How politics, and Donald Trump, turned America’s most important repair job into a $30 billion grudge match.
President Donald Trump was in an unusually bipartisan mood on September 7, when he convened a White House meeting about a massive project to build a rail tunnel under the Hudson River. He was still basking in the glow of a surprise deal he had cut the day before with top congressional Democrats, avoiding a government shutdown and generating a flurry of positive press. Now he was huddling with a bipartisan group of politicians from his home base of New York and New Jersey about the bipartisan topic of infrastructure, the issue on which the former developer seemed to share the most common ground with his political adversaries.
Trump had run for president as a builder as well as a deal-maker, promising “the biggest and boldest infrastructure investment in American history.” The topic of the meeting—the proposed $11 billion “Gateway” tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan—was big, bold and arguably the nation’s most urgent infrastructure project. The decrepit century-old tunnels that currently carry 200,000 daily passengers under the Hudson could fail at any time, which could devastate America’s most populous and productive metropolitan area, as well as paralyze the crucial Amtrak corridor connecting Boston through New York down to Washington, D.C. An engineering marvel to save Gotham from disaster felt like the kind of Trumpian megaproject the president might enjoy calling his own.
As the political supplicants filed into the room, Trump jovially greeted New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who might run against him in 2020, as “my governor,” and praised his work rebuilding a bridge over the Hudson, as well as LaGuardia Airport. He wished a happy birthday to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican who did run against him in 2016; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer quipped that his gift to Christie should be a new tunnel. Trump had publicly mocked Schumer as “Cryin’ Chuck” and “the head clown” in less amicable times, but now he kept reaching across one of his aides to shake Schumer’s hand as they bantered about their unexpected budget deal.
“It’s playing great, isn’t it?”? Trump crowed.
“Absolutely,” said Congressman Peter King, a Republican from Long Island. “And this project would be another perfect example of bipartisanship.”
By the end of the 40-minute meeting, it sounded like Trump was on board with the entire $30 billion Gateway program, not only the tunnel but a suite of related projects along the most congested stretch of American passenger rail. He delighted Gateway’s boosters by calling the tunnel vital for the economy, though he did note that it would be tough to get credit for, like an air conditioning project in the basement of one of his hotels. “Nobody’s gonna see it,” Trump told the group, “but you still gotta do it.” The politicians in attendance thought the president had even embraced an Obama administration commitment for federal taxpayers to foot half the bill. “Ask anyone on either side of the aisle. It was very upbeat, total agreement this needs to get done,” Christie told me. King describes the meeting as a love-in: “Not a single negative word, great body language, everybody on the same page.”
After the meeting, though, Trump asked Schumer to stay behind. He bluntly offered another deal, an offer suggesting he had a rather different conception of Gateway’s larger importance: Schumer could have his tunnel if Trump got his border wall with Mexico.
Schumer said he couldn’t make that trade. And ever since, the Trump administration has been doing just about everything in its power to derail the Gateway project. In March, the president threatened to veto an entire $1.2 trillion government spending bill if it included anything at all for Gateway. Meanwhile, Trump’s Transportation Department has voided President Barack Obama’s 50-50 financing deal and blocked the federal grants and loans Gateway’s supporters were counting on to get the megaproject under construction. Transportation experts warn that the aging tunnels are particularly vulnerable to summer heat—an electrical problem shut down one of them for four days in July 2015—but for now, the government effort to avoid another failure that could cripple the entire region is in limbo.
New Jersey’s Portal Bridge A single century-old bridge—the “Achilles’ heel of the Northeast Corridor”—carries more than 100,000 passengers per day to and from Manhattan. After swinging open for ship traffic, it sometimes needs to be banged into place with a sledgehammer. | Cameron Davidson for Politico Magazine
Gateway might be the most vivid current illustration of America’s literally crumbling infrastructure—and of the dysfunctional zero-sum politics that often stymies efforts to fix it. Trump’s grand vision for $1 trillion worth of “gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways” was his most obvious opportunity for bipartisan policymaking. Instead, along with his Republican allies who control Congress, he has prioritized trying to repeal Obamacare, cutting taxes and building his wall. The “infrastructure advisory council” he convened in 2017, led by two of his fellow Manhattan developers, was quickly disbanded after his racial controversy over Charlottesville. His long-promised $1 trillion infrastructure plan emerged neither big nor bold, calling for just $200 billion in federal spending, none of it necessarily new. And the plan was instantly buried in Congress, where infrastructure is no longer even on the agenda for 2018. The White House’s periodic attempts to declare an “Infrastructure Week” have become a running Washington punchline, inevitably overshadowed by scandals like Charlottesville and his firing of his FBI director.
