Transportation Summit

Gateway Tunnel ‘Will Have to be Built’

“Failure is not an option. The tunnel will have to be built!” These bold words were spoken by Jerry Zaro, New Jersey Trustee of the Gateway Development Corporation (GDC), as he and other business leaders, as well as Port Authority officials, gathered yesterday at a transportation summit to stress the importance of the Gateway Tunnel project not only to New Jersey and New York, but to the entire East Coast and the rest of the country.

“I want to make it clear, the Portal North Bridge and the Gateway Tunnel will most assuredly be built. The reason for that is … we simply have no choice,” Zaro said at the event hosted by the Meadowlands Regional Chamber and held at the Hilton Hasbrouck Heights.

Putting things into perspective, he said the two existing rail tunnels under the Hudson River were built when Theodore Roosevelt was president, and while the Titanic was still under construction. The existing tunnels are in such a bad state that last Friday, 1,600 rail passengers were stranded underground due to an explosion that led to a large metal bracket puncturing the roof of one train, Zaro explained.

Approximately 200,000 commuters use the rail tunnels daily, traversing from their New Jersey homes to New York-based jobs. This represents 13 percent of New York City’s workforce. “Each day, these people play transit roulette … betting daily on whether these two slender antiquated tubes will get them to work on time and back home to their families,” Zaro said, adding that 20 percent of the entire nation’s GDP is dependent on the tunnels.

Stephen Sigmund, chief of public outreach for GDC, said that if one existing tunnel fails, there would be a 75 percent reduction in rail capacity.

What would happen if there were a catastrophic event with both tunnels breaking down for a long period of time? Zaro predicted that the 200,000 New Jersey commuters would lose their jobs because they couldn’t get to work, leading them to move out of the region, which would lead to a plethora of houses going on the market, in turn driving down residential real estate values. On the other side of the river, Zaro said that companies would relocate out of New York because they would be unable to access the rich labor pool that exists in New Jersey. It would, in turn, lead to New York real estate values being devastated.

Additionally, there would be a huge surge in bus and automobile traffic, Zaro predicted. “This would choke off our red hot, last mile warehouse and shipping industry,” he said.

The estimate for the Gateway Tunnel project is $12 billion. The cost to replace the Portal North Bridge rail crossing, which leads to the current tunnels, is estimated at $1.6 billion. The current 107-year-old swinging bridge over the Hackensack River often gets stuck and is literally moved with a few hammer strikes.

So far, New York, New Jersey and the Port Authority have agreed to cover half the funding of the Gateway Project.  “We have applied and complied with all federal requirements for funding, but as we sit here today, the project is being held political hostage in Washington, D.C.,” Zaro said. “The present administration is grasping for excuses to legitimize the denial of funds to this project, claiming that the use of federal loans – mind you, repayable solely by state funds – is somehow not having skin in the game. That position is both factually and legally incorrect. It is also without precedent as federal loans have historically been considered ‘a local share’ in projects of this magnitude.”

Phil Beachem, president of the New Jersey Alliance for Action, said the delay in Washington, D.C. is strictly a political issue between President Trump and New York Senator Chuck Schumer over funding for the wall along the Mexican border. “This will be decided on whether these two individuals can strike a deal,” Beachem said. He also warned: “I have dealt with a lot of congressmen from different states and they don’t like the Northeast. They are in power and see the Gateway Project as a New York / New Jersey project.”

Both Beachem and Zaro gave credit to the New Jersey and New York Congressional delegations for doing the most that they could in getting funding for Gateway. Both men singled out the work of New Jersey Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen who is retiring and, subsequently, leaving his post as chair of the House Committee on Appropriations (he is the only New Jersey member). “That is a major loss to us,” Beachem said of Frelinghuysen’s retirement. “Make no mistake about it, a new chairman of the Appropriations Committee will probably be someone from the South or Midwest, and they look at this project differently.”

Beachem advised that corporations located along the full length of the Northeast Corridor get involved in the tunnel fight by contacting their Congressional representatives and advocating for Gateway and its importance.

Kevin O’Toole, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was also present at the summit, along with key Port Authority executives, discussing the agency’s 10-year, $32-billion capital spending plan, which entails a new Penn Station Bus terminal, a Path extension to Newark Liberty International Airport, the development of Terminal 1 to replace Terminal A at the airport, the completion of the Bayonne and Goethals bridge projects, ongoing World Trade Center initiatives and other projects.

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