One of President Trump’s bugbears in Congress’s omnibus spending bill is the Gateway Project, the $30 billion plan to better link New Jersey and Manhattan by building a new bridge; restoring the existing commuter-train tunnel, which was damaged by Hurricane Sandy; and building a new tunnel to expand capacity. In fact, Trump threatened to torpedo the whole bill over the $541 million it sets aside for the Gateway Project this year. In the end, a compromise was reached: Though Gateway did not get an explicit line item, Democrats in Congress are reportedly confident that it will get at least some federal funding. As a beleaguered New York commuter, you’d think I’d be cheered by the news. But my fear is that the money will be poured down the drain.
Trump’s sudden budget-consciousness seems mostly related to his personal dislike of my neighbor, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, who is a strong backer of the project. He does, however, have good reason to be concerned about Gateway’s price tag. The new tunnel — the centerpiece of the plan — is projected to cost $11.1 billion alone. And simply put, writes Alon Levy for CityLab, “a three-mile tunnel without station platforms has no reason to cost so much.” He compares the $3.7 billion-per-mile estimate to other record-setting infrastructure projects: Manhattan’s East Side Access, which cost $350 million per mile for excavation and the Second Avenue Subway, which cost a mere (ahem) $240 million per mile for excavation.
Granted, the new tunnel is projected to double capacity for commuter traffic between New Jersey and Manhattan, and that is a worthy goal, argues Levy, given the deterioration in the existing tunnel and the crush during morning commutes. But it isn’t worth $30 billion. Rather, he points out, there are other things New York and New Jersey can do to ameliorate their transportation woes. For one, Amtrak could run longer trains. Right now, it uses eight-car trains at stations that could service at least twelve cars. Better scheduling, meanwhile, could boost the number of trains that could pass through the tunnel per hour, even given track closures for repairs.
So, have the regional transit authorities feverishly pursued every cheap and easy fix they can find to increase the throughput of their existing infrastructure. No, they have not. And why would they when they can cry poverty instead?
The states themselves, Levy points out, have already committed $5.5 billion to the Gateway Project. If infrastructure in New York could be built at similar prices as in Paris — or even at the obscenely high cost of the tunnel for the Second Avenue Subway, which the New York Times famously described as “the most expensive mile of subway track on Earth” — he says, that would be more than enough to get the metro area the high-quality transit infrastructure it badly needs.