More than at any time since it was first proposed in 2011, it is doubtful that the Gateway Project as planned will ever be built. The project includes new tunnels on a route near, but separate from, the existing Northeast Corridor (NEC) line, a new “Penn South” station for NJ Transit trains, and additional infrastructure at Secaucus Junction. Although it has always been unclear who would pay the currently-estimated $30 billion cost of the entire project, recent developments have essentially ensured that the any federal contribution will be minor, while New Jersey is notoriously cash-strapped. Despite this, the Lackawanna Coalition continues to believe that the useful components of the project can still be built, at a cost saving that would come from concentrating on needs, and postponing or simply not building what is not necessary.


For more than seven years, many elected officials and representatives of the engineering and construction industries have advocated for the project, which would build a separate railroad into Midtown Manhattan near the existing line, a new “Penn South” station at 30th Street for NJ Transit trains, and a new station near the existing Secaucus Junction Station in the Meadowlands. It is similar to the final version of the Access to the Region's Core (ARC) Project, which underwent significant changes from the time it was first proposed in the mid-1990s until former Governor Chris Christie terminated it in October, 2010. By that time, it called for a line to Midtown separate from the existing NEC and a dead-end deep-cavern station twenty stories below Macy's basement under 34th Street. Christie killed the project for two reasons: the deep-cavern terminal was not a useful place to drop commuters and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) had estimated the cost of the project to lie between $12 and $15 billion, far more than the $8.7 billion that New Jersey and the Feds could raise at the time.


Now, history is repeating itself. The Gateway Project uses the same alignment as the former ARC Project of 2008–10 to get under the Hudson River, and most NJ Transit riders would be relegated to a new station, rather than the Penn Station that they use today; a station further from subway connections and from most Midtown offices. The cost for Gateway, which always exceeded the final cost for the ARC proposal, has increased to an estimated $30 billion.


On December 29, 2017, K. Jane Williams, Depute Administrator at the FTA, told Gateway Project officials in New Jersey and New York State that the Obama Administration had never promised to pay half the cost of Gateway, so there was no agreement that would commit the current administration to such funding. She also said that 90% of the riders who would use the project to get to and from Penn Station would be local rail riders, rather than Amtrak customers, so the project was more concerned with local, and not regional or national, mobility. The following week, an editorial appeared in the New York Daily News, calling for a scaled-down project that would not cost as much as the entire Gateway proposal. Then, on February 12th, President Trump unveiled his infrastructure plan for the nation. He proposed a total of $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending of all kinds, but with the federal government chipping in only $200 billion of that, which is only 2/7, or 13.3% of the total. Although it has been customary for the feds to pay 50% of project costs with a “local match” for the other half, it now looks like the new percentage from Washington will be 20% at best, and probably more like 10%.


That news alone is probably enough to make sure that the complete Gateway, as its proponents envision it, will not be built. To make matters worse for the project, the FTA recently downgraded the project from “medium-high” to “medium-low” priority; essentially a downgrade from a B to a D. Competition for federal grants from many applicants across the nation is fierce, and the few projects that receive a “medium-low” rating generally do not receive federal grants. So, as far as Washington is concerned, the Tunnel Project and the Portal North Bridge Project, two major and essential components of Gateway, have received low grades and will probably flunk the funding test.


We see a number of reasons for this funding failure. One is that the overall project is too expensive compared to the overall national budget. Even if the federal government pitched in with $15 billion (half of the estimated cost of the entire project), that would use up half the money available for the entire country. There is also very little “local” funding commitment for the project elements in question, which is always a problem when asking for federal funds. There has been very little capital money from NJ Transit committed to the project, even though it is New Jersey peak-hour commuters who would get the most benefit from it. In addition, the project has a serious flaw. The Gateway plan does not allow any increase in peak-hour capacity at Penn Station until the entire project is built. That means increased capacity comes last, not first. To get that increase in capacity under the Gateway plan would require Penn South, the extra infrastructure at Secaucus, and all other elements that are not otherwise necessary or desirable. In short, the Gateway Project as presently conceived is an overpriced enterprise that would not improve mobility in the advertised manner.


There are ways to improve the rating for the project, but that would entail improving it and committing more local funding for it. It should deliver additional capacity to Penn Station as soon as the first new track is placed into service. It also needs more local funding, so the FTA will know that New Jersey is serious about the project, not simply looking for a handout. Federal Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has said that using “local” money to repay federal loans does not count toward the “local” match. A strong local match would encourage the federal agency to commit funding.


The Gateway Project may be facing additional political difficulties. The Washington Post and New York Times reported on Saturday, March 3d that President Trump has asked House Speaker Paul Ryan not to support funding for the project. It was also reported that the request may be a consequence of the wrangling between Trump and Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer of New York, a Gateway backer.


Despite these difficulties with both performance and funding, many local elected officials and Gateway proponents maintain that there is no Plan B. That is not correct. We at the Lackawanna Coalition have proposed and expressed our support for a Plan B that we call “A Better Gateway.”  Our current plan is an update of a proposal developed in 2012 by Coalition member Joseph M. Clift and our former Legislative Director, the late James T. Raleigh.  We call for at least one new tunnel and track directly into Penn Station, New York, with a second track if there is enough money available to build it.  It should be built along the same alignment as the existing line, rather than on a separate alignment.  We call for the aging Portal Bridge to be replaced with one new bridge, either with four tracks or with three tracks plus room for fourth to be added later, as funds become available.  We do not see any reason to build two new two-track bridges, when one larger bridge will cost less and perform better. We also call for the southernmost two platforms in Penn Station New York, which serve Tracks 1 through 4, to be extended to the West End Concourse at Penn Station and the Moynihan Train Hall, currently under construction.  There should also be enough "vertical access" at the station to allow riders to get from the platform to the station concourse quickly.  That improvement is a component of the Gateway Project.  We also object to the proposed Penn South station and the proposed Secaucus South infrastructure and station, which are not needed, as well as building two new bridges instead of one.


We will have more information about this initiative, including a plan for saving money by scaling down the Gateway Project to a manageable and affordable size. There is not enough money available from either federal or local sources to pay for the current proposal, and we need to spend our tax money wisely. This is especially true in light or the recent increase in federal income tax that most New Jerseyans will pay, starting next year.


We are also beginning to think about Plan C; a plan for moving riders into Manhattan if nothing is built and the existing tunnels must be taken out of service for repairs caused by flood damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. We think that it is critical to avoid Plan C, which would be quite difficult for riders if it becomes necessary because of a tunnel shutdown. Thus, we call for scaling Gateway down to our “Better Gateway” size, eliminating unnecessary projects from NJ Transit's capital program, and concentrating on the tunnel capacity, bridge, and Penn Station improvements that the local area and the region need. In short, there is a Plan B, and we have it. Otherwise, our only choice will be to go to the emergency Plan C.