NJ.com- Federal lawmakers warned that money for the Gateway Tunnel project could be in jeopardy if an amendment cutting $50 million from New Jersey and other northeastern states isn't rolled back in a new federal transportation bill.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-8th Dist.) were joined at Penn Station Newark by Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, at a press conference Monday to talk about their efforts to restore the funding.
Sires, who is a member of the conference committee that is ironing out the differences between a senate and house funding bill, said the issue could be resolved as early as this evening or by Dec. 4, when the latest extension of the existing transportation legislation expires.
"I'm hoping that tonight we'll have news, but by Dec. 4, we need a resolution," Sires said. "We have enough problems without losing $50 million."
Northeastern lawmakers are trying to have a provision stripped out of the house bill that eliminated a special high-density public transportation program that provided a total of $1.6 billion to NJ Transit and transit agencies in six other densely populated northeastern states: New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
"If it becomes law, something like that would stop Gateway in it's tracks," Menendez said. "We would fall behind on basic maintenance and people could see delays like they saw this summer."
If NJ Transit loses $50 million in federal funding, that would also make it more difficult to find funding for Amtrak's Gateway Project, Menendez said. The project includes building two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River to augment two 105-year-old tunnels in need of repair and could cost $20 billion, based on preliminary estimates.
The $50 million loss would also put in NJ Transit in a budget hole, similar to the one that forced the agency to increase fares by nine percent last October to close a $56 million budget hole, Vanterpool warned.
"If this amendment goes into effect, it could have an affect on NJ Transit's service," she said.
If the $50 million isn't restored, Menendez said he couldn't vote for the funding bill, which could also be blocked by lawmakers from all seven northeastern states.
"We are doing everything we can to prevent it from becoming law, he said. "We want the right transportation bill."
Amtrak officials warned in October 2014 that one of the existing tunnels would have to be closed for one year each to repair damage from flood waters driven by Hurricane Sandy.
That would result in a 75 percent reduction to train traffic during rush hour, which in turn would put more cars on already congested roads, Vanterpool said.
In an interview a few hours after the press conference, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) echoed Sires comments that a compromise to restore funding and include his Gateway funding proposals in the final transportation bill, was imminent.
"This could be done tonight and we could get something to the house floor by mid-week," Booker said. "The biggest win would be for the reinvestment in the region. We did the ground work on the house side. I'm cautiously optimistic."
Booker said the measure to include his Gateway funding bills and reinstatement of the $1.6 billion in funding stripped by the house has gotten support from upstate New York Republican lawmakers, Booker said.
"They understand this is a powerful job creation tool in building and creating a return on investment," Booker said.
Could Gov. Chris Christie be doing more to convince Republicans to support the measures?
"I'm not sure what more he could be doing to influence the process," Booker said, saying that since August, Christie has been solid on the tunnel issue. "I'm glad he's been a willing partner to get us this far down the track."