Booker, Christie Want Trump’s Transportation Secretary to Visit

Left to right, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, Gov. Chris Christie and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker. Salvador Rizzo for Observer

At a rare joint appearance after weeks of train derailments and commuter delays, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and Gov. Chris Christie called on the top transportation official in Washington to come take a tour of the decaying rail infrastructure connecting New Jersey and New York.

A bipartisan chorus of elected officials from New Jersey has been urging President Trump to commit federal funds to the Gateway tunnel, which would double train capacity under the Hudson River and relieve hundreds of thousands of commuters who routinely face delays or service interruptions. This weekend, 1,200 passengers were trapped for hours on a disabled NJ Transit train.

Although Christie has a direct line to Trump and has discussed the railway issues with him, the governor said that “this stuff has to be done in an orderly fashion” and that the appropriate step now is to have U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao come visit. Each of President Barack Obama’s transportation secretaries, first Ray LaHood and then Anthony Foxx, trekked up for a firsthand look at the situation.

Trump’s proposed federal budget does not include funds for the Gateway project. Booker and Sen. Bob Menendez, and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer of New York, have been calling on Trump to fund the project as part of his campaign pledge to invest in infrastructure upgrades. New Jersey and New York share the most economically active river crossing in the world, and a century-old rail tunnel with two tracks isn’t cutting it these days, Booker said.

“We know that every day these tunnels are down, it has tens of millions of dollars in impact,” Booker said at a news conference in Newark Penn Station. “We also know that we’re teetering every single day on the brink of truly a traffic Armaggedon, because should these trains fall, our region becomes crippled.”

Paul Josephson, co-chair of the Regional Plan Association, called Gateway “the single most important infrastructure project in our country today.” Estimates have the cost of the entire Gateway project, including added track capacity in Newark and New York, a replacement of the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River, and an expansion of New York Penn Station, at nearly $24 billion. Amtrak, which is the lead agency on the project in partnership with New Jersey and New York, says it has done environmental studies and is currently $300 million into the project.

At the news conference, Christie was asked about his decision in 2010 to cancel a different rail tunnel, known as ARC. Before the governor could answer, Booker leapt to Christie’s defense.

“That’s done. That’s history,” Booker said. “I don’t want to keep revisiting history. I want to talk about where we are right now. … Is the federal government going to meet its obligations to make sure we don’t have continued crises in this region? And all of us should be calling on the federal administration to follow through.”

Update (8:58 p.m.): A spokesperson for the U.S. Transportation Department emailed a statement Wednesday night calling Gateway one of “the country’s nationally significant infrastructure projects” and saying Chao intends to take a tour.

“Secretary Chao frequently travels on Amtrak in and out of New York’s Penn Station to visit her father who lives in New York.  She intends to tour a number of the country’s nationally significant infrastructure projects, including the Gateway project.

“Many of DOT’s agencies are actively engaged with the Gateway project including being on-site and participating in regular meetings with program officials. Additionally, Secretary Chao designated the department’s new senior advisor to the secretary for infrastructure, Jim Ray, to serve on the Gateway board and participated in the board meeting last week.”