The Tunnel That Could Break New York

“The Donald has another of his deal with me or I will break you moments with the City Of New York”

President Donald Trump was in an unusually bipartisan mood on September 7, when he convened a White House meeting about a massive project to build a rail tunnel under the Hudson River. He was still basking in the glow of a surprise deal he had cut the day before with top congressional Democrats, avoiding a government shutdown and generating a flurry of positive press. Now he was huddling with a bipartisan group of politicians from his home base of New York and New Jersey about the bipartisan topic of infrastructure, the issue on which the former developer seemed to share the most common ground with his political adversaries.

Trump had run for president as a builder as well as a deal-maker, promising “the biggest and boldest infrastructure investment in American history.” The topic of the meeting—the proposed $11 billion “Gateway” tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan—was big, bold and arguably the nation’s most urgent infrastructure project. The decrepit century-old tunnels that currently carry 200,000 daily passengers under the Hudson could fail at any time, which could devastate America’s most populous and productive metropolitan area, as well as paralyze the crucial Amtrak corridor connecting Boston through New York down to Washington, D.C. An engineering marvel to save Gotham from disaster felt like the kind of Trumpian megaproject the president might enjoy calling his own.

As the political supplicants filed into the room, Trump jovially greeted New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who might run against him in 2020, as “my governor,” and praised his work rebuilding a bridge over the Hudson, as well as LaGuardia Airport. He wished a happy birthday to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican who did run against him in 2016; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer quipped that his gift to Christie should be a new tunnel. Trump had publicly mocked Schumer as “Cryin’ Chuck” and “the head clown” in less amicable times, but now he kept reaching across one of his aides to shake Schumer’s hand as they bantered about their unexpected budget deal.

“It’s playing great, isn’t it?”? Trump crow-ed.

“Absolutely,” said Congressman Peter King, a Republican from Long Island. “And this project would be another perfect example of bipartisanship.”

By the end of the 40-minute meeting, it sounded like Trump was on board with the entire $30 billion Gateway program, not only the tunnel but a suite of related projects along the most congested stretch of American passenger rail. He delighted Gateway’s boosters by calling the tunnel vital for the economy, though he did note that it would be tough to get credit for, like an air conditioning project in the basement of one of his hotels. “Nobody’s gonna see it,” Trump told the group, “but you still gotta do it.” The politicians in attendance thought the president had even embraced an Obama administration commitment for federal taxpayers to foot half the bill. “Ask anyone on either side of the aisle. It was very upbeat, total agreement this needs to get done,” Christie told me. King describes the meeting as a love-in: “Not a single negative word, great body language, everybody on the same page.”

After the meeting, though, Trump asked Schumer to stay behind. He bluntly offered another deal, an offer suggesting he had a rather different conception of Gateway’s larger importance: Schumer could have his tunnel if Trump got his border wall with Mexico.

Schumer said he couldn’t make that trade. And ever since, the Trump administration has been doing just about everything in its power to derail the Gateway project. In March, the president threatened to veto an entire $1.2 trillion government spending bill if it included anything at all for Gateway. Meanwhile, Trump’s Transportation Department has voided President Barack Obama’s 50-50 financing deal and blocked the federal grants and loans Gateway’s supporters were counting on to get the mega project under construction. Transportation experts warn that the aging tunnels are particularly vulnerable to summer heat—an electrical problem shut down one of them for four days in July 2015—but for now, the government effort to avoid another failure that could cripple the entire region is in limbo.

