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NYC-Area Mass Transit Poised to Benefit Under Amtrak Fan Biden

Henry Goldman
·6 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Long-delayed efforts to improve transportation in U.S. urban areas are about to get a boost from Joe Biden as president, if his campaign promises provide a guide.

Biden is likely to quickly approve the Gateway project, an $11.6 billion commuter-rail link under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey, say transit advocates and policy makers who have worked with him. The project would replace a 110-year-old, storm-damaged tunnel whose failure could shut down Amtrak train passenger service between Washington D.C. and Boston, a region that contributes 20% of the U.S. gross domestic product.

The pressure already is on for Biden to address the problems that have crippled the New York area’s transportation infrastructure. Gateway is the most significant, but there’s also hope the new president will approve funding for subways and roads that will help the region recover once the coronavirus is behind it.

The president-elect’s campaign website contains this promise: “He’ll start by putting the Northeast Corridor on higher speeds and shrinking the travel time from D.C. to New York by half –- and build in conjunction with it a new, safer Hudson River Tunnel.” Biden, who earned the nickname “Amtrak Joe” as a U.S. senator commuting from Delaware, also vowed to “spark a second great railroad revolution.”

Top Priority

Gateway, proposed by Amtrak in 2011, includes a new tunnel under the Hudson and reconstruction of the existing one. Making the project a priority would be in character for Biden, said John Porcari, a former deputy secretary of transportation who worked with then-Vice President Biden implementing stimulus policy in the Great Recession that ended in June 2009. Porcari, who also served as Gateway Development Corp.’s interim executive director for three years until early 2019, said the existing tunnel is “at the point of failure.”

“On the merits it has to be at the top of any national list of priorities,” Porcari said.

Officials began planning for a replacement of the Hudson River tunnel in 1995. That project, Access to the Region’s Core, had full funding of $8.7 billion and an estimated completion date of 2018. Then-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed it in 2010, citing concerns about potential cost overruns and a design that terminated blocks from Penn Station. Amtrak announced Gateway months later, and New York and New Jersey have since committed to half the cost.

The project has been held up under President Donald Trump. The U.S. Department of Transportation hasn’t reviewed an environmental impact statement Gateway submitted in February 2018. Earlier this year, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said just repairing the existing tunnel might be “a faster and more cost effective method.”

On Hold

While Gateway moved forward in replacing an obsolete bridge required for the project, action on the tunnel froze as its organizers hoped for a new occupant in the White House.

“I’m highly optimistic that will get green-lighted -- President-elect Biden knows this project very well,” New Jersey’s Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, said during a Bloomberg Television interview Sunday. “Literally it is shovel-ready. You could envision putting a shovel in the ground, first quarter of next year.”

The project has support beyond Democrats. Nicole Malliotakis, the presumptive winner in a Staten Island and south Brooklyn race that would make her the only New York City Republican in Congress, said she’s prepared to press Mitch McConnell and other Republican Senate leaders to support the tunnel and more comprehensive transit spending. Chao, who has resisted several of the initiatives sought in New York, is married to McConnell.

“I can be the person who works with the Republican leadership in the Senate to have our case heard,” Malliotakis said in an interview. “Transportation infrastructure is very much on my radar, and I intend to be very vocal.”

Funding Needs

Yet there’s also bipartisan resistance to spending money on such projects, said Beth Osborne, director of the policy group Transportation for America. Trump had pledged in his 2016 campaign to seek $1 trillion of infrastructure spending, but talks stalled in Congress.

“There should be less talk about how much money we want to spend and more talk about how we want to use it to improve people’s lives,” said Osborne, who developed policy in the Transportation Department during the Obama administration.

Biden’s campaign promises also included support for high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco that would reduce travel time to fewer than three hours. He also vowed aid for Chicago’s multibillion-dollar CREATE project to re-engineer dozens of rail crossings and track lines that interfere with each other, slowing train and vehicle traffic.

Cash-Strapped

Spokespersons for New Jersey Transit, the nation’s largest statewide public-transportation provider, didn’t respond when asked to comment on what Biden’s presidency might mean for it. The agency lost about $500 million in revenue through October, said spokesman Jim Smith, and anticipates $170 million in coronavirus-related expenses over two fiscal years. In May, it told the state’s congressional delegation it needed $1.2 billion.

At the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, spokesman Scott Ladd said, “I don’t think we’re providing comment yet on what a Biden administration will offer.”

But on the eve of the election, authority Executive Director Rick Cotton repeated his plea for $3 billion in federal aid. Airport passenger volume and commuter ridership of the agency’s trans-Hudson PATH tubes are both down more than 75%, he said at an Oct. 29 board meeting. The agency expects a $3 billion revenue loss through March 2022.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city’s subways and suburban commuter rail lines, is losing $200 million a week and needs $12 billion in federal aid through next year to get by, spokesman Ken Lovett said.

Crucial to the agency’s revenue is a plan to charge motorists fees upon entering Manhattan’s business core. Enacted by the state in April 2019, the plan has been stalled as the agency awaits a determination from the Federal Highway Administration on whether it needs to produce an environmental impact statement.

Transit advocates are hopeful the new administration will waive such a requirement and allow the program to proceed early next year. If so, it could mean as much as $15 billion in revenue, enough to finance a $52.5 billion multiyear regional transit plan while reducing traffic-choked streets.

“This shouldn’t be an issue,” said Brian Fritsch, manager of advocacy campaigns for the Regional Plan Association, a century-old policy group. “We hope to move on from four years of constant distraction from the White House and return to planning for the future.”

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