The disruptive entities blocking the new Hudson River rail tunnel

Aerial photo of trail leaving west portal of Amtrak’s Hudson River ail Tunnel at North Bergen, NJ
Amtrak’s Hudson River rail tunnel, west portal, North Bergen, NJ. Image: Bloomberg

The Hudson River tunnel project (map below) is part of the Gateway Program, the planned expansion and renovation of the Northeast Corridor rail line between Newark, NJ and New York City. The existing twin-tube tunnel was flooded with salt water during hurricane Sandy in 2012 and is in desperate need of repair (see post of Oct. 23, 2018, ‘Help! The Hudson River Rail Tunnel is Falling to bits’). The tubes need to be gutted so that they can be relined and refitted with hardware, including: tracks, bench walls, conduits, utilities, ventilation, signals, and the catenary systems to feed electricity to the locomotives. But because the tunnel is being used to capacity — up to 450 trains every week day — the needed repairs can’t be done until a new tunnel is built and ready to take over the traffic.

Map of proposed alignment of new Hudson River Rail Tunnel
Proposed alignment for new Hudson River Rail Tunnel. Image from draft environmental impact statement, June 30, 2017, Federal Railroad Administration ( FRA) and NJ Transit

The Hudson rail yards (image below) on Manhattan’s west side, a 28 acre area bounded by 10th and 12th Avenues and 30th and 33rd Streets, is the site of a $25 billion real estate development. The area is also where Amtrak’s existing Hudson River rail tunnel as well as the proposed second tunnel are anchored at their east ends. When construction for the Hudson Yards project began in 2013, the question was how to preserve the new tunnel’s right-of-way. The answer: build an underground concrete casing large enough and long enough to accommodate about 1200 feet of double track rail tunnel.

Aerial view of Hudson Rail Yards, NYC c2010
Hudson Rail Yards (looking east) before redevelopment began in 2013. Approximate location of underground right-of-way for new tunnel indicated in yellow. Penn Station can be seen at upper right (blue). Portion of Hudson River at bottom left. Image from AP photo.

According to Amtrak, construction of the first 900 feet of tunnel casing from 10th Ave. to beyond 11th Ave. was  completed in 2016. The next step will, in coordination with the westward development of Hudson Yards, extend the casing to 30th Street near 12th Avenue. The completed tunnel casing will be sealed at both ends and remain hidden and empty until a new Hudson River tunnel can make use of it.

Photo of right-of-way tunnel casing under Hudson Yards
Part of right-of-way tunnel casing under Hudson Yards. Image: John Cichowski/NorthJersey.com

The need to build an additional rail tunnel has been known since the 1990’s. In 2012 the need became urgent. Yet the project continues to  languish for lack of funds. Why? The latest projected cost for a new tunnel plus repair of the existing tunnel is 11.3 billion (Gateway Program, Aug. 23, 2019). That’s half the cost of the Hudson Yards real estate project. Yet, while the privately funded Hudson Yards development is proceeding at full speed (image below), the publicly funded tunnel project is barely alive.

Aerial photo of Hudson Yards real estate development, phase one, opened March 2019
Hudson Yards real estate development, phase one, opened March 15, 2019. Image: Related Companies

So who or what is to blame for the delay in funding and building the new Hudson River Rail Tunnel? Here are some clues:

November 2015 the Obama administration agreed to a Gateway project funding arrangement whereby the feds would cover 50% of the costs while New York and New Jersey would share the cost of the remaining 50%. The agreement was worked out with Dept. of Transport (DOT) officials in conjunction with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Amtrak. But on Dec. 28, 2017, the Trump administration denied the existence of the 50-50 funding deal. The letter from the Dept. Of Transport (responding to a letter from NY State) contains the following passage:

“Your letter also references a nonexistent ’50-50′ agreement between USDOT, New York and New Jersey. There is no such agreement. We consider it unhelpful to reference a nonexistent ‘agreement’ rather than directly address the responsibility for funding a local project where nine out of 10 passengers are local transit riders”

June 30, 2017 – On the same day The Federal Railroad Administration and NJ Transit released a draft Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed Hudson River tunnel, DOT sent a letter to the Gateway Development Corporation permanently withdrawing DOT Secretary Elaine Chao from its board of trustees. 
Sept. 7, 2017, 
after a bipartisan meeting in the White House to discuss infrastructure, President Trump (according to Politico) offered Sen. Schumer a deal: Schumer could have his Gateway tunnel if Trump got his border wall with Mexico. Schumer said he couldn’t make that trade. 
March 6, 2018, d
uring a hearing in the House on transportation, Transport Secretary Chao was asked if President Trump was pressuring the House Speaker to kill the Gateway project. She said,“Yes. The President is concerned about the viability of the project and the fact that New York and New Jersey have no skin in the game. They need to step up and pay their fair share. They are two of the richest states in the country.” 
March 8, 2018, 
President Trump threatened to veto legislation funding the government through September if any money for the Gateway tunnel was included in the $1.3 trillion spending bill.

