Schumer’s Losing This One | The Weekly Standard

Schumer's Losing This One | The Weekly Standard.

Washington’s not showing much love for his ­tunnel.
On November 12, 2015, officials in New York and New Jersey thought they had struck it rich. They had arranged a 50-50 deal with the federal government in which the feds would pay for half the cost of a new tunnel under the Hudson River, the renovation of Penn Station, and a lot more.

An announcement said the “new federal commitment” included creation of a “development corporation to leverage billions in federal grant and loan funding.” With the estimated cost of the project now at $29 billion, that would mean $14.5 billion coming from Washington. The government loans would come on top of that. The corporation is known as the Gateway Project.

A half-dozen ecstatic officials were quoted in the

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Photo Credit: Gary Locke
On November 12, 2015, officials in New York and New Jersey thought they had struck it rich. They had arranged a 50-50 deal with the federal government in which the feds would pay for half the cost of a new tunnel under the Hudson River, the renovation of Penn Station, and a lot more.

An announcement said the “new federal commitment” included creation of a “development corporation to leverage billions in federal grant and loan funding.” With the estimated cost of the project now at $29 billion, that would mean $14.5 billion coming from Washington. The government loans would come on top of that. The corporation is known as the Gateway Project.

A half-dozen ecstatic officials were quoted in the announcement. Anthony Foxx, then Transportation secretary in the Obama administration, declared himself “ready to roll up my sleeves and use all the tools at my disposal to move this critical project forward.”

But there was less to the announcement than met the eye. The agreement was not signed into law. It wasn’t binding. No contract obligating the parties was signed. The “commitment” to share costs evenly was merely an expression of intentions. The announcement itself was all that existed—a press release. Foxx never had to roll up his sleeves.

From the Trump administration, the agreement gets less respect. It’s beginning to be seen as a giveaway program to two of America’s wealthiest states. Neither President Trump nor Department of Transportation officials have endorsed the 50-50 arrangement, nor are they expected to. The officials scoured DoT files in search of documents that might spell out any obligations they have. No such documents have been found.

The New York and New Jersey crowd isn’t happy. They were alarmed when Transportation secretary Elaine Chao quit the Gateway board as a potential conflict of interest. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, New York governor Andrew Cuomo, and New Jersey senator Cory Booker have lobbied her. They got nowhere, but Cuomo at least got along well with the secretary (in contrast with Schumer). She told them they’d have to wait for Trump’s decision this fall on his heralded infrastructure initiative. That comes first.

At this point, Schumer may regret having voted against Chao’s confirmation, a vote that also displeased her husband, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. He needs her now. But for the time being, Schumer has turned to political hardball. Last week, he rounded up Booker, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and New Jersey senator Bob Menendez—Democrats all—to join in delaying the confirmation of three top DoT officials.

Alienating the three nominees could come back to bite Schumer. The three are Ron Batory, who would run the Federal Railroad Administration; Derek Kan, the future undersecretary for policy; and Adam Sullivan, who would be the assistant secretary for government affairs. They’re the best and brightest at Transportation.

Besides, the tactic isn’t likely to work. Schumer and friends have already let it be known that as much as they love 50-50, they’re “open” to a smaller share of federal funding. That’s hardly a compelling concession. That the feds won’t pay half is a given.

But that came after the initial request from Schumer for the full 50 percent, plus another 45 percent in loans. DoT staffers were irritated that the Schumer crew acted as if the loans were part of their 50 percent share. The folks at DoT add that up to being a 95 percent federal government share, with 5 percent coming from the two states.

That wasn’t all that clashed with the way Transportation and other departments normally do business. Most appalling was the demand for a commitment to funding the Gateway Project even before a financial plan for the proposed tunnel had been created, much less submitted. Nor had the next step—the engineering phase—been developed.

And where specifically would the tunnel money come from? The Capital Investment Grant program, which has an annual budget of $2.3 billion. By gobbling up all that money, transit programs in cities outside New York and New Jersey would be left out.

This would be hard to defend even in Washington, especially since what Schumer wants is money for a parochial project in two states. The beginning Gateway project, the Portal Bridge, is the approach to the proposed tunnel. And nine out of ten users of it would be riders on New Jersey Transit.

Yet Schumer would have Transportation promise to fund a program affecting his state and one other at the expense of the other 48 states. Not only would access to transportation funds be sharply diminished, but taxpayers in the other 48 states would have pay disproportionately for a project they would rarely if ever benefit from. But well-to-do people would have an easier commute between New Jersey and Manhattan.

Forget all that. Schumer, with his smooth as sandpaper style, argues that the Gateway Project is urgent. “The delays this summer at Penn Station demonstrate a dire need for investing in infrastructure projects like Gateway sooner rather than later,” he argued in a press release.

“In a matter of years, the only two rail tunnels operating under the Hudson River into Manhattan could become inoperable and if that were to happen, rail delays would become insufferable.” Yes, Schumer makes a strong pitch, but he ought to adjust for his audience. President Obama is gone and the “commitment” he left behind has lost its appeal.

Schumer displays that habit of believing that what New York needs is vastly more important than what the rest of the world needs. Not anymore.

Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.

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