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Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer urged Donald Trump not to play politics with a commuter railroad tunnel under the Hudson River that’s regarded as critical for the Northeast economy, after the president told Republicans not to approve funding for the $12.9 billion plan.
Trump doesn’t want to advance the project, known as Gateway, which would provide a crucial rail link between New York and New Jersey — in part because Schumer had held up the nomination of several of Trump’s nominees, according to people familiar with the president’s thinking on the issue.
“This project is vital to fifty million people in the northeast corridor and to our American economy, and politics shouldn’t get in the way,” Schumer of New York said in an emailed statement.
Committing funds to Gateway also runs head-on into the philosophy that’s driven Trump’s push for a trillion-dollar public works plan — that states and municipalities should bear more of the cost, and the federal government less, for much-needed upgrades to U.S. infrastructure.
Trump talked to Paul Ryan on the subject last week when he was at the U.S. Capitol for a ceremony honoring the late evangelical leader Billy Graham, said two people with knowledge of the discussion who asked not to be identified. The president told the House speaker that he wants to make sure there’s no federal funding earmarked for Gateway. So far, that view hasn’t been widely disseminated to the Republican rank-and-file, though, including House members facing tough re-election fights.
Given his view on how infrastructure should be paid for, it’s not a huge shock that Trump would oppose Gateway. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also is known to have reservations about sinking a lot of money into the project.
But it casts fresh doubt on what President Barack Obama’s administration and Schumer have both described as the most urgent American infrastructure need.
Gateway would supplement a decaying century-old tunnel further damaged by saltwater flooding from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. That tunnel provides the only direct train link between New Jersey and Manhattan for New Jersey Transit and Amtrak, and helps bind the entire Northeast corridor to the New York area.
The Gateway tunnel could double capacity along a 10-mile stretch between Newark, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, the busiest railway station in the U.S.
Representative Peter King, a Republican who represents parts of New York’s Long Island, said the president shouldn’t make Gateway funding about his animus toward Schumer.
“Trump must keep his commitment to Gateway which he made in White House last September. Essential to New York & Northeast,” King said Saturday on Twitter. “Can’t let feud with Schumer hurt New York & United States. Bad enough we got screwed on tax bill.”
There was no response on Saturday from the office of Republican Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, whose affluent suburban district in New Jersey is home to many people who commute into New York City.
Frelinghuysen is retiring at the end of his term, but putting the kibosh on Gateway may be another strike against King and other Republicans in the New York area who are thought to be prime targets for Democrats in November’s mid-term elections.
Representative Leonard Lance, whose district is another major New Jersey commuter center, said via text message that “I hope the news account I read this morning is wrong. The tunnel is needed.”
Trump’s proposal to update the nation’s public works would lean on state and local governments as well as the private sector to pick up most of the cost of repairing and renovating roads, bridges and other infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated there’s a $2 trillion funding gap by 2025. Trump’s $1.5 trillion plan calls for only $200 billion in federal funds.
Cash-strapped states and cities, unwilling — or unable — to raise taxes or levy tolls, want more help, and standoffs like the one now unfolding on Gateway could multiply across the country.
Moreover, any infrastructure legislation proposed by Trump and the Republicans is unlikely to become law without Democratic votes.
While Schumer, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and other New York and New Jersey officials have said that there was a federal commitment, made during the Obama administration, to finance half the project, the Trump administration hasn’t acknowledged it. The tunnel would be part of a series of planned bridge, rail and other improvements that comprise the $30 billion Gateway program.
New York and New Jersey have pledged some $6 billion, mostly from federal loans, and were counting on federal grants to cover the remainder. Earlier this week, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, McConnell’s wife, said that federal loans shouldn’t count toward New Jersey and New York’s share of Gateway.
Chao, who last year called Gateway “an absolute priority,” also said there was no agreement for the federal government to fund half the cost. The commitment from the Obama administration was merely a sentence “given at a rally, a political rally, no less,” Chao said.
Apparent opposition from Trump and Chao is disappointing because the federal government essentially “owns” the tunnel under the Hudson through Amtrak, and will be responsible for the resulting disruption of passenger travel and commerce in the Northeast if it fails before a fix is made, said Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, a New York urban policy group.
“When it fails, he’s going to own that failure, too,” Wright said. Amtrak is a quasi-public corporation funded by state and federal subsidies.
Schumer in February dropped his objection to three transportation nominees proposed by Trump, ending a blockade intended to force the administration to help pay for Gateway.
–With assistance from Elise Young Anna Edgerton Mark Niquette and Sahil Kapur
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.
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