Clearly, President Donald Trump and DOT Secretary Elaine Chao are to blame for blocking the Hudson River tunnel project. But these two individuals do not function in a vacuum, they are members of the Republican Party and, as such, reflect the attitudes of that group. The Republican Party apposes federal funding for public transit of all kinds including passenger rail. Here are some excerpts from the 2016 Republican Platform (gopconvention2016.com Committee website):

Website cover

♦ “We propose to remove from the Highway Trust Fund programs that should not be the business of the federal government. More than a quarter of the Fund’s spending is diverted from its original purpose [highways]. One fifth of its funds are spent on mass transit, an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities.” 
♦ “We propose to phase out the federal transit program and reform provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act which can delay and drive up costs for [highway] transportation projects.” 

♦ “Amtrak is an extremely expensive railroad for the American taxpayers, who must subsidize every ticket. The federal government should allow private ventures to provide passenger service in the northeast corridor.”

♦ Democrats want to “coerce people out of their cars.” 

The Republican Party’s far-right wing has been particularly hostile to public transit. Here’s a 2008 quote from Michele Bachmann, former Minnesota Rep. and Tea Party darling: “They [Democrats] want Americans to take transit and move to the inner cities. They want Americans to move to the urban core, live in tenements, take light rail to their government jobs. That’s their vision for America.”

Plainly, the Republican Party, the Republican administration, and Republicans in Congress are all to blame for blocking the Hudson River tunnel project. Even if President Trump and Secretary Chao were removed from office today, funding for the tunnel project would continue to be apposed  by Republicans in office.

However, Republican office holders reflect the interests of the industries that finance their election campaigns, that tell them how to think and vote once they are in office, and that provide them with lucrative positions once they leave office. By far the most powerful of these industries is the Oil & Gas Industry. The Oil & Gas Industry is hostile to any initiative, large or small, public or private, that promises to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. A new or improved public transit system is just one such initiative.

The Oil & Gas Industry has spent billions over the past several decades promoting the benefits of fossil fuels (despite knowing about the dire effects of burning the stuff) and its lobbying efforts, focused almost exclusively on Republican politicians, has been intense. So here’s the thing: even if Republicans were swept from office today, lobbying pressure from the Oil & Gas Industry will not disappear; it will simply be refocused on the new office holders until such time as ‘right thinking’ Republicans are re-elected.

So, while the President and his Transport Secretary are immediately to blame for blocking the construction of a new Hudson River tunnel, and whereas Republicans collectively are actually to blame, it’s the Oil & Gas Industry that is ultimately to blame. Smashing the power of that industry will not be easy, but, for the good of the country and its politics, it must be done.

From ‘The [Oil] Cycle Interrupted’. Image: Warhammer Games

Corruption is also a product of the Oil & Gas Industry

Cartoon about manipulation of science by special interests
Image from UCS Blog – Union of Concerned Scientists

“[T]he norms and expectations that once ensured that our government was guided primarily by the public interest rather than by individual or partisan interest have significantly weakened. There are now far fewer constraints to deter abuse by executive branch actors.”

The above understatements of the year are from a report released October 3, 2019 by The National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy, a group formed under the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law to figure out how to restore trust in government. The report focuses on the politicization of government science and research. It lists over a hundred specific occurrences of political manipulation of scientific findings. Examples from the list follow (numbers refer to the report’s itemization system):

#453 – The Dept of the Interior’s top climate change scientist was reassigned to an accounting role, despite no training in accounting, after he highlighted the dangers climate change poses for Alaska’s Native communities. Washington Post July 19, 2017

#448 – After Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) researchers produced a study showing economic benefits to protecting wetlands from pollution, aides to the agency’s administrator told them to produce a new study showing no such benefits. NYTimes August 11, 2017

#482 – Chairman of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) questioned studies that connect serious human health problems to air pollution and accepted research funding from the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry lobbying group that reviewed his findings before publication. ScienceMag (American Association for the Advancement of Science) December 10, 2018

#493 – The news that the EPA stoped updating its climate change websites in April 2017 is confirmed. The agency removed its climate change subdomains from public access, and removed links to its searchable web archive for any past information on the subject. Newsweek November 2, 2018

#485 – Chairman of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) wrote a letter to the EPA administrator criticizing the agency’s use of science to set air pollution standards and questioned the long-established scientific view that fine particulate airborne matter is linked to early deaths. Scientific American March 29, 2019. 

