Cuomo and Christie Play Chicken With Trans-Hudson Train Commuters

It’s been almost five years since New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the ARC tunnel. Things haven’t improved since.

Photo: Governor's Office/Flickr
Photo: Governor Cuomo/Flickr

The existing two-track rail tunnel, already at capacity, has continued to shoulder growing ridership comprised mostly of NJ Transit commuters. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy added a dose of corrosive salt water to the century-old tunnels. Amtrak warns that one or both of the tubes must shut down in the next couple decades, forcing trains going both directions to share a single track. Commuters got a taste of this nightmare scenario just weeks ago when high-voltage power cables in the tunnel failed, cutting service to and from Penn Station.

Moving those commuters onto buses is unlikely. Like the rail tunnel, the Port Authority Bus Terminal is both falling apart and at capacity. Replacing and expanding that facility would cost up to $11 billion — a number the Port Authority is struggling to come to terms with.

Amtrak’s plan for a new tunnel, known as Gateway, has stalled without backing from Christie or his New York counterpart, Governor Andrew Cuomo. This morning, Senator Charles Schumer of New York pushed the governors to take the first of many necessary steps to getting the project built. Schumer wants a new partnership, which he’s dubbed the Gateway Development Corporation, to build the tunnel.

The partnership, comprised of Amtrak, the Port Authority, the MTA, and the two states, would be able to access a wide range of funding sources. “Amtrak can’t access federal mass transit funding. The Port Authority and regional transit agencies can’t access federal railroad dollars the way Amtrak can,” Schumer said, reported the Observer. “We’ll only get Gateway done by adding up several pieces of financing, with an eye toward getting the maximum amount possible from the federal government.”

Neither governor has yet agreed to the partnership. Last month, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx asked the governors to meet with him about the Gateway project, but the two executives want cash from the feds, not just loans, before they’ll commit to anything.

In fact, the governors — neither of whom hesitates to spend big on highways and airports — have tried to portray the rail tunnel between their two states as somehow not their problem.

“It’s not my tunnel!” Cuomo said yesterday, reported Politico. “There’s no moral, legal or ethical reason why the state should be looked at to fund it, or the states plural, New Jersey and New York.”

Christie, for his part, has agreed to meet with Foxx, but like Cuomo, he wants a bigger commitment from the federal government. Christie’s rationale for canceling ARC, after all, was that New Jersey was stuck with what he thought was an unfair share of that project’s cost.

Christie and Cuomo are striking a tough negotiating pose in a bid to squeeze more money out of the feds. But sooner or later, something’s going to have to give.

Although the tunnel is important for getting workers to Manhattan, Cuomo is unlikely to bend first. He can easily pass the buck to New Jersey and the federal government for a tunnel used by NJ Transit and Amtrak. Christie, facing pressure from New Jersey commuters and the legacy of canceling the last attempt at a rail tunnel, could agree to put up some money while still claiming to avoid a repeat of ARC. Or the federal government could offer up more than just loans.

Whoever makes the first move, commuters are left to hope the first thing to give isn’t the existing tunnel. The clock is ticking.