Presidents like big infrastructure projects. George Washington had a keen interest in improving travel on the Potomac River. Dwight Eisenhower believed that a modern interstate highway system was a national security priority. As secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover spearheaded the construction of the Colorado River dam that bears his name.
Donald Trump perhaps could have shed a smidgen of his pariah status in his native New York (a long-shot to be sure) had he moved forward with the construction of what promises to be an impressive engineering feat, a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River—something even his arch-nemesis Barack Obama couldn’t pull off.
But Trump doesn’t do presidential legacy well. He repeatedly threatened to veto the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill Congress passed this week, since it did not include his pet legacy project: a multi-billion dollar Mexican border wall. In the end, he signed it.
So the president’s Gateway grudge match against the aura of Obama and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the tunnel’s current champion, continues. This petty drama masks a serious situation. Somehow a rail-safety issue— trains that carry hundreds of thousands of people every day speeding through an ancient, seawater-corroded tunnel— is one the president willfully ignores.
But if Amtrak, the tunnel’s owner, decides to cut the number of trains running through the tunnel (or worse shut down it down completely), hundreds of thousands of regional commuters would have to find some other way to get back and forth to New York. Amtrak also carries more people between Washington and New York and Boston and New York than all of the airlines combined. All of those people would have to come up with a Plan B, too.
“The tunnel has got to happen,” says Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington. “The problem is the tunnel is just too big; it’s not a good fit for any of the existing federal programs.”
The sparring over the Gateway tunnel has provided some deft legislative work in a session that’s largely been devoid of responsible lawmaking. Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican, tried to funnel nearly $1 billion to the tunnel. But only shards of that earmark-esque attempt remain in the legislation after Trump made clear that he’d veto a plan that included big bucks for the tunnel. “It was particularly messed up in this appropriation bill because Schumer as head Democrat is fighting for the House Republican provision that was not in the Senate bill at all,” says Davis.
Amtrak secured nearly $2 billion in the budget deal. The network’s Northeast Corridor received $650 million (up from $250 million) and nearly half a billion could be steered to Gateway—but there’s a catch. Although Gateway supporters cheer the deal, the administration argues that the Transportation Department still gets final sign-off on project funding. Most secretaries don’t “micromanage” these decisions, according to Davis. But Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao conveys the Trump administration’s disdain for the tunnel at every opportunity so the outlook for Gateway funding remains muddled.
Another project of the Gateway Program, the Portal Bridge, may stand a better chance of overcoming the funding challenges. Preliminary work has begun, but there’s the matter of $1.5 billion needed to begin construction. (According to Davis, a last-minute New Jersey bonding snafu contributed to the bridge’s failure to obtain the passing grade it needed from the Federal Transit Administration to qualify for its Capital Improvement Grant program. But New Jersey officials can reapply.)
The Portal Bridge is a railroad swing bridge over the Hackensack River between Kearny and Secaucus New Jersey, which opens to let boats through and sometimes gets stuck in an upright position, which has already happened twice this year (the latest episode just last week), causing cascading train delays.
Meanwhile, train passengers in rural areas will continue to benefit from their only mode of public transportation. Stops on long-distance Amtrak routes are the life blood for some rural communities. The problem is that, unlike the Northeast Corridor, those routes are perpetual money-losers. But they continue to survive the attempts to cut them.
Along the Gulf Coast, a proposal to reinstate a Sunset Limited route Orlando to New Orleans received $35.5 million in the omnibus bill. (Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the region’s long-distance rail infrastructure and cities in the region like Jacksonville, Mobile, and Tallahassee have been actively working to get the line running again.)
A similar, perennial battle over scrapping Essential Air Service which provides commercial flights service to small airports is also over—for now, anyway. Trump proposed eliminating the program, but Congress decided to allocate $155 million to the service, a $5 million increase over fiscal 2017.
There was better news on the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant front, too, with $1.5 billion going into the fiscal 2018 maritime, rail, road, and transit program, the most funding since the program’s debut in the 2009 stimulus package. The grant program meted out $500 million to 41 programs in 43 states in fiscal 2017, more than with 60 percent of the funds going to rural areas.
Yet, despite his periodic claims about moving to upgrade American infrastructure, Trump has only succeeded in steering his phony rural-urban, red state-blue state civil war into the transportation sector. Trump hews to the narrative that the Hudson River tunnel is some sort of New York-New Jersey vanity project backed by a Schumer cabal while allies like Republican Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina complain, “It is troubling when we get a tunnel and we don’t get a wall.”
Yet Trump’s professed concern about rural America is a mirage. The president’s budget included this outmoded nugget about rail travel: “Amtrak’s long-distance trains do not serve a vital transportation purpose and are a vestige of when train service was the only viable transcontinental transportation option.” Rural American only managed to keep its planes and trains because of fierce local public support.
Private companies aren’t generally interested on taking on money losing propositions like rail stops in Montana; most transportation networks require subsidies. Pitting one region against another does not an infrastructure legacy make unless that aim involves expediting the country’s decline. Sadly, Trump’s infrastructure legacy, like most of his presidential portfolio, will be defined by his willful ignorance and his grudges.