to say with certainty, what a program will look like," said Janney Capital Markets.

Trump and his supporters have called for private investment that includes tax credits.

Other possible funding sources include an increase in the federal gas tax or new revenues from any tax-overhaul mechanism," Janney wrote. "In any case, state and local government planners remain in suspense, which will likely continue until more specific proposals surface."

Municipal Market Analytics warned in a commentary about the limits to private-sector initiatives such as public-private partnerships, or P3 projects.

“Alternatives to traditional municipal finance simply seem to consolidate control of large projects in the federal government that facilitates the effectiveness of lobby efforts by private enterprise.” said MMA.

“The eclectic and idiosyncratic municipal industry has largely represented a defense against corporate abuse, disruptive lobbying, egregious borrowing and loss of local control.”

Zuccotti, who died in 2015, was a real estate developer and first deputy mayor of New York City. He was a long-serving member of the RPA board of directors.

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Paul Burton

Paul Burton

Paul Burton is the Northeast Regional Editor for The Bond Buyer and the author of the book "Tales from the Newsrooms." He is a sought-after public speaker and has appeared on radio and TV shows, including former CBS News White House correspondent Sharyl Attkisson’s public-affairs program, “Full Measure.”