Tunnel Vision

Referred to as “the single most important infrastructure project not only for this region but for the entire nation” by Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Phil Murphy of New Jersey, the Gateway Development Program attempts to rebuild deteriorating tunnels below the Hudson River to save the greater New York City area from financial catastrophe.

The North River Tunnels lie under the Hudson River and carry approximately 200,000 Amtrak and NJ Transit passengers to and from Manhattan each day. In addition, these tunnels are the epicenter of the Northeast Corridor (NEC) that connects Washington D.C. to Boston by rail. While these tunnels ensure the timely travel of almost one million people daily, they are in deep trouble. The tunnels, constructed in 1910, have not been properly maintained or revitalized since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when saltwater flooding resulted in immense structural damage.

In June 2019, the New Jersey and New York state legislatures passed identical legislation that solidified the project under the Gateway Development Commission. The Gateway Development Program is attempting the largest domestic infrastructure project in decades. The project aims to build two new Hudson River tunnels, revitalize the current North River Tunnels, and re-build the 100-year-old Portal North Bridge, which is the cause of many rail stoppages and cancellations. Unfortunately, the project, which is expected to cost nearly $13 billion, has stagnated after receiving countless funding rejections from the federal government and the Department of Transportation, who have argued that the project is a local initiative.

"Jerry Zaro, chairman of the Gateway Program Development Corporation, has even noted that “Gateway is a political pawn, plain and simple—a political hostage of Washington.”"

This political struggle neglects the needs of local stakeholders and puts partisan fighting ahead of the livelihoods of the Americans who rely on these tunnels. The only way for the Gateway Program to move forward is for the federal government to provide the funding necessary to construct the tunnels. The federal government must support this project to prevent the loss of billions of dollars and protect the NEC from collapse.

It is estimated that a tunnel shutdown could cost the U.S. as much as $16 billion over four years. The loss of one tunnel would also force thousands of regular commuters to find new ways to cross the Hudson while others would see increases in commute times. A future shutdown of just one of these tunnels would result in the loss of thousands of jobs and threaten nearly 20 percent of the national GDP.

A tunnel stoppage could also cause a recession in the Greater New York City area, for the deteriorating North River tunnels connect numerous cities and local economies. As this region is home to 17 percent of the U.S. population and almost 100 Fortune 500 companies, this problem threatens the financial security of countless Americans as well as the many organizations that rely on the tunnels under the Hudson River to connect them to their employees.

Through the Department of Transportation, the Obama administration originally agreed to provide half of the funding—nearly $5.5 billion—if New York and New Jersey covered the remaining half of the cost. However, the Trump administration quickly abandoned this plan on the grounds that state governments were not providing enough resources. Many also believe that Trump’s actions represent his disdain for the region’s powerful Democrats, such as Cory Booker and Chuck Schumer, who have championed the project. While President Trump emphasized his intention to invest heavily in the nation’s failing infrastructure during his campaign, the Federal Transit Administration has recently downgraded the urgency of this project to “medium-low.” Jerry Zaro, chairman of the Gateway Program Development Corporation, has even noted that “Gateway is a political pawn, plain and simple—a political hostage of Washington.”

As the decaying tunnels threaten the financial security of hundreds of thousands of people and leave commuters immobile, the federal government must handle the Gateway Development Program with the urgency it deserves. As a tunnel shutdown would most likely create a regional and national recession, the Trump administration must work with the New Jersey and New York state legislatures to finance this project to protect the Tri-State Area and the NEC from economic devastation. Today, Amtrak engineers believe the tunnel has a life expectancy of 20 years. As politicians continue to fight over funding for this project, the prospect of completing one of the largest rail infrastructure projects in decades remains a fantasy. Given that the Gateway Program increases access to the largest regional economy in the U.S. and ensures the safety of thousands of individuals, the federal government must tackle this national problem before it’s too late.

Illustration by Molly Kate Young ’20: mollykateyoung.com

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