Set politics aside and fund New York-New Jersey transit system

Set politics aside and fund New York-New Jersey transit system
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The nation’s largest metropolitan area, and one of the world’s great economic engines, is in danger of being choked off at the seams. Passenger rail access to New York City from the west is becoming less reliable and more vulnerable to a catastrophic blow that could grind parts of the city, and large swaths of its economy, to a virtual halt.

After raising the alarm for years about the limitations and potential threats to the 107-year-old passenger rail tunnels that connect New Jersey and the rest of the Northeast Corridor to Manhattan, we have recently seen some signs of hope. President Trump met with the governors of New York and New Jersey, as well as key members of both state’s congressional delegations, to discuss how to fix one the nation’s most pressing and economically crucial infrastructure challenges.

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While no firm agreement was reached, both states have made preliminary financial commitments and the federal government has acknowledged the need to focus on this problem. Some 200,000 daily passengers use the tunnels between the two states, a combination of New Jersey Transit and Amtrak riders. First opened in 1910, these tunnels were built to early 20th century standards and are straining to keep up with the load.

Making matters worse, damage caused by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 shortened even further their safe lifespans, necessitating the revival of a stalled plan to build a new tube. A new tunnel would allow trains to continue flowing while repairs are made to the older tracks, and then double capacity by 2030, after work is complete.

Part of a larger, regional solution known as the Gateway Program, the Hudson Tunnel Project would work in concert with new bridges and smaller tunnels in New Jersey and the ambitious expansion of Pennsylvania Station in New York. The price is steep, with some estimates of Gateway’s cost at nearly $30 billion, with the Hudson Tunnel Project alone clocking in as high as $13 billion.

With numbers like that, it is not surprising that the issue has been something of a political football in Trenton, Albany and Washington in recent years. As the former head of government relations for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which formed the Gateway Program Development Corporation to oversee the project, I saw firsthand the incredible bureaucratic complexities, turf rivalries, and fiscal shock and awe these plans first caused.

The devastation that the region experienced from Superstorm Sandy created a rare opportunity. It became clear that the debate was not about whether this project should get done but how to go about ensuring its success. Amtrak itself has said the tunnels are at risk of failure and action needs to be taken.

As costly as this project will be, in terms of money and political capital, the consequences of doing nothing will be far worse. The current tunnel sees 450 train trips per day and shutting it down for repairs without a replacement would reduce that traffic by 75 percent. That’s not to mention what would happen if the tunnel simply collapsed and had to be rebuilt from scratch.

The percentage of commuters using public transit to travel from New Jersey to New York has grown from 39 percent to 52 percent in the past 30 years. Since 1980, commuter and intercity rail passengers into New York City is up 200 percent. These tunnels are the lifeblood of the region’s economy.

The New York metropolitan region accounts for $1.3 trillion in economic output, about one-third of the Northeast Corridor megaregion and close to 9 percent of the entire national economy, making it the most economically robust metro area in the nation. Manhattan alone provides more than 2.1 million jobs and hosts 1.6 million commuters a day. New Jersey accounted for more than 13 percent of the Manhattan workforce as of 2013. We as a nation cannot afford to allow crumbling infrastructure to put a significant dent in that already strained financial ecosystem.

What’s more, Amtrak anticipates the Hudson Tunnel Project would cut down on delays by 50 percent. Following a high-profile series of crippling delays in 2015 and then the “summer of hell,” that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proclaimed in 2017, the human and financial cost of constant train delays has had a real impact on the millions of residents and commuters in the region. Anyone who has taken an Amtrak or New Jersey Transit train into Penn Station can attest to the slow crawl, and frequent stops, that signal the approach into New York City.

As noted earlier, the political and fiscal hurdles remain high, but progress is definitely being made. The House has included $900 million in an appropriations bill it advanced over the summer to begin funding the project. Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie agreed in principle to split half the cost of the Gateway Program with the federal government, though that was assuming a total $20 billion price tag, which has since been bumped up.

Many have also pointed to the $35 billion federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing Program, which provides low-interest loans for rail construction. Amtrak has also agreed to set aside portions of revenue it generates on the Northeast Corridor lines for construction as well.

Large infrastructure projects such as Gateway are daunting. Simply saying the cost figures out loud can scare off elected officials, who understandably want to be portrayed as fiscally prudent. But when it comes to investments like this one, which will not only create safe and secure public transportation for generations to come but will also have immediate and positive economic impacts for the entire nation, it creates the possibility for a truly lasting legacy.

Obviously the partisan political environment in Washington, and to some extent in the states, makes cooperating across the aisle difficult. The Gateway Program, however, is that rare chance to put aside partisan squabbles and act in the best interests of all citizens, regardless of their political allegiances. It is the right thing to do for our region, our nation and for the economic security of our children and grandchildren.

Brian W. Simon is director of government relations in the New York office of Davidoff Hutcher & Citron. He is the former director of government relations at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.