#502 – The Dept. of Agriculture withheld a news release and sought to prevent dissemination of the findings by the department’s research partners concerning a groundbreaking discovery that rice loses vitamins in a carbon-rich environment — a potentially serious health concern for the 600 million people worldwide whose diet consists mostly of rice. Politico June 23, 2019

#441 – High-level Department of the Interior officials altered an environmental assessment for seismic surveying prepared by career scientists in order to underplay the potential impact of oil and gas development on Alaska’s coastal plain. Politico July 26/19

The ill effects of a corrupt executive branch go much deeper than the subversion of scientific findings. President Trump has packed his administration with fossil-fuel friendly officials willing to put Big Oil interests ahead of the public interest. The decisions made by these unelected officials, anxious to do the bidding of their bosses in and out of government, are helping to destroy the environment and cripple the country’s economic prospects. For example, here’s how this top-down rot is working to hobble the country’s nascent offshore wind energy industry:

Vineyard Wind, a $2.8 billion, 800-Megawatt offshore wind power project planned for waters south of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, has been put on hold by the Trump administration. Vineyard had submitted its Construction and Operations Plan (COP) to the Department of the Interior (DOI) in December 2017 and had expected to receive the go-ahead last month. The map below shows the proposed wind turbine layout submitted to DOI by the company.

Map to show location of Vineyard Wind offshore project

So what is the government’s  excuse for delaying the project? In an August news release, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) — the agency under DOI responsible for managing development of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf — provides two excuses:

(1) “Comments received from stakeholders and cooperating agencies [have] requested a more robust cumulative analysis.” 
(2) “Because . . . 
a greater build out of offshore wind capacity is more reasonably foreseeable than was analyzed in the initial draft EIS [Environmental Impact Statement], BOEM has decided to supplement the Draft EIS and solicit comments on its revised cumulative impacts analysis.”

Excuse (1) is the Trump administration’s way of saying that the delay is open ended and that it doesn’t have defensible reasons to justify it.

Excuse (2) refers to the fact that the wind energy industry has shown great interest in building wind farms off the East Coast (an estimated $70-billion in wind industry investments over the next decade). The claim that that interest was not “reasonably foreseeable” by DOI, is nonsense. The following is from TheHill June 4, 2013:

“Interior announced on [June 3, 2013]  that it would hold an auction on July 31, 2013 for 164,750 acres off the coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which has the potential to generate 3,400 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 1 million homes. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the pending lease sale — which has drawn interest from nine firms — “history in the making.” 

If former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was able to foresee, in 2013, the potential for “a greater build out of offshore wind capacity”, then you can bet current Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was able to foresee it too. It’s just that Mr. Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil industry, doesn’t like the view. David Halperin, writing in Desmogblog March 26, 2019, says: “Bernhardt is . . . more skilled [than his predecessor Ryan Zinke] in the ways of law and government. But in terms of the ways that money corrupts politics and policy, his record is even more concerning. David Bernhardt is the ultimate swamp creature.”

U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-MA) is quoted by WBUR Boston, Aug 9, 2019: “When it comes to the nation’s first major offshore wind project — which has gone through years of extensive study, public comment and mitigation plans for impacted communities — they are trying to delay it to death. . . . Worse still, they are threatening the future of large-scale renewable energy development at a moment when the price of our oil and gas dependency becomes more obvious — and more terrifying — by the day.”

Six hundred thousand (600,000) U.S. wind energy jobs by 2050: that was the prediction made in a March 2015 report from the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. According to the Environment & Energy Study Institute, the wind industry now (July 2019) supports 111,000 direct jobs. To Oil & Gas Industry executives, those figures are the stuff of nightmares. The shift to renewable energy is an existential threat to their industry. They need people like David Bernhardt to help slow it down.

Aerial photo of Wind Farm, North Sea UK
Offshore wind farm, North Sea UK