The Tunnel From Nowhere

Buried deep in the Web archives of Senator Charles Schumer’s press shop (trust us, the Schumer press-release archives are deep), there is a release boasting that the Senate Finance Committee had approved $2 billion in funding for a rail link to connect Lower Manhattan with J.F.K. Airport.

With Democrats in control of Congress, approval of the funding was set to sail through the Capitol, the 2007 release suggested in a confident sub-headline: “Long Bogged Down Funding Now Moving Swiftly Through Congress.”

Well, not quite.

The funding, a reapportionment of tax credits, has proved to be a particularly elusive, giant chunk of the $20 billion in aid pledged by the Bush administration to rebuild Lower Manhattan after 9/11. It has been blocked repeatedly in Congress—legislators such as Republican Senators Judd Gregg and Jim DeMint pilloried the funding as example of reckless spending—and has therefore defied Mr. Schumer’s attempts to push it through the Senate.

And as the memory of that $20 billion promise fades, it seems actually securing the money becomes more and more difficult.

The money was originally set aside to build a new set of tunnels and other connections that would allow for a one-seat train ride from downtown Manhattan to John F. Kennedy Airport via Jamaica. But the scheme, which rode the wings of love in the heady city planning heyday that immediately followed the destruction of the World Trade Center, has gone into something of a hibernation. The proposal has never been publicly killed; powerful downtown landlords have long thought it was the way for Lower Manhattan to compete with midtown. But the plan, estimated by the administration of former Governor George Pataki to cost a hefty $6 billion, was never prioritized in the subsequent Spitzer and Paterson administrations as it was on his watch.

Since then, estimates of the cost of the project have gone up as political interest in funding additional major infrastructure projects for Lower Manhattan has gone down.

A new Metropolitan Transportation Authority analysis of the plan, obtained by The Observer, estimates a price tag of between $8.6 billion and $9.9 billion for a project that would allow a one-seat ride to the airport and extend commuter service to downtown.

So even if Mr. Schumer could get the original money, there would still be a substantial gap to fill before the project was funded.

Further, the study, which an M.T.A. spokesman said is a draft and ultimately will be released, assumes early 2006 construction costs; prices today are considerably higher.

The study, dated December 2008, found that “the additional capital cost premium is disproportionate to the benefit gained” by providing business commuters with a one-seat ride from Kennedy Airport to Lower Manhattan.

If the project doesn’t get built, what will become of the $2 billion? That’s a lot of money considering that the state will have just $4 billion total to spend for infrastructure, statewide, as part of the federal stimulus package.

The language of the failed bills makes the funding applicable to “any transportation infrastructure project, including highways, mass transit systems, railroads, airports, ports and waterways, in or connecting with [Lower Manhattan].”

“Right now, the political will needs to be to get the $2 billion allocated to the City of New York,” said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, which continues to push for the rail link.

In a statement, a spokesman for Mr. Schumer suggested the senator will continue to try to get the funding secured in Congress, through he did not specifically mention the rail link.

“Senator Schumer is committed to securing the federal funding promised to New York for Lower Manhattan transportation projects on the next appropriate legislative vehicle,” the spokesman, Joshua Vlasto, said.

Should the money be allocated and indeed not go to the rail link, one obvious candidate would be the World Trade Center reconstruction, which includes a new PATH station that is more than $1 billion over its initial budget. The Second Avenue Subway is theoretically supposed to connect to Lower Manhattan at some point, though that would be the fourth phase of a project that doesn’t yet have enough money to finish the first phase, which would go from 57th Street to 105th Street.

“There’s no shortage of projects; it’s just a shortage of money,” said Bob Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association.

But of course, it is 2009 down in Washington, D.C., right now; and with a stimulus, a bailout and a giant budget, it’s easy to predict a bout of spending fatigue.

Some notable detractors of the funding included Mr. Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican senator. On the Senate floor last year, Mr. Gregg said of an attempt by Mr. Schumer to include the tax credit changes in a Federal Aviation Administration bill that New York legislators “have decided to raid the federal treasury for the purposes of building this train to nowhere.”

The bill was ultimately passed without the provision for the money, though it earned Mr. Schumer the distinction of “Porker of the Month” by the group Citizens Against Government Waste, which derided the effort as an objectionable earmark and manipulation of the tax code. The Wall Street Journal editorial page expressed similar disdain.

Whether the money will ever be allocated—allegations of pork peddling are sure to resurface—will depend in large part on the efforts of Mr. Schumer, the leading proponent of the issue in the Senate, and whether he can slip it into legislation that will not meet the same resistance as it has in the past. The measure has passed the House repeatedly, and a spokesman for Representative Jerrold Nadler, who represents Lower Manhattan (though is against the rail link), said the congressman intends to insert it into legislation once again this year.

“This is money that was promised New York to help make it whole after the terrorist attack,” said the spokesman, Robert Gottheim. “We’re going to use it for legitimate transportation.”

As for the political chances, Mr. Yaro, of the RPA, deferred to Mr. Schumer. “I’m sure he’ll find a way of doing it if there is a way of doing so,” he said. “He’s very persistent about these things.”

ebrown@observer.com

 

The Tunnel From Nowhere