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POLITICO New Jersey: Trump infrastructure 'principles' represent another bad omen for Gatewa

If the principles undergirding President Donald Trump's infrastructure plan are any indication, New York and New Jersey are going to have to scrounge up more money than expected to build a new tunnel beneath the Hudson River.

"It's a direct repudiation of the federal role in building infrastructure," said a person familiar with the Gateway project, referring to the guidelines acquired by POLITICO on Monday. The person was not at liberty to discuss the matter publicly.

The guidelines read, in part, that "grant awards can't exceed 20 [percent] of total project cost."

That's a good deal less than what project planners had been hoping for, though not completely surprising, given the administration's recent rhetoric on the issue.

The Gateway proposal calls for building a new rail tunnel beneath the Hudson River to replace the existing one that connects New Jersey to Penn Station, and is 107 years old and falling apart. Advocates for the $13 billion tunnel project have predicted economic "apocalypse" should the current tunnel fail before the new one gets built — a circumstance tunnel owner Amtrak contends is distinctly possible.

Plans also call for building a new, $1.5 billion bridge across the Hackensack River to replace the Portal North Bridge, which is also 107 years old, deteriorating and prone to getting stuck in the open position, stalling rail traffic up and down the Northeast Corridor.

The Obama administration promised to split the cost of those projects with the states of New York and New Jersey. The Trump administration has different ideas. After spending months signaling it was disinterested in honoring the Obama-era agreement, it more emphatically declared it dead in late December and suggested the region was seeking too much financial assistance from the feds.

The "principles" released Monday reflect the Trump administration's contention that localities should foot a heftier portion of infrastructure projects that fall within their geographic boundaries.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation had no comment. Nor did spokespeople for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. A spokesman for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy declined to comment. A spokesman for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo referred POLITICO to the bi-state Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

"We are committed to supporting this critically important infrastructure project — the region's economy depends upon it," Port spokesman Benjamin Branham said. "We look forward to continuing discussions with our federal partners to ensure it gets built."

In what is perhaps a reflection of lowered expectations, Regional Plan Association President Tom Wright said he was grateful the federal government was at least willing to engage in a conversation about Gateway funding.

"One the one hand, you could see this and say they're capping what they're going to do at much lower than was expected, but on the other hand, at least they're putting something out and starting negotiations," he said.

The person familiar with Gateway was less impressed.

The proposed federal percentage is, he said, "too small to get the project going."

"This really is the hunger games," he went on. "It's pitting project against project, regardless of the merit."

Ryan Hutchins contributed to this report.

This article first appeared on POLITICO New Jersey on Jan. 22, 2018.

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