Everybody in American politics seems to support the idea of infrastructure improvements—even Gateway’s opponents admit it’s a worthy project—but nobody seems to like paying for them. That’s a big reason why it has become so much harder to build big things in the United States than it is in undemocratic China. There’s a broad consensus that America’s competitiveness and quality of life depend on modernizing its obsolete tunnels and sewers and power lines—on long-term investments that, like Trump’s air conditioning project, nobody’s gonna see but you still gotta do. But massive projects come with massive costs, especially in the big, aging cities that need much of the work; the Gateway tunnel will require purchasing an entire block of some of the planet’s most expensive riverfront property for a ventilation shaft, not to mention “ground freezing,” “jet grouting” and other cutting-edge tunnel technologies that require massive equipment and a massive workforce. In a politically polarized country, there’s less of a sense that these engineering marvels benefit everyone.
Transportation planners like to say that if you’ve seen one infrastructure project, you’ve seen one infrastructure project. Gateway is unique among public works in its complexity, its cost and the vast numbers of travelers counting on it; a structural failure could snarl an entire region and trigger a national recession. Still, the policy war over Gateway reflects even larger divides over who should pay to build what for whom in the Trump era. The Gateway fight is partly about Trump being Trump, looking for leverage over Schumer in future deals, lashing out at a rival over disputes like the wall. But inside his administration and much of his party, there’s a genuine belief that the federal government should pay less for public works, especially urban transit projects for Democratic cities in Democratic states. Infrastructure is supposed to knit us together as a nation, increasing our personal mobility and economic connectivity, but the politics of infrastructure is increasingly exposing our divides.
For much of America’s railroad era, travelers to and from New York had to get off their trains and take ferries across the Hudson River. But in 1910—when William Howard Taft was president, the Titanic was under construction and America’s fastest car was powered by steam—the Pennsylvania Railroad bored two single-track tunnels through the rock beneath the river, an achievement that finally allowed train travel straight from New Jersey to the majestic new Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. That same year, the railroad eased another bottleneck on the same line a few miles west by building a double-track bridge over the Hackensack River, with a detachable section that rotated open whenever boats needed to pass.
Today, American transportation is radically different. The interstate highways and the air travel revolution killed off most of the country’s long-distance passenger rail. The original Penn Station was razed in all its neoclassical glory, and its cramped replacement is a dingy national embarrassment. But 108 years later, the nation’s dense metropolitan areas still depend on railroads to bring millions of suburban commuters to their jobs; Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line has become profitable and popular; and those twin Hudson tunnels and the swing-span Portal Bridge carry 450 New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains every day.
The problem is, they’re falling apart. The concrete inside the tunnels has been eroding since Superstorm Sandy flooded them with millions of gallons of brackish water in 2012, and the 12,000-volt copper electric cables inside the concrete periodically short-circuit and melt down. “It’s like a volcano erupting,” said Mike Siwiec, an Amtrak electrical specialist who showed me the frayed remains of a cable that ruptured and gridlocked the city in 2015. Meanwhile, the rickety Portal Bridge fails to close properly one of every seven times it opens, though maintenance crews can sometimes bash it back into alignment with a sledgehammer. The 9-mile stretch between Newark and New York City is now a chokepoint for the entire Northeast Corridor; whenever one of its two tunnels goes out of service, train traffic decreases 75 percent, and whenever the Portal Bridge can’t close, train traffic halts completely. It’s hard to calculate the precise economic impact of losing a key entryway to a city that accounts for 10 percent of U.S. GDP, but Gateway’s boosters peg it at $100 million a day.
A Transit Bottleneck At left, the current tunnel’s narrow entrance viewed from above the Palisades in New Jersey. At right, the Manhattan entrance from which stormwater flooded both tunnel tubes during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. | Cameron Davidson for Politico Magazine
An engineering study after Sandy found little danger of a tragic structural collapse that floods a tunnel and puts entire trains underwater. The more likely outcome over the next decade is the tunnels gradually becoming less and less reliable, with power lines and signal cables failing so often that at least one of the tunnels needs to be closed for long-term repairs. That would instantly snarl America’s densest region, forcing more commuters onto roads that are already jammed, diverting more Amtrak passengers to crowded New York airports that already generate one-third of the nation’s flight delays. “It would be an absolute nightmare,” says John Porcari, interim director of the Gateway Development Corporation, the entity created to manage the project. “It would paralyze the city and the whole Northeast Corridor, maybe for years.”
