What, Exactly, Did President Trump Just Say About Gateway?
February 8, 2019
Two days ago, President Trump gave an interview to a group of selected local journalists from around the U.S. Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, asked Trump about the Gateway program of passenger rail projects between New York and New Jersey. Newsday reports that Trump said “We have the money set aside but … we haven’t decided to use it yet. I’m speaking to the governor [Andrew M. Cuomo]. I’m speaking with various senators, and we’ll see what happens.
The article, by Newsday’s Laura Figueroa Hernandez, then goes on to say:
On Wednesday, Trump said “I’m open-minded” about the project that Cuomo, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and New Jersey officials have been pressing him to fund at the levels agreed to by the Obama administration.
The president dismissed reports claiming he is withholding funding as leverage to garner support from Schumer and congressional Democrats for his $5.7 billion southern border wall request.
“We have to see what they’re doing. It’s a very expensive project, very expensive, so we have to see what they’re doing, it’s got to be approved by us,” Trump said.
Could the money for the project really be “set aside” already?
Not the way that New York and New Jersey have proposed to fund the project, it isn’t. Caveat: too many people use the word “Gateway” (a $30+ billion program of projects across NYC and NJ) with the proposed new Hudson River Tunnel (the $11+ billion centerpiece project of the Gateway Program, but only one project amongst many). From the context of the article, it appears they were talking solely about the tunnel.
New York and New Jersey have proposed to fund the Hudson River Tunnel through the Federal Transit Administration’s budget, even though the current tunnel is owned and operated by Amtrak and the new tunnel would also be operated by Amtrak, and Amtrak gets its federal subsidy funding through the Federal Railroad Administration, not FTA.
The particular FTA program they have identified to fund the tunnel is the Capital Investment Grant program, which gets annual discretionary appropriations (meaning there is no such thing as multi-year guaranteed money, legally speaking).
ETW did a write-up of the CIG program in late November 2018 that listed all the pending projects and appropriations they have either received or will need. At the time, the program had $1.4 billion in appropriations that had not yet been allocated to a particular ongoing project. Annual appropriations have been running about $2.5 billion per year.
But New York and New Jersey are asking for a massive $6.7 billion allocation for the Hudson River Tunnel, which represents every unallocated dime the program currently has plus every dime they are going to get in the FY 2019 appropriations bill and probably FY 2020 as well (if you were able to shut down every other subway construction project in the country and just give the money to the Hudson River Tunnel, which of course you can’t do). So there is certainly no way that any existing appropriations approaching the ballpark of the cost of the new tunnel can be considered to have been set aside.
Also, the tunnel is currently ineligible, by law, to receive any CIG appropriations. The CIG statute in 49 U.S.C. §5309 requires that the Secretary of Transportation rate every potential project on a five-point scale, and that the average has to be at least “medium” (3 on the 1 to 5 scale) in order to be eligible for appropriations and a grant agreement. The current rating for the tunnel project (set in November 2017) is “medium-low,” and the Secretary would have to upgrade that rating to allow any money to be spent.