Cuomo pushes Trump for Gateway funding with Hudson River tunnels tour

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is turning to video in his latest bid to secure funding for Amtrak’s deteriorating train tunnels under the Hudson River. 

The governor trekked to North Bergen, New Jersey, late Wednesday night to tour the tracks, taking media members along for the production of a video to show President Donald Trump just how badly the North River Tunnels are damaged. 

“We want to make sure the president understands the severity of the damage, the consequences of loss of one of the tunnels for a period of time, and the lead time that is necessary for this type of project,” Cuomo said from the back of a flatbed truck as it headed under the Hudson.

Trump has been accused of using the Gateway Program, a $30 billion transportation initiative that includes a new Amtrak tunnel under the Hudson River, as a bargaining chip for other priorities, and backed away from an Obama-era agreement to pay for half the project. Federal lawmakers ended up securing some funds for Amtrak in this year’s omnibus spending bill after Trump threatened a veto if the legislation included dedicated Gateway funding.  

Building new Hudson River tunnels, and then eventually rehabilitating the existing ones, would cost about $13 billion of the total Gateway program.

“You have a level of damage that… can interrupt service for days. If you lose service for one of these tunnels for one, two or three days, you’re talking about a devastating impact on transportation on the whole northeast corridor,” Cuomo said.

Each day, 450 Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains and 200,000 passengers pass through the tunnel under the Hudson, a vital, 2½-mile link for New Jersey residents working in New York. But the century-old tunnel was badly damaged during superstorm Sandy in 2012 and is “steadily and inexorably deteriorating,” according to Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton, who came along for the ride with an Amtrak crew. 

If a tube of the tunnel fails, rush-hour service would have to be reduced by 75 percent, from 24 to six trains per hour, he said.

“We’re just gambling with the transportation lifeblood of the region,” Cotton said. 

Cuomo, Cotton and Amtrak staff pointed to sections of crumbling ceilings as they drove over the Manhattan-bound track, where concrete had fallen off in several locations just above the overhead catenary line that powers the trains. In one area, large panels of concrete were missing, exposing corroded steel reinforcement bars.

At one point Cuomo hopped on top of a corroded section of the tube’s bench walls, which house the tunnel’s high-voltage cables, to easily peel and chip away rusted metal and other debris. 

Amtrak crews routinely check for loose pieces of concrete with a hammer to proactively remove from the tunnel, according to Ray Sandiford, of the construction engineering firm HNTB, which conducted a structural assessment of the tunnels in 2014. 

"If there’s a piece of cement that falls and you have a train coming through at 60 miles an hour — it’s really not a good thing to happen," Sandiford said. "So Amtrak is very diligent. They inspect this very regularly."

The Trump administration did not respond to a request for comment.

Cuomo wants Trump to make good on the deal to pay half the Gateway cost. Why does Cuomo believe that a video would convince the president? Cuomo’s an optimist, he says. 

“I’m an eternal optimist; I have to be,” Cuomo said. "I’m governor of New York.”

The US DOT said in a statement that the EIS for the tunnel replacement project is progressing, but didn’t seem to be any closer to accepting split funding responsibilities.

“There is no ‘50/50’ agreement between USDOT, New York, and New Jersey and the respective project sponsors,” the agency said in a statement. “We consider it unhelpful to reference a non-existent ‘agreement’ rather than directly address the responsibility for funding a local project where 9 out of 10 passengers are local transit riders. Additionally, it is important to note that a 50 percent contribution would be considerably higher than existing precedent for past "mega projects.”