Transit Experts, US Chamber of Commerce Tell Menendez: We Agree, Gateway Must be Federally Funded

Transit Experts, US Chamber of Commerce Tell Menendez: We Agree, Gateway Must be Federally Funded

Senator presses key stakeholders on Gateway during hearing to reauthorize federal transportation bill



WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, ranking member of the Senate’s transit subcommittee, today pressed key national stakeholders during a full Banking Committee hearing on the merits and need for the federal government to fund the entire Gateway Project to replace the nearly 110-year-old Portal Bridge and build a new Hudson River rail tunnel along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC).  

“Do you believe that the federal government has an important role to play in the funding of such nationally significant projects?” Sen. Menendez asked the panel testifying during a hearing to reauthorize the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.

“Senator, I do,” said Paul Skoutelas, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).  “There’s no question about the importance of that investment and the merit that it does have.  So, we are very supportive.  We think it should be included for federal funding and something we want to see move forward.”

Earier this month, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) announced that it upgraded its rating to medium-high for the Portal North Bridge replacement project—a significant step towards making it eligible for federal funding—but maintained a medium-low rating for construction of a new trans-Hudson River rail tunnel. 

“There’s no doubt that the Gateway corridor is a key project that not only affects New York and New Jersey, but the whole eastern seaboard,” said U.S. Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Transportation and Infrastructure Ed Mortimer.  “We believe there is a federal component about that, and we certainly want to see all stakeholders come together to address that issue.  The longer we wait, the more it’s going to cost.”  

Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C. generates one-fifth of the nation’s economy, but a failure of the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River in Kearny, N.J., or the trans-Hudson rail tunnels would grind rail traffic on the NEC to a halt for an indefinite amount of time, costing the country $100 million a day, according to Amtrak estimates.   

“Ensuring the long-term viability of our transit systems is a critical component of addressing our broader infrastructure needs as a nation,” Sen. Menendez said.  “Transit systems are an economic driver for our communities, generating four dollars of economic returns for every dollar invested and creating over 50,000 jobs for every $1 billion we invest.  While I have always supported funding for our critical highway programs as well, we need to place that same emphasis on our transit systems—they cannot be an afterthought.” 

The over century-old infrastructure handles 450 trains and 200,000 passenger trips daily and is in dire need of replacement.  Superstorm Sandy’s floodwaters only further exacerbated the state of the aging Hudson River tunnels. 

“When you talk to our members who have to operate the trains through those tunnels, that have to maintain the signal systems, the electrical systems, the tracks themselves, they tell real horror stories,” said AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Larry Willis.  “We’ve got a real problem on our hands.  Obviously, you know the economic consequences of shutting down that tunnel and reduce capacity by 75 percent, but our members will tell you there’s a real problem right now going on in there that needs to be addressed.  We were heartened that the administration changed the rating for Portal Bridge North, [but] disappointed that they did not do the same for the tunnel itself.” 

Skoutelas also testified that any FAST Act reauthorization include a codification into law that federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) loans paid back by local project sponsors be included as part of the local funding match.  

After the Trump administration broke precedent to adopt a policy that federal loans—that must be paid back—be considered part of the federal share, Sen. Menendez helped lead the effort to include language in subsequent appropriations bills to block that provision.

In responding to a question from Sen. Menendez during a Feb. 12 Banking Committee hearing, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell testified that any sustained closing of the NEC due to a failure of either the Portal Bridge or Hudson River rail tunnels would put the economy at significant risk.  

Earlier this month, Sen. Menendez joined a group of senators from all eight states along the Northeast Corridor in demanding the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) finalize and approve plans to immediately advance the Hudson Tunnel Project. 

In an effort to reduce the risk and impact of a Portal Bridge failure during peak travel times, Sen. Menendez helped broker an agreement by the U.S. Coast Guard to restrict large marine vessels from passing through the Portal Bridge along the Hackensack River during morning and evening rush hours.  In October and at the Senator’s request, the Coast Guard agreed to take steps to make that order permanent, publishing its final rule last week, which provides temporary relief to commuters pending completion of the Portal Bridge replacement that will be higher and no longer need to open for passing marine craft. 

Sen. Menendez has also consistently supported and voted to fund federal programs that could be used to advance Gateway.