Biden victory may boost Gateway project

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A win by Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the presidential election might create a smoother path toward completing proposed upgrades to a 110-year-old tunnel linking Manhattan and northern New Jersey that have hit roadblocks under President Trump, according to transportation advocates.

Philip Howard, chairman of the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Good, said the Trump administration has held up approval of an environmental impact statement the past three years for the estimated $11.6 billion Gateway project and predicted a win by Biden would allow the major infrastructure to finally take flight. The long-stalled project would include constructing a dual-track tunnel under the Hudson River and rehabilitating the existing tubes to double-rail capacity.

An Amtrak train exits the North River Tunnel in North Bergen, New Jersey.

“We had a lot of progress in 2016 and early 2017 and then President Trump basically put his neck on this project and is not releasing it,” Howard said. “I think if Biden wins it would be approved promptly and the money would be allocated to do it.”

The stall may be payback for opposition to funding the president's proposed wall on the Mexican border from U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Cory Booker, D.-N.J., who have both been vocal supporters of the Gateway project, Howard speculated. The project's cost climbed to around $30 billion when factoring in future upgrades needed at Manhattan’s Penn Station from an estimated $24 billion in 2017, he added.

Schumer and Booker secured a commitment from the U.S. Department of Transportation and Amtrak in late 2015 to cover no less than 50% of tunnel project costs via grants and funding from federal government sources. New York and New Jersey committed in 2015 to fund the remainder of the project.

New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains faced more than five hours per day of delays between 2014 and 2019 due to structural issues with the tunnel, according to the Gateway Development Corp., a partnership between New York, New Jersey, Amtrak and the Port Authority overseeing the project.

Brian Fritsch, a manager of advocacy campaigns at the Regional Plan Association, said Biden has given strong indications he would support advancing the project in his infrastructure plan unveiled this year, which calls for increased investment in transit, roads and bridges. Having been vice president when the original federal funding agreement for Gateway was crafted would also bode well for Biden greenlighting the project, he added.

“He is hugely supportive of transit systems and Amtrak and wants to invest in the types of projects that would get America moving again and Gateway certainly falls into that category, “ Fritsch said. “I would hope that with Biden we would have a partner.”

New Jersey agreed in 2018 to assume the cost of an estimated $1.5 billion replacement Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River linked to the tunnel. Once the federal government commits, it will issue $600 million of state appropriation backed bonds through the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

Regina Egea, president of the conservative-leaning Garden State Initiative, said New Jersey should be more proactive in advancing the Portal Bridge component of the project without reliance on the federal government, using monies in the state's Transportation Trust Fund. That bridge, a moveable swing span built in 1910, causes headaches for NJ Transit riders from repeated operational failures and needs immediate attention, she said.

"The Portal Bridge get stuck often and interferes with reliability in and out of New York," Egea said. "They should address this in phases and get the Portal Bridge done right away since it is essential to NJ Transit commuters and then you can proceed with the tunnel."

The press offices for the Trump and Biden campaigns did not immediately respond for comment on where they stand with the Gateway project funding.

Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said a Biden presidency would support Gateway as well as a variety of vital transit projects. Gateway is central to other transit enhancements throughout the metropolitan area, such as redeveloping Penn Station, he said, since unreliable tunnels could stall the region’s public transportation network.

“It is clear to me that when his administration, assuming Biden wins, looks at top projects to jumpstart the economy, this is absolutely going to be the top option on the table,” Sifuentes said. “It is hard for me to think of an infrastructure project that looms larger in terms of importance and dire need.”

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Transportation industry Election 2020 Infrastructure New Jersey New York Port Authority of New York & New Jersey