New Jersey’s Portal Bridge A single century-old bridge—the “Achilles’ heel of the Northeast Corridor”—carries more than 100,000 passengers per day to and from Manhattan. After swinging open for ship traffic, it sometimes needs to be banged into place with a sledgehammer. | Cameron Davidson for Politico Magazine

Gateway might be the most vivid current illustration of America’s literally crumbling infrastructure—and of the dysfunctional zero-sum politics that often stymies efforts to fix it. Trump’s grand vision for $1 trillion worth of “gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways” was his most obvious opportunity for bipartisan policy making. Instead, along with his Republican allies who control Congress, he has prioritized trying to repeal Obamacare, cutting taxes and building his wall. The “infrastructure advisory council” he convened in 2017, led by two of his fellow Manhattan developers, was quickly disbanded after his racial controversy over Charlottesville. His long-promised $1 trillion infrastructure plan emerged neither big nor bold, calling for just $200 billion in federal spending, none of it necessarily new. And the plan was instantly buried in Congress, where infrastructure is no longer even on the agenda for 2018. The White House’s periodic attempts to declare an “Infrastructure Week” have become a running Washington punchline, inevitably overshadowed by scandals like Charlottesville and his firing of his FBI director.

Everybody in American politics seems to support the idea of infrastructure improvements—even Gateway’s opponents admit it’s a worthy project—but nobody seems to like paying for them. That’s a big reason why it has become so much harder to build big things in the United States than it is in undemocratic China. There’s a broad consensus that America’s competitiveness and quality of life depend on modernizing its obsolete tunnels and sewers and power lines—on long-term investments that, like Trump’s air conditioning project, nobody’s gonna see but you still gotta do. But massive projects come with massive costs, especially in the big, aging cities that need much of the work; the Gateway tunnel will require purchasing an entire block of some of the planet’s most expensive riverfront property for a ventilation shaft, not to mention “ground freezing,” “jet grouting” and other cutting-edge tunnel technologies that require massive equipment and a massive workforce. In a politically polarized country, there’s less of a sense that these engineering marvels benefit everyone.

Transportation planners like to say that if you’ve seen one infrastructure project, you’ve seen one infrastructure project. Gateway is unique among public works in its complexity, its cost and the vast numbers of travelers counting on it; a structural failure could snarl an entire region and trigger a national recession. Still, the policy war over Gateway reflects even larger divides over who should pay to build what for whom in the Trump era. The Gateway fight is partly about Trump being Trump, looking for leverage over Schumer in future deals, lashing out at a rival over disputes like the wall. But inside his administration and much of his party, there’s a genuine belief that the federal government should pay less for public works, especially urban transit projects for Democratic cities in Democratic states. Infrastructure is supposed to knit us together as a nation, increasing our personal mobility and economic connectivity, but the politics of infrastructure is increasingly exposing our divides.


For much of America’s railroad era, travelers to and from New York had to get off their trains and take ferries across the Hudson River. But in 1910—when William Howard Taft was president, the Titanic was under construction and America’s fastest car was powered by steam—the Pennsylvania Railroad bored two single-track tunnels through the rock beneath the river, an achievement that finally allowed train travel straight from New Jersey to the majestic new Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. That same year, the railroad eased another bottleneck on the same line a few miles west by building a double-track bridge over the Hackensack River, with a detachable section that rotated open whenever boats needed to pass.

Today, American transportation is radically different. The interstate highways and the air travel revolution killed off most of the country’s long-distance passenger rail. The original Penn Station was razed in all its neoclassical glory, and its cramped replacement is a dingy national embarrassment. But 108 years later, the nation’s dense metropolitan areas still depend on railroads to bring millions of suburban commuters to their jobs; Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line has become profitable and popular; and those twin Hudson tunnels and the swing-span Portal Bridge carry 450 New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains every day.

The problem is, they’re falling apart. The concrete inside the tunnels has been eroding since Superstorm Sandy flooded them with millions of gallons of brackish water in 2012, and the 12,000-volt copper electric cables inside the concrete periodically short-circuit and melt down. “It’s like a volcano erupting,” said Mike Siwiec, an Amtrak electrical specialist who showed me the frayed remains of a cable that ruptured and gridlocked the city in 2015. Meanwhile, the rickety Portal Bridge fails to close properly one of every seven times it opens, though maintenance crews can sometimes bash it back into alignment with a sledgehammer. The 9-mile stretch between Newark and New York City is now a chokepoint for the entire Northeast Corridor; whenever one of its two tunnels goes out of service, train traffic decreases 75 percent, and whenever the Portal Bridge can’t close, train traffic halts completely. It’s hard to calculate the precise economic impact of losing a key entryway to a city that accounts for 10 percent of U.S. GDP, but Gateway’s boosters peg it at $100 million a day.

