Biden Offers Millions for New York Rail Tunnel, Courtesy of His Infrastructure Law
WASHINGTON — For more than a decade, commuters have watched as state and federal officials promised and failed to revamp the century-old rail tunnel connecting New Jersey to Midtown Manhattan, which has become a symbol of America’s aging infrastructure.
During a trip to New York City on Tuesday, President Biden promoted his $1 trillion infrastructure package as the solution. He said his administration would contribute $292 million in grants from the bill for the first stages of the sprawling project, known as Gateway.
“This is just the beginning,” Mr. Biden said, surrounded by Long Island Rail Road trains that were parked under the Hudson Yards development on the west side of Midtown Manhattan. “The beginning of finally constructing a 21st century rail system.”
Mr. Biden’s decision to back a project that was neglected for years amounted to a signature moment for the development, even though much of the funding for the project — which will cost more than $30 billion — has yet to be finalized, and construction is expected to take years.
But the president’s visit to New York City comes as Republicans, now in control of the House, have accused him of supporting reckless spending that fueled inflation — a major political vulnerability for the White House that dwindled his approval numbers last year.
In recent days, Mr. Biden has been on an underground tour of sorts to make the case that his economic plans are not just a price tag, but also a way to improve people’s lives. On Monday, he was in Baltimore highlighting an investment of more than $4 billion to improve an aging rail tunnel there. Later this week, he will be in Philadelphia to discuss lead pipe removal.
Tuesday’s announcement was the first of multiple grants from Mr. Biden’s infrastructure package to be awarded to the Gateway program, according to a senior White House official who requested anonymity to describe the competitive grant process underway.
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The money will go toward the extension of a concrete casing for the tunnels on the West Side of Manhattan, between Pennsylvania Station and the Hudson River. That work would be a prelude to the digging of the 2.4-mile tunnels under the Hudson, which is expected to take several years and cost more than $16 billion.
The entire Gateway project includes a rail bridge in North Jersey that is under construction now and an expansion of Penn Station. That’s why the total price tag is more than $30 billion, while the estimated cost of the tunnels is just over $16 billion.
“This is one of the biggest and most consequential projects in the country,” Mr. Biden said. “But it’s going to take time. It’s a multibillion-dollar effort between the states and the federal government. But we finally have the money, and we’re going to get it done.”
Ben Feuer, a 39-year-old NJ Transit commuter of two years, said he was familiar with Gateway’s long and contentious history dating back to the days of Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey. Mr. Feuer likened the saga to another well-known delayed transit project in New York City: the notorious Second Avenue subway expansion.
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He paused before celebrating Mr. Biden’s announcement.
“I’m sort of withholding judgment until I see it fully funded and the work begin,” said Mr. Feuer, a computer science doctoral student. “It’s been talked about for a long time. I’ll be excited when everybody gets on the same page about what work they’ll actually be prepared to do and then actually do it.”
The Gateway project began with high hopes eight years ago, with officials in the Obama administration declaring it one of the most important public works programs in the nation.
But the project suffered years of delays under the administration of President Donald J. Trump, who reneged on an arrangement for the federal government to cover half of the estimated cost.
The Trump administration downgraded the project’s importance and delayed granting permits that the project needed to advance. In the meantime, the estimates of how much it will cost have gone up, driven in part by high inflation.
When Mr. Trump left office, the projected cost of the tunnel was $11.6 billion. Now it is $16.1 billion, including financing costs, and the digging has not begun. Last year, the schedule for completing the tunnel was extended by three years to 2035.
The existing tunnels were flooded with brackish water when Hurricane Sandy struck the region in 2012. Amtrak has conducted piecemeal repairs on the tunnels but has warned that they would eventually have to be closed for comprehensive rehabilitation. Amtrak officials said Penn Station would require expansion to accommodate the additional capacity in the Northeast Corridor.
Mr. Biden’s assurances convinced Kevin O’Toole, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, of the administration’s support for the project. “It’s obviously materializing right before our eyes,” Mr. O’Toole said. “It appears that all the obstacles have been cleared.”
Gateway’s planners have also secured commitments from New York and New Jersey to share half of the program’s costs. The states also appeared to be cooperating to keep the project moving toward construction — something that Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said has not always been the case.
A previous attempt to dig a rail tunnel under the Hudson was further along than Gateway is before Mr. Christie, then the Republican governor of New Jersey, pulled the plug on it. Mr. Christie said he did not want New Jersey to be solely responsible for cost overruns that could amount to billions of dollars.
“All too often we as a society fail to look far enough ahead to plan for the worst-case scenario in advance and avoided taking real steps to prevent it,” Mr. Schumer said. “But in this case, thankfully, we are looking ahead.”
Eric Goldwyn, a program director at the N.Y.U. Marron Institute, has studied the rail system in the Northeast and said completing the Gateway link from New Jersey to New York is crucial to addressing the bottlenecks and aging infrastructure in the area.
He also said the project is an example of when the federal government should step in to take control of the infrastructure project that has national implications.
“There needs to be a little more of a heavy hand pushing these things from the top because right now states are on equal footing,” he said. “At the federal level, there is someone who can say this is a national priority and this trumps your local objections.”
The years of neglect have meant many stressful delays on stuck trains for Theresa Millerschoen, 30, a registered nurse of Middletown, N.J.
“It’s long overdue to improve our infrastructure, to improve our commute into the city for those that work,” she said, adding, “I’d like my money to be put to good use.”
Zolan Kanno-Youngs reported from Washington, and Patrick McGeehan from New York. Mark Walker contributed reporting from Washington and Téa Kvetenadze from New York.