Trump Seeks Speedy Project Reviews—Except for Hudson Tunnel

(Bloomberg) -- Promising “gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways,’’ President Donald Trump ordered faster U.S. decisions on major public-works plans. That hasn’t happened with a New York City-area rail tunnel that boosters call the nation’s most-needed infrastructure project.

His administration has missed the target approval date by more than a year for the environmental document needed to build a new tunnel linking New Jersey and Manhattan. The U.S. Department of Transportation blames local authorities for the delay. But tunnel supporters say they submitted high-quality work, only to see the administration erect hurdles because of political opposition to the $12.7 billion project.

“This is an administration that has made project expediting their Number One infrastructure priority,’’ said Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey. “This has every indication of purposely being slow-walked as part of their overall effort to try to kill this project.”

The lag belies what Trump vowed in August 2017, when he signed an executive order to “get infrastructure built quickly.’’ The Transportation Department, in a statement, said the order doesn’t apply to the New York-New Jersey tunnel, known as Gateway, because it came more than a year after the project’s environmental process began.

Crumbling Tunnel

The delayed review is the latest front in the battle between Democratic-led New York and New Jersey and Trump, a Republican with a family fortune rooted in New York City real estate. Stuck in the middle are residents of the densely packed U.S. Northeast, a region that generates 20 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Without Gateway, trains from Boston to Washington are dependent upon one century-old, crumbling tunnel under the Hudson River.

That link is critical for commuters on New Jersey Transit and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the busiest and most profitable U.S. route with more than 800,000 daily passengers. It sustained severe structural and electrical-system damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and must be shut for repairs. The states are trying to delay that closing until Gateway, a second tunnel, opens.

Should just one of the existing tunnel’s two tracks have to close for four years of repairs, capacity would be reduced by 75 percent, New York City-area home values would drop $20 billion and the U.S. economy would lose $16 billion, according to a report by the Regional Plan Association, which studies metropolitan-area quality of life.

Delay Tactics

The Gateway clash sparked after the Trump administration denied the existence of a 50 percent federal-state cost split that state officials announced in 2015. Transportation officials object to allocating so much federal money to the tunnel at the expense of other U.S. transit projects, and they have rated the project too low to qualify for federal grants.

But project advocates point out that the tunnel is owned by the federal government, not the states. Trump, they say, is using Gateway delay tactics as leverage for other priorities, such as the Mexico border wall, or because of animosity toward Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who as minority leader held up confirmation of White House nominees.

“President Trump and his Department of Transportation have put their thumb on the permitting process, holding up this urgently needed project in a systematic and cynical bid to exert false political leverage over me and my colleagues in the New York and New Jersey delegations,” Schumer said in a March 4 speech in New York.

Project Paperwork

Prior to construction of this scope, federal law requires an approved Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, with studies of local animals and plants, archaeological sites, air and water, traffic and public health, among other subjects. A ruling was due by March 30, 2018, according to the federal Permitting Dashboard, which also shows an estimate for all other environmental reviews and permitting to be finished by February 2019.

The Transportation Department says it’s evaluating additional information provided by tunnel planners late last year -- a task hampered by the record 35-day partial federal government shutdown. It blamed a local project sponsor’s not being named until June 2018, with questions about how mitigation will be handled as a result.

“The document is lengthy and requires a careful review by both FTA and FRA, particularly given the significant amount of new information provided,” according to a Transportation Department statement that used agency shorthand for the Federal Transit and Railroad administrations.

Local officials say the Transportation Department is manufacturing excuses.

Minor Matters

Any information submitted after the initial document was about relatively minor matters, such as noting the completion of Hudson Yards, the West Side real-estate development over part of the tunnel route, said Stephen Sigmund, a spokesman for Gateway Program Development Corp. The document, which the DOT helped complete, noted the potential for a change in project sponsor, Sigmund said. As of now, it’s the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey -- a project partner for years that also contributed to the environmental study.

“What we need is for the federal government to become a partner and not try to make excuses for not doing what it should do,” Rick Cotton, the Port Authority’s executive director, said in an April 18 interview.

Gateway planners said they were able to complete their work on the environmental study for the tunnel in half the usual time. Completion times vary widely depending on a project’s scope and complexity, but the average time for federal agencies to issue a final EIS from a draft from 2010 through 2017 was one year and five months, according to a report released last December by the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Drawing Board

If no action is taken on the 1,731-page document for the tunnel by February 2021, the planners will have to update portions, checking for changes in law, habitats and other study areas.

“We delivered a consensus-driven, quality final EIS for a major project in near-record time, and it’s unfortunate that it’s now yellowing with age because of a lack of response from U.S. DOT,” said John Porcari, who was interim executive director of Gateway from July 2016 until February 2019 and was deputy U.S. transportation secretary under President Barack Obama.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has sued under the Freedom of Information Act “to find out why the Trump administration has prevented’’ the tunnel study’s publication. The administration’s excuses are “exactly the opposite of what the president wants for every other project,’’ said Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the New York-based non-profit group.

On April 1, more than 20 Northeastern members of Congress signed a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao calling for an immediate environmental-study ruling. They’re finding allies even far from the region.

“The Trump administration is sitting on an EIS for a multibillion project,’’ Democratic Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon said during a March 6 House Ways and Means Committee hearing on crumbling infrastructure. “We’re ready to go. It doesn’t have to be this -- this partisan.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.