The Politics of a Bridge
President Barack Obama helped line up funding for an earlier tunnel project before Chris Christie, New Jersey’s Republican governor, killed the plan and put his state money into highway repairs. Now, a new version has bogged down in a spat between President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Partisan politics killed the first effort to avoid that kind of nightmare. That project was called Access to the Region’s Core, a partnership between the Obama administration and New Jersey (but not New York) to build a cross-Hudson tunnel for New Jersey Transit (but not Amtrak). Construction had already begun in 2010 when New Jersey’s newly elected Republican governor, Chris Christie, shocked the region by canceling the project, returning some of Obama’s stimulus money to Washington and shifting his state’s contribution to highway projects. The move raised Christie’s profile as a Republican warrior against Obama’s spending and spared him the political pain of raising gas taxes to balance the state budget in his first term. Christie says he acted out of substantive objections to the ARC project itself, which would have required New York to pay nothing and New Jersey to cover all cost overruns, and would have delivered its passengers to a terminus oddly located below the Macy’s basement a full block from Penn Station. ARC would have started carrying passengers this year if it had been built as planned, but Christie says he has “zero regrets” about killing it. “It was a bad project, and it would’ve screwed New Jersey,” he told me.
There’s still a lot of anger at Christie for nuking ARC rather than trying to improve it; his tunnel decision probably did more to create traffic problems than his lane-closing Bridgegate scandal. And the journey to Gateway has not always been smooth. When the Hudson tunnel closed in 2015, Cuomo publicly sniped that it wasn’t his tunnel. But New Jersey, New York, Amtrak and the Obama administration agreed to reconfigure the project later that year, and everyone involved thinks the new version makes more sense. The plan calls for a similar double-track tunnel under the Hudson—it will reuse ARC’s early work on the New Jersey side—but the design more sensibly ends in Penn Station. The first phase of Gateway also includes a new Portal Bridge built high enough for boats to pass below, a kind of emergency surgery for the so-called “Achilles’ heel of the Northeast Corridor.”
Later phases of Gateway would repair the existing Hudson tunnels and add yet another new Portal Bridge, so that the busiest stretch of the Northeast Corridor would have the same four-track capacity as the rest of the line. The plan also includes an expansion and upgrade of dank, seedy, overcrowded Penn Station, which handles more passengers than New York’s three major airports combined. When Trump’s aides talk about Gateway, they often grumble about its $30 billion price tag and sprawling ambitions, but the only projects actually on the table now are the new bridge and the new tunnel, a $13 billion investment to avert a looming catastrophe.
“No question, this is the most desperately needed infrastructure effort in the country,” says Marcia Hale, president of Building America’s Future, a bipartisan coalition pushing for public works investment. “It’s crazy that it isn’t happening.”
The obstacle is not the usual red tape that delays U.S. infrastructure. The Portal Bridge already has its permits, while the environmental review for the new Hudson tunnel was fast-tracked and forwarded to the Transportation Department for approval in an unusually speedy two years. The obstacle is the Trump administration, which vowed in its infrastructure plan to accelerate the permits process, but has been sitting on this one without explanation. “I wouldn’t say we’re slow-walking it,” one administration official told me, before laughing. “OK, maybe a little.”
The Trump administration has put all kinds of roadblocks in front of Gateway, giving its grant applications disqualifying grades of “medium low priority” and denouncing its 50-50 funding agreement with Obama as a nonbinding marketing ploy. The administration has even rejected New York and New Jersey proposals to finance their share of Gateway with federal loans, arguing the loans shouldn’t count as state contributions, even though they have counted as state contributions on other projects.
The administration’s larger argument is that New York and New Jersey are relying too heavily on federal taxpayers for a mostly local project. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has said they need to put more “skin in the game.” This also happens to be the main argument of the White House infrastructure plan released in February, which proposed limiting the federal contribution to most projects to 20 percent, down from as high as 80 or 90 percent today. Trump still portrays himself as America’s builder, but his plan amounted to urging state and local governments to build, and that has been his administration’s approach to Gateway.
“Gateway is the poster child for the dysfunctional way we think about infrastructure funding in this country,” said one senior official who worked on the White House plan. “Sure, it’s absolutely critical. But why on earth should taxpayers in Wyoming and Iowa pay for half of it?”