A Transit Bottleneck At left, the current tunnel’s narrow entrance viewed from above the Palisades in New Jersey. At right, the Manhattan entrance from which stormwater flooded both tunnel tubes during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. | Cameron Davidson for Politico Magazine

An engineering study after Sandy found little danger of a tragic structural collapse that floods a tunnel and puts entire trains underwater. The more likely outcome over the next decade is the tunnels gradually becoming less and less reliable, with power lines and signal cables failing so often that at least one of the tunnels needs to be closed for long-term repairs. That would instantly snarl America’s densest region, forcing more commuters onto roads that are already jammed, diverting more Amtrak passengers to crowded New York airports that already generate one-third of the nation’s flight delays. “It would be an absolute nightmare,” says John Porcari, interim director of the Gateway Development Corporation, the entity created to manage the project. “It would paralyze the city and the whole Northeast Corridor, maybe for years.”

Partisan politics killed the first effort to avoid that kind of nightmare. That project was called Access to the Region’s Core, a partnership between the Obama administration and New Jersey (but not New York) to build a cross-Hudson tunnel for New Jersey Transit (but not Amtrak). Construction had already begun in 2010 when New Jersey’s newly elected Republican governor, Chris Christie, shocked the region by canceling the project, returning some of Obama’s stimulus money to Washington and shifting his state’s contribution to highway projects. The move raised Christie’s profile as a Republican warrior against Obama’s spending and spared him the political pain of raising gas taxes to balance the state budget in his first term. Christie says he acted out of substantive objections to the ARC project itself, which would have required New York to pay nothing and New Jersey to cover all cost overruns, and would have delivered its passengers to a terminus oddly located below the Macy’s basement a full block from Penn Station. ARC would have started carrying passengers this year if it had been built as planned, but Christie says he has “zero regrets” about killing it. “It was a bad project, and it would’ve screwed New Jersey,” he told me.

There’s still a lot of anger at Christie for nuking ARC rather than trying to improve it; his tunnel decision probably did more to create traffic problems than his lane-closing Bridgegate scandal. And the journey to Gateway has not always been smooth. When the Hudson tunnel closed in 2015, Cuomo publicly sniped that it wasn’t his tunnel. But New Jersey, New York, Amtrak and the Obama administration agreed to reconfigure the project later that year, and everyone involved thinks the new version makes more sense. The plan calls for a similar double-track tunnel under the Hudson—it will reuse ARC’s early work on the New Jersey side—but the design more sensibly ends in Penn Station. The first phase of Gateway also includes a new Portal Bridge built high enough for boats to pass below, a kind of emergency surgery for the so-called “Achilles’ heel of the Northeast Corridor.”

Later phases of Gateway would repair the existing Hudson tunnels and add yet another new Portal Bridge, so that the busiest stretch of the Northeast Corridor would have the same four-track capacity as the rest of the line. The plan also includes an expansion and upgrade of dank, seedy, overcrowded Penn Station, which handles more passengers than New York’s three major airports combined. When Trump’s aides talk about Gateway, they often grumble about its $30 billion price tag and sprawling ambitions, but the only projects actually on the table now are the new bridge and the new tunnel, a $13 billion investment to avert a looming catastrophe.

“No question, this is the most desperately needed infrastructure effort in the country,” says Marcia Hale, president of Building America’s Future, a bipartisan coalition pushing for public works investment. “It’s crazy that it isn’t happening.”

The obstacle is not the usual red tape that delays U.S. infrastructure. The Portal Bridge already has its permits, while the environmental review for the new Hudson tunnel was fast-tracked and forwarded to the Transportation Department for approval in an unusually speedy two years. The obstacle is the Trump administration, which vowed in its infrastructure plan to accelerate the permits process, but has been sitting on this one without explanation. “I wouldn’t say we’re slow-walking it,” one administration official told me, before laughing. “OK, maybe a little.”

