Downtown Developers Lobby for Rail Link

A few years ago, supporters of a new train to J.F.K. Airport looked around for someone who would bring their case to the nation’s capital.

All they saw were Democrats.

They had to branch out, beyond Manhattan’s Congressional delegation and the state’s two Senators. They ended up finding their man in an unlikely place: that blank space on the map between Buffalo and Rochester.

That’s where Representative Thomas Reynolds hails from, a four-term Republican who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee. He also fortuitously wields enormous power as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which doles out campaign funds to House candidates.

Downtown leaders knew what Mr. Reynolds could do for them: make sure $2 billion in unused federal tax credits targeted for lower Manhattan’s recovery were turned into cash for transportation projects.

The question was: What could they do for Mr. Reynolds?

Well, for one, they could come to a fund-raiser.

Since the last election, 21 New York property owners, managers and their families have become some of Mr. Reynolds’ best donors, giving a total of more than $88,100 to his re-election campaign, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics Web site. Some, like Leonard Litwin and Peter Kalikow, have even given to the National Republican Congressional Committee or the political-action committee that Mr. Reynolds chairs, Together for Our Majority (or TOMPAC).

Of course, New Yorkers are always rich and generous people. What is noteworthy is that, with one exception, the only donors with New York City addresses to appear among Representative Reynolds’ top 120 donors were somehow connected to the real-estate industry.

In fact, according to real-estate sources, leaders of the Real Estate Board of New York—the city’s powerful trade association for developers and property owners—have been active in donating and soliciting donations from fellow members, often citing the J.F.K. rail link as the reason why. It’s not clear to what extent they did so under the official guise of REBNY, however, and how much on their own. REBNY members referred questions to president Steve Spinola, who did not return phone calls before deadline.

Bill Rudin, a REBNY vice chairman, and his family have contributed more than $8,000 since November 2004, although he said the rail link was just one among many reasons.

“It’s an effort to understand the politics in Washington,” Mr. Rudin told The Observer. “Tom is the ranking Republican in New York State on the Ways and Means Committee, so he is representing not just his district—he is representing the entire state. I think he sees this as an issue with regional and statewide importance, just as the Governor and the Mayor have.”

REBNY chairman John Zuccotti wrote Mr. Reynolds a check for $2,100 last April, the maximum for the primary cycle, according to online campaign records.

“I did it primarily with the rail link in mind,” said Mr. Zuccotti, the chairman of Brookfield Properties, which owns the World Financial Center, speaking to The Observer. “But he has been a champion of mass transit the whole time he has been on the committee.”

Carl Weisbrod, formerly one of the rail link’s chief advocates, said that Mr. Reynolds was approached early in the process, once it was clear the $2 billion would not be used.

“It’s not just a New York City issue,” said Mr. Weisbrod, who was president of lower Manhattan’s business-improvement district until about a year ago, but has not contributed to the Reynolds campaign. “It’s not just a lower Manhattan issue. This is important for the city’s economy and therefore the state’s economy as a whole.”

Mr. Reynolds’ spokesman, L.D. Platt, said the Congressman’s position fit into his general advocacy of New York City since Sept. 11.

“If you talk to anyone, you will find that his is a powerful role in New York no matter what the issue is,” Mr. Platt said. “The support of him from New York developers has been over the long term. That is nothing new.”

That might be, but nine of the top real-estate donors just began giving to Mr. Reynolds’ Congressional campaigns since the conversion plan first surfaced in early 2004, including big downtown developers Larry Silverstein ($3,600) and Steve Witkoff ($4,200).

Of course, the donors could be interested in other issues, especially since some backers are primarily midtown developers.

The rail link would not just connect lower Manhattan with J.F.K.; it would join with the Long Island Rail Road system and provide, for the first time, a direct ride for suburban executives to their offices—a 60-year handicap that downtown has suffered at the hands of midtown, which has commuter line connections at Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station.

The former minority leader of the New York State General Assembly, Mr. Reynolds rose fast through the ranks of Congress to become arguably the state’s most important Congressman. Certainly, his campaign chest looks that way: He has raised more this election cycle than any other legislative candidate from New York aside from Senator Hillary Clinton.

In a 2003 interview with The Observer, Mr. Reynolds cast himself as a parochial politician, an aspirant to the nickname Senator Alfonse D’Amato gave himself: Senator Pothole. “I’m a former Assemblyman,” he said. “That’s what Assemblymen do: They work on details of people’s problems.”

The rail link, though, is not a pothole that everybody thinks needs to be fixed. Watchdog groups such as the Straphangers Campaign and Good Jobs New York see the train—which would require another tunnel under the East River—as pandering to downtown business owners. They say that the $6 billion it is expected to cost would be better spent on the Second Avenue Subway, which will serve many more people. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the leading gubernatorial candidate, was cool to the project when he made his first transportation-policy speech earlier this month.

But Governor George Pataki has made the rail link a signature issue, and even President Bush has endorsed it. Mayor Michael Bloomberg included support for the $2 billion tax-credit conversion as one of five issues on the “New York City Card”—a wallet-sized card imprinted with the Mayor’s policy priorities that donors are supposed to ask about in meetings with political candidates.

“After all, that was money that was promised to New York,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat representing lower Manhattan. “All we are asking is to change it from one form to another.”

Representative Nadler isn’t a rail-link booster, but along with a number of other transportation advocates, he is rooting for the conversion anyway. According to two individuals familiar with the legislative language of the proposal, the bill under consideration is worded loosely enough so that the money could be used for other transportation projects.

Support for the tax credits is generally stronger in the Senate than in the House. Senator Charles Schumer, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, is a major supporter, as is Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, the committee’s chairman. The committee, and later the Senate, passed a bill in favor of the conversion, although it leaves open the question of how much those credits would be worth. The Joint Committee on Taxation said it would come to $727 million.

Still, that would be the biggest chunk of the train’s funding to date. The Port Authority has committed $560 million, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has said it would pitch in $400 million.

The tax-reconciliation bill that passed Congress earlier this month did not include the rail link. The rail link’s supporters in Washington are still poised to try to pass the tax-credit conversion, according to a Congressional aide, but any amendment would have to endure the scrutiny of Representative Bill Thomas, the California Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee and an ardent fiscal conservative. The final decision will likely be made in the close quarters of a conference committee, in which the tax credits would be one of a host of competing regional and special interests, and not out in the open where arguments about living up to the nation’s commitment to New York would have more sway.

If Representative Reynolds fails to convince his colleagues this year, well, there is always next year—when, because of Representative Thomas’ announced retirement, the tax credits may have an even better chance. The fund-raisers, and the checks, will keep coming.