Transportation Official Stresses Importance of Gateway Project

A new train tunnel under the Hudson River is in jeopardy. Again. Back in 2010, Gov. Chris Christie killed the ARC Tunnel a year into construction. Funding for its replacement — the Gateway Project — has not been assured by the Trump administration. But the interim director has called Gateway the most urgent infrastructure project — not just in the region, but in America. Rhonda Schaffler asked John Porcari why he thinks it has national significance.

Schaffler: John, you have often called the Gateway Project the most urgent infrastructure project in the U.S. Why is that? We commuters here might know that, but why is that more broadly?

Porcari: I think objectively it is, Rhonda. If you look at projects around the country, many of them are important, but there’s no other place where you have a single point of failure that can impact 10 percent of America’s gross domestic product. So in the New Jersey/New York area here you have 106-year-old tunnel and bridge that together constitute that single point of failure. That’s what makes it so urgent. We know we’re living on borrowed time because the tunnels flooded during Hurricane Sandy and have to be rebuilt.

Schaffler: Now in terms of borrowed time, you do have plans to begin phase one of construction this summer. Is that still on track?

Porcari: It is on track. It’s very exciting. The Portal North Bridge is 100 percent designed and permitted. The local funding’s in place. It’s ready to go. We’re just waiting for our federal partner here. If the federal funding is in place, you will see construction activity this year.

Schaffler: So what do you have to see from the federal government? There was some money allocated, but you really need a big commitment from the Trump administration going forward, do you not?

Porcari: We do. Like every major project in America it’s a federal/local partnership. The local partnership for the bridge, the funding is in place between NJ Transit, Amtrak and Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. If we get the federal funding, which you can’t do a project of this magnitude without, we’ll be under construction. So we’re just waiting to hear back some good news from Washington.

Schaffler: What’s your sense? Is there any hesitation?

Porcari: I think there’s a good understanding of the merits of the project, how important it is not just to the region, but to the entire country. What it may get caught up in if we’re not careful is larger discussions about infrastructure in general. And I think we all need to remember that infrastructure is this kind of generational investment in a better future. This is about today’s commute, but it’s also about your children and grandchildren and the fact that your great-grandparents built this tunnel.

Schaffler: So what is the timeline to hear back from the federal government on this? Will you have to be in a situation where you stop working on the project?

Porcari: We will be doing some pre-construction activities this summer, so you actually see some activities, but we can’t go beyond that to building the bridge itself without the federal commitment. As part of this year’s budget cycle, we’ve made a request for the federal funding. It’s being evaluated right now. We have very strong support from our congressional delegations and senators in both states, both governors. We just the need the administration’s commitment at this point.

Schaffler: And John, in terms of the exact numbers a couple of figures have been tossed around. Twenty-four billion is what DOT put out there. Is that the right figure and what’s the likelihood we actually stay on budget on a big project like this?

Porcari: Well it’s important to point out that $24 billion is for the entire series of projects. We’re starting with the Portal North Bridge at about $1.5 billion. The tunnel under the Hudson, the new tunnel, will be in the $8-10 billion range so it’ll be one project after another. And in addition to redundancy and new capacity under the Hudson River in and out of New York, you’ll also have things like the Bergen Loop which is a connector that will make the rail connection for NJ Transit users so much easier.

Schaffler: Well, I’m wondering if you don’t get the money that you want, or the money is scaled back, can the actual project be scaled back? Would that be a huge setback if that has to happen?

Porcari: Our problem is we can’t build half a bridge, or a half a tunnel, and if we’ve gotten 106 years out of the existing bridge and tunnel we know that it’s a good investment for the future. But construction costs go up every year. It will only get more expensive to do this. It’s a question of when not if we have to take the existing tunnel, both tubes of the existing tunnel, out of service. When we do that we lost three quarters of the capacity — 75 percent of the capacity — because you’ll have two-way trains in one tube.

Schaffler: You’ve talked about a possible public/private partnership. Where are you with that?

Porcari: Well, we’re looking at every methodology for delivering construction. A public/private partnership is one possibility. We’re actively considering it. We will be getting industry input on that this summer. But it’s important to point out there’s no scenario even in a public/private partnership where the first ‘p’ is public, that doesn’t require substantial public funding. What it really means is that the risk is in many cases transferred to the private sector.

Schaffler: Quickly, John, you were interim director. What advice will you give your successor?

Porcari: My successor should have, he or she should have a lot of energy. They should bring a passion to the project and even given how important this project is and the merits of it, it takes passion to get a project over the finish line.

Schaffler: In terms of your own passion before handing off the reins, have you spoken directly with President Trump about this?

Porcari: I have not. I and others have had opportunities to brief people on his team, people at U.S. DOT and other parts of the administration. There has certainly been, I think, a strong case made for the merits of the project and how important the timing is. We have to be underway this summer, but it is ultimately up to the administration, the president and his team to decide whether or not the federal commitment will be upheld.