Trump to Schumer: “Drop dead”

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

“Non-existent”: This is the exact term the United States Department of Transportation used to describe any commitment the federal government has toward funding the ambitious, multi-billion-dollar Gateway Program, which would vastly improve passenger rail access to New York City, the nation’s busiest transportation hub.

Late on Friday, Dec. 29, the Trump Administration, in a letter from Federal Transit Administration Deputy Administrator K. Jane Williams to New York State Budget Director Robert F. Mujica, Jr. (who reports directly to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo), effectively declared Gateway dead.

FTA’s letter is a response to a Dec. 14 proposal from outgoing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Cuomo saying that their states and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have agreed to contribute $5.55 billion toward Gateway—50% of the massive project’s cost, placing responsibility with the Trump Administration and the USDOT to contribute the remaining half.

FTA’s letter said, in part (and you can download the whole thing at the link below, if you’re interested): “Your letter … references a non-existent ‘50/50’ agreement between USDOT, New York and New Jersey. There is no such agreement. We consider it unhelpful to reference a non-existent ‘agreement’ rather than directly address the responsibility for funding a local project where 9 out of 10 passengers are local transit riders. Your proposal also overlooks that 50% would be considerably higher than much existing precedent for past ‘mega projects.’ Third, the assumption that $5 billion or more in CIG (Conservation Innovation Grant) funds will be available to New York and New Jersey for this one project lacks recognition of the impact that such funding would have on the availability of funds for the remainder of the country. (As contemplated, this request could exhaust the CIG program entirely.)”

To be fair, the letter provided a faint glimmer of hope: “We understand and appreciate how important this project is to you, and we remain very much open to paths that would enable it.”

If you believe that, I’ve got some nice swampland in the New Jersey Meadows I’ll sell you, dirt cheap. Ain’t no way the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is going to make good on anything his predecessor committed to.

What’s really in play here is a political pissing contest involving two gargantuan egos: President Donald J. Trump and his chief nemesis in the U.S. Senate, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). Bit players in this soap-opera-like saga are U.S. DOT Secretary Elaine Chao; her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.); and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), the Junior Senator from my home state and former mayor of my home town, Newark, N.J.

Let’s not forget an innocent bystander: The single-most qualified person ever selected to be Federal Railroad Administrator: Ron Batory, a 46-year career railroader, an operations and safety expert, the former head of Conrail and the Belt Railway of Chicago, etc., etc.

Schumer’s shtick: “You deny me my Gateway money, which President Obama promised me, and I’ll just keep blocking Batory’s confirmation. Nothing personal, of course.” Schumer’s most recent act of playing spoiler occurred on Dec. 21, when he—with a very self-satisfied smirk on his face—again blocked Batory’s confirmation after Sen. John Thune (R-S.Dak., Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation), took to the Senate floor to call on his colleagues for unanimous consent to confirm Batory’s nomination. Schumer objected, so the vote was not brought to the floor.

Well, Senator, it looks like your dynamite shtick just blew up in your face. As Crain’s New York Business observed: “President Donald Trump dropped his own New Year’s ball—in the form of a wrecking ball—with [an] announcement that effectively wipes out plans for perhaps the nation’s most crucial infrastructure project.”

Happy now?

So, at this point, there is no Gateway Program. No Federal Railroad Administrator. All we have is the possibility that some money for Gateway might be included in Trump’s promised $1 trillion infrastructure plan, which even some key Republicans—including Secretary Chao’s husband—have called a “non-starter.”

Crain’s observed that Trump’s infrastructure plan “would require a large number of votes from Schumer’s conference in order to pass the Senate. Folding Gateway into a Trump infrastructure bill would pressure Schumer to deliver those votes.”

I’ll believe that when it happens. Until then, I’m not holding my breath.

Happy New Year—I think.

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