WH Threatening To Veto Spending Bill If It Includes Money For Northeast Rail Tunnel

Mar 20, 2018
Originally published on March 20, 2018 9:00 pm
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The Trump administration has talked a lot about rebuilding the nation's crumbling roads, bridges and railways. But what some call the nation's most critical infrastructure project is not on its list. It's a plan to replace the century-old rail tunnel into Manhattan. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, the administration is threatening to derail a federal spending bill if it includes money for that new tunnel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Every morning, roughly a hundred thousand people take a train under the Hudson River into New York City. Some are riding Amtrak. Many more are commuters like me.

I just hopped on a train in my town in New Jersey heading for New York Penn Station. This is where the congestion really starts to happen, dozens of trains an hour trying to fit through this tunnel. This is one tunnel into New York Penn Station.

TOM WRIGHT: This is a piece of infrastructure that predates World War I, and we're reliant on it today.

ROSE: Tom Wright heads the Regional Plan Association. It's a nonprofit that's long pushed for a new tunnel. We're talking near the old tunnel next to the tracks under Penn Station. It opened in 1910, when horses outnumbered cars on city streets.

WRIGHT: It's really terrifying when you see the condition of the tunnel and you look down below and you see water pooling below the tracks. And you're underneath the Hudson River. And you don't want to see water down there.

ROSE: Amtrak says the tunnel is safe for now, but it was damaged during Hurricane Sandy and will need to be taken out of service at some point. There is a plan to replace the tunnel. It's called Gateway.

WRIGHT: Gateway, I think, is obviously the most important infrastructure investment in the nation. Nowhere do you have a single point of failure that, when it fails, that failure will cascade throughout systems across the entire Northeast.

ROSE: According to Amtrak, it could cost the U.S. economy a hundred million dollars for every day the tunnel is out of commission. There was a deal in place to pay for the new tunnel with a price tag of at least $20 billion. But the Trump administration now says there is no agreement, and the president has threatened to veto a spending bill that could be on his desk later this week if it contains any money for the Gateway tunnel.

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SEAN PATRICK MALONEY: Is the president of the United States personally intervening with the speaker to kill this project?

ELAINE CHAO: The president - yes.

ROSE: That's Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao during a heated exchange with lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier this month.

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CHAO: The president is concerned about the viability of this project and the fact that New York and New Jersey have no skin in the game. They need to step up and bear their fair share. They are two of the richest states in the country. If they absorb all these funds, there will be no other funds for the rest of the country.

ROSE: But New York and New Jersey officials dispute that and say they are ready to pay their share. The two states have committed to reimburse Washington $5 1/2 billion, roughly half of the first phase of the project. Still, that plan is now in jeopardy. It appears increasingly likely that the $900 million appropriated by the House last year will not be in this week's spending plan.

KATHRYN WYLDE: Hopefully Congress will find a way to get some funding to keep the momentum going. But if not, I think we're going to have to go back to the drawing boards.

ROSE: Kathryn Wylde heads the Partnership for New York City and has met with White House officials to try to convince them how crucial the tunnel is. She thinks the administration's opposition is not just about money. There's always politics.

WYLDE: I think it's been clear for months that the Gateway project is going to be held hostage to negotiation of a Trump infrastructure plan.

ROSE: Wylde says the tunnel is too important to the economy of the entire region to give up now. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLOFILZ'S "METRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.