Gateway and California High Speed Rail ?>

Gateway and California High Speed Rail

New Jersey Transit and Amtrak riders dream of the day the century-old Portal Bridge in Kearny, NJ is replaced.  This old swing bridge opens a few times a week, mostly to make way for barges loaded with sewage sludge to move down the Hackensack River.  The old bridge breaks down and thousands of riders wait while the bridge is fixed.  It’s an example of the Northeast’s crumbling infrastructure and our need to invest.

Portal Bridge is on a section of track owned by Amtrak, the government-owned successor to the bankrupt Penn Central Railroad.  Amtrak’s service on the Northeast Corridor is profitable (its only profitable route), but it is not profitable enough to finance the upgrades needed in the New York area.

Portal Bridge is part of the Gateway project, a combine of route, tunnel, and terminal upgrades needed to support long distance and commuter rail in the region.  Gateway is the successor to the ARC tunnel project (Access to the Region’s Core), quashed by New Jersey Governor Christie in 2010.  The two existing tunnels across the Hudson are a hundred years old and near the end of their useful lives.  Gateway includes replacement of the Portal Bridge, two new rail tunnels across the Hudson, and reconfiguration of New York Penn Station.  In 2015, the cost of the project was estimated at $20 billion.

Whether Gateway is the best solution available for $20 billion is a matter of debate.  What is clear is that the bridge needs to be replaced and the new tubes dug in preparation for renovation of the old ones.  New Jersey and New York haven’t the money to fund Gateway themselves, so the other logical underwriter is the federal government.  It could do so in the form of grants to the states or in the form of a cash infusion to Amtrak.  One suspects that the Amtrak option is more attractive in Washington; it would retain control over all the infrastructure.

Joined at the hip with California

Gateway is not the only rail infrastructure project begging for federal funds.  California High Speed Rail (CAHSR) is a new line between San Francisco and Los Angeles.  CAHSR will cut the time required to travel by Amtrak from twelve hours to three.  Construction has begun on this $64 billion project.  The California High Speed Rail Authority has funding commitments for $20 billion.  It still has no idea where the remaining $44 billion will come from.  It believes it will either get federal grants or sell equity in the system to a private entity.  As a model, it points to the Indiana Toll Road, sold to private interests in 2006.

Presidential candidates from both parties have expressed support for transportation infrastructure spending.  Likely it will find support in the Congress, too.  One should expect that Gateway and CAHSR will be part of the same House discussions during the 115th Congress.   The fates of both projects are intertwined.  Supporters of one project would be well advised to support the other.  Success or failure to get federal funding will happen together.

The challenge in the Congress is that Gateway and CAHSR are coastal projects, both in Democratic states.  Representatives, acting in the interest of their constituents will ask, “And what about mass transit for my city?”  The results will be proposals for other projects of less value, like streetcar systems in cities that don’t really need them.  Modern streetcar systems (“light rail”) have not enjoyed great success in the United States.  Controversy follows every proposal.

Advocates of CAHSR and Gateway need to understand that support for one necessitates support for the other.  It’s going to take some polite maneuvering to make sure that funding for them is not bogged down by discussion of lesser value public transit projects.  One strategy would be to extend the discussion to other infrastructure projects, like replacement of aging highway bridges.  That would allow the bill to touch every state from coast to coast.

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