POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Is there money for Gateway in the federal spending bill?

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

“I say to Congress, I will never sign another bill like this again. I’m not going to do it again,” President Donald Trump stated at a news conference Friday afternoon.

Call it a train clash of egos. Trump signed the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending package Friday, even though it contains $540 million worth of funding for the Gateway train tunnel and bridge project, tucked in to several places. Supporters made sure not to label the money ‘Gateway,’ mindful that Trump wants to spend zero federal dollars on it.

“There are a lot of things I’m unhappy about in this bill. There are a lot of things we shouldn’t have had in this bill, but we were forced, in a sense, forced if we wanted to build our military, we were forced to have,” said Trump.

Trump’s particular reluctance to fund Gateway apparently stems, in part, from his feud with New York and New Jersey Democrats, says Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray, who tweeted, “Congress had to hide the Gateway peas in Trump’s bowl of Omnibus ice cream.”

“I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I’ve seen bills where they’ve tried to hide the true purpose from the public. But actually trying to hide it from the guy who has to sign the bill is really a new idea,” Murray said. “I was surprised that Gateway just seemed to be the sticking point.”

But Trump noticed the peas, and he’s trying to pick them out. So, how much of that $540 million will actually flow to Gateway? The chunk from formula mass transit funding looks solid, according to Eno Transportation Weekly’s Jeff Davis.

“By the formula, New York and New Jersey should get $153 million of that, and if both states choose, they could apply that money to various Gateway-related projects fairly easily,” he said.

But Davis warns that the rest, $388 million from Amtrak’s pot of Northeast Corridor funding, isn’t a lock. He said the funding statute gives Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao power to veto those spending projects, and she’s already testified to Congress Gateway won’t get preferential treatment.

“So before the Amtrak board can agree to spend any of that $388 million on Gateway projects, the secretary of transportation would have to approve each individual application. So there is a role for the Trump administration even within what’s supposed to be Amtrak’s own budget,” said Davis.

Davis said just because previous presidents haven’t vetoed Amtrak projects, doesn’t mean Trump won’t. Government sources acknowledge that, but added the U.S. Department of Transportation would still need to justify project vetoes to Amtrak and to Congress. Gateway’s Development Corporation says federal funding for the $30 billion project is urgent.

“We’ll use whatever financial help we have to move the project ahead. We have a 107-year-old bridge that got stuck open two weeks ago and tied up, not just the region, but trains heading to South Carolina and Cincinnati, and a lot of other places. Tied them up in knots. There’s a real urgency to that,” said John D. Porcari, interim director of the Gateway Development Corporation.

Officials say they’re committed to moving forward with Phase One of Gateway, replacing the Portal Bridge North Bridge and tunnels. Construction’s already commenced on the new Portal North Bridge, and environmental permits for the tunnel are just a year away. They’re looking at options for funding it all in stages.