The Trump administration has put all kinds of roadblocks in front of Gateway, giving its grant applications disqualifying grades of “medium low priority” and denouncing its 50-50 funding agreement with Obama as a nonbinding marketing ploy. The administration has even rejected New York and New Jersey proposals to finance their share of Gateway with federal loans, arguing the loans shouldn’t count as state contributions, even though they have counted as state contributions on other projects.

The administration’s larger argument is that New York and New Jersey are relying too heavily on federal taxpayers for a mostly local project. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has said they need to put more “skin in the game.” This also happens to be the main argument of the White House infrastructure plan released in February, which proposed limiting the federal contribution to most projects to 20 percent, down from as high as 80 or 90 percent today. Trump still portrays himself as America’s builder, but his plan amounted to urging state and local governments to build, and that has been his administration’s approach to Gateway.

“Gateway is the poster child for the dysfunctional way we think about infrastructure funding in this country,” said one senior official who worked on the White House plan. “Sure, it’s absolutely critical. But why on earth should taxpayers in Wyoming and Iowa pay for half of it?”

Gateway’s boosters offer a litany of answers: the outsize economic necessity of reliable access to America’s finance and media capital; the importance of maintaining and improving service on the Northeast Corridor, which has a ridership equivalent to one-third of all passengers on U.S. domestic flights; the climate benefits of keeping tens of thousands of additional cars from idling in traffic during rush hour. But none of those answers has gotten traction in Trump world, where some aides call the project “Hateway.” The heads of Trump’s short-lived infrastructure advisory council, his fellow New York developers Richard LeFrak and Steven Roth, once startled Gateway’s backers in a meeting by suggesting New York and New Jersey finance the project by selling off one of the area’s airports.

In the past, objections from presidential councils or even presidents didn’t usually derail infrastructure projects. Influential members of Congress financed vital public works (and, yes, porky bridges to nowhere) through earmarks, and the executive branch helped build them whether it approved of them or not. And even though the Republican Congress banned earmarks in 2011, House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey managed to tuck $900 million for Gateway into an omnibus budget bill early this year. But the collegial norms of the past no longer seem to apply in modern Washington. At the memorial service for the Reverend Billy Graham in late February, Trump warned House Speaker Paul Ryan during a private conversation that he would veto the entire omnibus and shutdown the government if Gateway weren’t removed. Ryan had to ask aides what Gateway was, but the White House called his office repeatedly to emphasize the president was serious. The right-wing bomb-throwers of the House Freedom Caucus also took up the cause, portraying Gateway as blue-state theft from red-state taxpayers, clamoring to kill it with a fervor that lawmakers never used to deploy against each other’s pet projects. “If this tunnel is so great, New York and New Jersey should pay for it,” says North Carolina Congressman Ted Budd, who led the fight against Gateway in the House. “I don’t see why my children and grandchildren should pay for their infrastructure.”

In the end, Frelinghuysen and Schumer still managed to steer more than $500 million toward the project, even though the word “Gateway” came out of the bill. But with the Trump administration holding up its grants, loans and permits, it’s starting to fall behind schedule, and every year of delay for the tunnel alone is expected to add about $500 million to its price tag. Delay has less quantifiable costs as well. Porcari, who was Obama’s deputy transportation secretary and now runs a division of the engineering firm WSP, agreed to serve as Gateway’s part-time director for 90 days, but he has already served 18 months as the project searches for a permanent leader. It turns out to be rather difficult to recruit top-flight executives to run a project with no federal commitment. “The problem is, people can read the newspaper,” Porcari says.

Porcari didn’t expect Gateway to be easy in the best of circumstances; his personal definition of a major infrastructure project is “a series of near-death experiences.” Conflicts and uncertainties come with the territory. The major uncertainty about Gateway, as it is for so many issues these days, is what Trump really wants.

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