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

Trump mulls funding for new Hudson River Rail Tunnel, but continues to balk

Photo showing scene inside Penn Station, NYC
Inside Pennsylvania Station, New York City

Every weekday, about 450 trains pass through the Hudson River Rail Tunnel carrying New Jersey commuters to and from NYC’s Penn Station, as well as Amtrak passengers traveling the Northeast Corridor between Boston, New York, and Washington. The tunnel is over one hundred years old and seriously decayed, and it can’t be renovated until a new tunnel is built. The estimated cost for a new tunnel: $13 billion.

Chuck Schumer, Democratic Senator from New York and Senate Minority Leader, speaking to transportation planners in December 2016 (Bloomberg News report) said: “We don’t build this, and these tunnels fail, the whole economy will collapse. There will be a deep recession in the New York metropolitan area and a recession probably in the whole country.”

A year earlier, in 2015, the federal government reached an agreement with New York and New Jersey to split the cost of a new tunnel three ways, with the feds (who own the tunnel) paying fifty percent. But when Donald Trump assumed the presidency, what had once been considered a done deal, became undone. No federal funding is guaranteed these days. There are no done deals. Deals are fluid things, subject to cancellation on a whim.

The current president is like the ogre featured in fairy tails, the one pictured lurking under a bridge, blocking traffic and the way forward. What does the ogre want? He wants wins, personal wins, and federal funds are a means of getting them. Need federal funds? Give him a win. No win, no funding. And don’t forget, he’s armed with a bag of derogatory names and a veto-tipped cudgel. If you don’t give this ogre what he wants he’ll clobber you.

Last October, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo starred in a video in which he’s seen inside the Hudson Tunnel pulling loose chunks of concrete from its wall (see: Help! The Hudson River Rail Tunnel is falling to bits). The New York Times called it a stunt designed solely to win over an audience of one, the one in the Oval Office. Apparently the stunt worked because a month later, the President invited Governor Cuomo to a meeting in Washington to discuss the need for funding.

At a press briefing November 28, the governor described the meeting as “productive.” Did he a get a funding commitment? No. Will he get one? That depends on what’s in it for the President. Some sort of quid pro quo? Support for his boarder wall in exchange for a funding commitment perhaps? Governor Cuomo says no, not from him. What then? The tunnel project, even if it started today, will not be completed for 8 to 10 years. If there’s a win in that situation for Mr. Trump, I don’t see it. Will he support the project simply because it’s the right thing to do? What do you think?
The following YouTube video shows the Press Briefing held by Governor Cuomo following his meeting with President Trump. It’s worth watching in its entirety.