While the COVID-19 virus was occupying most of our attention, an event so unforeseeable and strange occurred that anything remotely resembling it had previously been considered unthinkable. For a brief time in April, oil literally became equivalent to trash. It brought a negative price on the market, which meant that its owners had to pay to get rid of it, as the cost to store it kept rising. That phenomenon was a momentary hiccup of our virus-based economy, but it says something about supply, demand and the cost of infrastructure. This does have something to do with the Gateway Program, and it is time for the members of the Board of the Gateway Development Corp. (GDC) to start noticing some recent changes. As of the May 28 meeting, they had not.
Proponents of the Gateway Program split a double-header on Feb. 10, 2020, when the Federal Transit Administration released its ratings for projects for which grant applications were filed through the New Starts, Small Starts and Core Capacity Improvement Programs.
When we last reported to you about the Gateway Program on Aug. 13, 2019, its proponents were making a best effort to alarm the public about the condition of the existing tunnels between New Jersey and Penn Station New York (officially known as the North River Tunnels), in the hope of stirring up public and political support for spending billions of dollars to build a new set of tunnels before starting repairs on the existing ones. At they same time, they were disparaging an alternative repair method now being implemented on the Canarsie Tunnels under 14th Street in Manhattan and under the East River to Brooklyn on the L-Train line of the New York City subway system, a method that averted a 15-month shutdown of the busiest part of the line.
When we published the sixth article in this series last month, we promised continuing coverage of the Gateway saga. What we did not know at that time was that so much news would come to us so quickly. At a Board meeting of the Gateway Program Development Corp. on July 22, a Gateway spokesperson presented an analysis of delays that he attributed to the existing Portal Bridge and the existing Hudson Tunnels (also known as the North River Tunnels) on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) and criticized the plan currently under way to rehabilitate the Canarsie Tunnels in New York City. Both analyses omitted facts that indicate that Gateway’s Hudson Tunnel and Portal North Bridge projects are not as cost-effective or necessary as he made them appear. Later that day, the Gateway Corporation became a “Commission” with questionable fundraising authority. Despite that change, a former offer by New Jersey Transit (NJT) to impose a surcharge on future rail trips to and from New York has been scuttled, raising the question of how New Jersey can replace the money that would have come from the surcharge.
At a legislative hearing on Aug. 16, 2018, Gateway Program Development Corp Interim Executive Director John D. Porcari said, “There is no Plan B.” He was wrong. At the same hearing, this writer (as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, a New Jersey-based advocacy organization) outlined the “Plan B” that some rider-advocates had formulated and submitted, in the event that the entire $30 billion-plus Gateway program as currently proposed fails to attract sufficient funding. Porcari stuck to his story that the existing North River Tunnels are deteriorating so quickly that they constitute a disaster waiting to happen but, under his proposal, they would not be repaired until 2030 or some time shortly thereafter.
Ever since Hurricane Sandy devastated the New York and New Jersey region in October 2012, the tunnels under the Hudson River between New Jersey and Penn Station New York have been described as a ticking time bomb, subject to complete failure at any time; at least any time after 2021, and more likely after 2034.
The original Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) Project started with a semblance of consensus but ended its 15-year life in controversy. Its replacement, Gateway, was proposed in February 2011, and has been surrounded by controversy for the entire eight years of its life, so far. The politicians and planners who are pushing the program consider it inevitable, just as they considered the now-defunct ARC Project inevitable almost until the day it was killed in 2010.
The Gateway Project to build two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River connecting New Jersey and New York has been mired in political controversy for years, going back to its first iteration, the ARC (Access to the Region’s Core) project, or “THE (Trans-Hudson Express) Tunnel,” dubbed by critics as “the tunnel to Macy’s basement,” and killed by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is the latest politician to add fuel to the fire.
New Jersey Transit’s Board of Directors on June 13 approved a financing agreement with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) that provides up to $600 million toward the construction of the first phase of a new Portal Bridge, a key component of the ambitious Gateway Project to improve passenger rail service between New York City and New Jersey. The funding commitment “solidifies New Jersey’s local share of the project cost,” NJT said.
A revision by the Federal Transit Administration lowering the priority rating for the proposed Gateway rail tunnels could endanger funding for the project linking New York and New Jersey.