House panel unveils spending bill to ensure funding for Northeast tunnel project

House panel unveils spending bill to ensure funding for Northeast tunnel project
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A House panel unveiled spending legislation on Monday evening that would likely ensure federal funding for a critical tunnel-and-rail project in the Northeast by scaling back several other infrastructure grant programs.

The House Appropriations Committee released its fiscal 2018 spending bill for transportation and housing that includes $17.8 billion in discretionary funding for the Department of Transportation (DOT), which is $646 million less than current levels and $1.5 billion above President Trump's request.

The measure would entirely eliminate the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, which was created by the Obama administration but never actually authorized by Congress. It’s a popular funding tool among cities and states because of its wide range of eligibility.  

House Republicans have long targeted the program for cuts, and President Trump proposed killing TIGER grants in his budget request. The House DOT appropriations bill would zero out the $500 million a year program.

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But it also would direct that money toward “eligible projects for which the environmental impact statement required under the National Environmental Policy Act and design work is already complete at the time of the grant application review, or to projects that address major critical assets which have conditions that pose a substantial risk now or in the future to the reliability of train service.”

That description appears to fit the bill of the Gateway Program, which is an effort to rehabilitate the passenger rail connection between New York and New Jersey. The DOT issued a draft environmental impact statement last week on the Hudson Tunnel Project, which is part of the broader Gateway Program.

The DOT spending bill also provides $1.75 billion for the Capital Investment Grant (CIG) program, known as New Starts, which is $660 million less than current levels but $521 million above the president’s request.

But, according to the Eno Center for Transportation, “at least $400 million of the money appears dedicated to Gateway.” That means Gateway could get up to $900 million in federal funding under the House’s proposal.

While congressional earmarks are banned, appropriators can get creative in how they carve out funding allocations. The administration can also specifically request funding for projects, according to Eno.

New Jersey, New York, Amtrak and the DOT had all agreed to split the cost of the Gateway program, whose final price tag could reach as much as $30 billion. But the Trump administration recently withdrew from Gateway’s board of trustees, worrying project supporters.

Trump also proposed limiting funding for the New Starts program in a way that would exclude Gateway.

The program is considered critical for the Northeast region. The 105-year-old tunnels underneath the Hudson River are expected to be closed in the next decade for at least a year for repairs.

But closing the existing tubes without the creation of additional tracks would reduce system capacity by 75 percent, which could cause paralyzing traffic jams and harm the regional economy.

Northeast-area lawmakers have been pushing Trump to make the program a top priority. Appropriations Chairman Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenHouse panel advances financial services spending bill GOP revolts multiply against retiring Ryan Budget chairman Womack eyes appropriations switch MORE (R) represents New Jersey, though he was one of the only Garden State lawmakers who didn’t sign on to a letter urging the administration to back the project.

The rest of the DOT spending bill would allow $45 billion from the Highway Trust Fund to be spent on the Federal-Aid Highways Program, provide $1 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration’s modernization program and prohibit funding for high-speed rail in California.

It also rejects Trump's proposal to eliminate Essential Air Service and instead maintains full funding for the program, which helps provide air service in small and rural communities.

And the measure would prevent states from implementing their own meal and rest breaks for truckers, a controversial provision that Democrats have been fighting to keep out of transportation and aviation bills.