Trains arriving in NY’s Penn Station, which would benefit from the Gateway Tunnel project
Photo: Richard Drew (Associated Press)

President Donald Trump wants nothing to do with a new rail tunnel between Manhattan and New Jersey, telling congressional leaders as recent as last week to refuse appropriating funding for the crucial project. That’s important because, as Bloomberg points out, failing to address the current, crumbling link could derail the national economy.

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Called the Gateway project, the $30 billion effort would construct a new tunnel into New York’s Penn Station to, as the Washington Post put it, “supplement two aging tubes that are at risk of failing in the coming years.”

The project is widely considered to be among the most pressing and most expensive infrastructure needs in the country, and state and local leaders have long sought federal funding to jump-start work on it. But the Trump administration threw the project into doubt late last year by casting aside an agreement reached during the Obama administration that would have the federal government pick up half the project’s cost.

Additionally, the recent refusal not to include the tunnel in a planned spending expected to pass later this month came as a shock to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who told the Post that Trump was enthusiastic about supporting it at first:

The president asked detailed questions about the tunnel, bemoaned the city’s airports, bragged about his construction record, boasted about the length of his private plane, referred to New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) as “my governor” and shook Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s hand so many times that others laughed.

Officials left thinking Trump was on board with federal funding for the Gateway project, seen as a critical infrastructure for the millions who commute into New York City. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao also told New York officials for months in 2017 that the project was a top priority, two people familiar with her comments said. The project had also been listed as a high priority in a Trump transition document.

“It was almost like he was saying to ask for more money,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who was at the meeting. “We’ve heard nothing negative since then.”

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How pressing is it? Bloomberg summed it up perfectly:

The story involves money and hubris and risk, with a human toll. The last chapter, yet to be written, has all the plot threads of an economic catastrophe.

The Northeast accounts for 30 percent of all jobs in the U.S. and contributes $3 trillion annually to the U.S. economy. It’s home to 51 million people—one in 7 Americans—a figure expected to hit 58 million by 2040.

The Northeast Corridor is its backbone. It’s the most heavily used passenger rail line in the U.S, both in ridership and service frequency. It extends 457 miles from Union Station in Washington to South Station in Boston, carrying more than 2,200 trains daily. On the high-speed Acela Express between those cities, more than 75 percent are business travelers—the biggest such population, by far, on any Amtrak line. In 2016 those 3.48 million riders spent $593.7 million on seats, for more than 25 percent of Amtrak’s ticket revenue.

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The reason why it gives me pause is that portentous pieces like this—i.e., giant damn warning signs signaling that something seriously awful is about to happen—have eventually bared out. I’m thinking of stories like this ProPublica look at how at risk Houston is to major flooding—months ahead of Hurricane Harvey wreaking havoc on the region. The potential problems that could arise without completing the Gateway Tunnel project is, similarly, staring at us in plain sight.

And while it may seem like a problem confined to New York and New Jersey, that’s not the case. If the Hudson River tunnel’s decommissioned before a new link is in place, the millions of passengers that take it on a daily basis would have to take other routes, jamming up other transit lines and leading to more and more problems.

“We don’t build this, and these tunnels fail, the whole economy will collapse,” Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said in late 2016. “There will be a deep recession in the New York metropolitan area and a recession probably in the whole country.”

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Hyperbolic for sure, but a symptom of the rest of the country’s crumbling infrastructure, and how much our economy depends on it. And here, we’re talking about a line that, Bloomberg notes, accounts for 20 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. But, in all likelihood, the current tunnel will continue to be left to fall into further disrepair.