NYC Tunnel Funding Leads to New Clash Between Chao, Lawmakers

(Bloomberg) -- The powerful Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee scolded Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao for not supporting the Gateway rail bridge and tunnel projects in New York and New Jersey, as lawmakers from the region keep up their fight with the Trump administration over money for the program.

“I remain angered by the administration’s opposition and very calculated indifference towards the project,” Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey said Thursday during a subcommittee hearing on the department’s fiscal 2019 budget. “This posture from an administration which claims to be infrastructure-centric is totally unacceptable.”

Chao pushed back later in the hearing, saying projects must follow program rules and wait their turn for funding.

“No political pressure is going to take one of those projects, put it at the head of the line, ahead of all other projects, which is what is happening in this particular case,” Chao said.

The comments highlight a broader disagreement about the role of the federal government in funding large infrastructure projects such as Gateway, a series of projects including a new rail bridge and tunnel under the Hudson River linking Manhattan and New Jersey. The administration argues that the two states must provide more “skin in the game,” but local officials say they don’t have the resources to build the big projects without more federal help.

Frelinghuysen, a Gateway champion who is retiring from Congress at the end of his term, noted the administration fought to have funding for the program excluded from the $1.3 trillion spending measure approved last month. It contained money for Amtrak that could be used for Gateway but no direct funding.

“Some have suggested that partisan considerations by the White House and some in my own party are at work here. I should hope not,” Frelinghuysen said. “To me, this is national priority, above politics.”

Frelinghuysen told Chao the Gateway projects will be built sooner or later because of the their importance to the Northeast Corridor. If the deteriorating tunnel being used today failed, “the negative economic and national security implications would ripple across the East Coast and the nation,” he said.

Lawmakers in the House hearing and at a Senate appropriations hearing on Wednesday also sparred with Chao about whether federal loans should count as local share of funding. The administration has taken the position they do not.

“I’m not interested in arguing,” Chao said during a back-and-forth Thursday with Representative Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat. “I am interested in finding common ground.”

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