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AASHTO Journal

WSJ Report: NY-NJ Senators Hold USDOT Nominees Over Hudson River Tunnel Dispute

The four Senate Democrats from New York and New Jersey have delayed confirmation of three of President Trump's senior nominees for Department of Transportation jobs, the Wall Street Journal reported, in a dispute over funding construction of new Amtrak tunnels into New York City.

Those senators, who include Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., "say they delayed the nominees out of concern that the administration is uninterested in pushing ahead with a new tunnel under the Hudson River – and might ultimately decline to provide funding for a project seen as vital to the economic future of the Northeast," the story said.

The Journal noted that when the Senate on Aug. 3 confirmed dozens of nominees to various agencies – including some for the USDOT that won committee approval only a day earlier – the list did not include the nomination of Adam Sullivan as assistant Transportation secretary for governmental affairs, Derek Kan to be undersecretary of transportation for policy or Ronald Batory to head the Federal Railroad Administration.

"The Obama administration said the federal government would pay half the cost of the project, which includes a new bridge and expansion of [New York City's] Penn Station" at an estimated cost of $29.1 billion, the story said.

train-hudtunnel.jpg Train emerges from current Hudson tunnel in North Bergen, N.J.

However, "the Trump administration hasn't said whether it would stand by that commitment, and officials working on the project have noted worrying signs, from cuts to infrastructure funding in Mr. Trump's budget proposal to failure by DOT to issue relatively routine approvals to allow preliminary work to proceed."

Backers of the work known as Amtrak's Gateway Program say it is urgently needed "to avoid a potentially catastrophic outage" in rail service, the Journal said.

Currently, two century-old rail tunnels under the Hudson carry about 200,000 riders each weekday on Amtrak and regional commuter trains to and from Penn Station. They suffered extensive salt-water damage after Superstorm Sandy flooded them in 2012, and have suffered periodic short-term outages that disrupted travel across the region.

When that happened, it sometimes put thousands more travelers onto the regions already heavily congested roadways, adding to congestion and delays for commuters and highway freight shipments.

The plan would be to build two new tunnels and shift rail traffic into them while the old ones are taken out of service, repaired and brought back to add capacity and redundancy to a critical segment of the rail system for the entire Atlantic coast region.

The Journal also reported that a DOT official defended administration actions on the tunnel project and "said the department has moved quickly on procedural matters, including issuing an environmental review for the tunnel last month. The department has asked sponsors of projects like the tunnel to come up with their own financing proposals and will be involved in developing a broader administration infrastructure package, expected in the fall."

The story quoted a DOT spokesperson saying the department "has proceeded appropriately, and it is counterproductive to deprive DOT of highly qualified, noncontroversial nominees, who are needed to accomplish the Department's work on behalf of the American people, for reasons having nothing whatever to do with their merits."

The Journal reported that Democrats said DOT officials are deferring to the White House on matters involving infrastructure, given that the president has promised to unveil a program to generate $1 trillion of investment over a decade in transportation and other infrastructure projects.

"The DOT official said the department will be involved in crafting the administration's proposal and said it would be premature to offer a funding commitment to the Hudson River project given competing requests from around the country," the story said.

The Journal noted that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie "has thrown his support behind the Gateway tunnels, years after he killed an earlier Hudson River tunnel plan that led Amtrak to begin designing the Gateway project. And New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo visited Washington late last month to lobby [Transportation Secretary Elaine] Chao for federal support for the tunnels."

Photo/ Amtrak's Hudson Tunnel Project website.

8/11/2017
Questions regarding this article may be directed to editor@aashtojournal.org.