America vs. New York
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao wants states to pitch in more for infrastructure; Congressman Ted Budd of North Carolina fought Gateway in the House. Senators Cory Booker and Kristen Gillibrand’s support of the project doesn’t endear it to Trump.
Gateway’s boosters offer a litany of answers: the outsize economic necessity of reliable access to America’s finance and media capital; the importance of maintaining and improving service on the Northeast Corridor, which has a ridership equivalent to one-third of all passengers on U.S. domestic flights; the climate benefits of keeping tens of thousands of additional cars from idling in traffic during rush hour. But none of those answers has gotten traction in Trump world, where some aides call the project “Hateway.” The heads of Trump’s short-lived infrastructure advisory council, his fellow New York developers Richard LeFrak and Steven Roth, once startled Gateway’s backers in a meeting by suggesting New York and New Jersey finance the project by selling off one of the area’s airports.
In the past, objections from presidential councils or even presidents didn’t usually derail infrastructure projects. Influential members of Congress financed vital public works (and, yes, porky bridges to nowhere) through earmarks, and the executive branch helped build them whether it approved of them or not. And even though the Republican Congress banned earmarks in 2011, House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey managed to tuck $900 million for Gateway into an omnibus budget bill early this year. But the collegial norms of the past no longer seem to apply in modern Washington. At the memorial service for the Reverend Billy Graham in late February, Trump warned House Speaker Paul Ryan during a private conversation that he would veto the entire omnibus and shut down the government if Gateway weren’t removed. Ryan had to ask aides what Gateway was, but the White House called his office repeatedly to emphasize the president was serious. The right-wing bomb-throwers of the House Freedom Caucus also took up the cause, portraying Gateway as blue-state theft from red-state taxpayers, clamoring to kill it with a fervor that lawmakers never used to deploy against each other’s pet projects. “If this tunnel is so great, New York and New Jersey should pay for it,” says North Carolina Congressman Ted Budd, who led the fight against Gateway in the House. “I don’t see why my children and grandchildren should pay for their infrastructure.”
In the end, Frelinghuysen and Schumer still managed to steer more than $500 million toward the project, even though the word “Gateway” came out of the bill. But with the Trump administration holding up its grants, loans and permits, it’s starting to fall behind schedule, and every year of delay for the tunnel alone is expected to add about $500 million to its price tag. Delay has less quantifiable costs as well. Porcari, who was Obama’s deputy transportation secretary and now runs a division of the engineering firm WSP, agreed to serve as Gateway’s part-time director for 90 days, but he has already served 18 months as the project searches for a permanent leader. It turns out to be rather difficult to recruit top-flight executives to run a project with no federal commitment. “The problem is, people can read the newspaper,” Porcari says.
Porcari didn’t expect Gateway to be easy in the best of circumstances; his personal definition of a major infrastructure project is “a series of near-death experiences.” Conflicts and uncertainties come with the territory. The major uncertainty about Gateway, as it is for so many issues these days, is what Trump really wants.
The 15th anniversary ceremony at ground zero on September 11, 2016, is best remembered for Hillary Clinton’s wobbly departure with a case of pneumonia. But Manhattan developer Scott Rechler remembers mingling with Trump on the dais that day, and asking whether he would miss the real estate world if he won. “Oh, I’m going to build like you’ve never seen,” Trump told Rechler. “I’m a builder! I build!”
Trump’s transition team, initially led by Christie, gave visitors the impression that a building spree was coming soon, funded in part by a one-time repatriation of corporate taxes from abroad, and perhaps even by raising gas taxes. The word was that the president-elect wanted to invest anywhere from $500 billion to $1 trillion in infrastructure projects as quickly as possible. The transition quietly circulated a list of 50 high-priority projects, and Gateway was No. 1.
But Trump ended up using the repatriation cash to reduce the cost of his tax cuts, which still hiked the budget deficit by $1.5 trillion. In fact, his administration has not made a notable push to start or finish any infrastructure projects other than the border wall. Gateway, meanwhile, has moved from the top of Trump’s to-do list to the top of his “don’t” list.
Over the River The first phase of the Gateway project would build a higher Portal Bridge that doesn’t have to swing open for ships; then would come another, with a much-needed second set of tracks. | Cameron Davidson for Politico Magazine
What changed? His relationship with Schumer, and his desire for a chit in future showdowns with Schumer, clearly explains some of his hostility. “He thinks it would be a beautiful thing, but only if it gets him the wall,” says one confidant. Others suggest his reversal was emotional as well as transactional, reflecting pique at Schumer for holding up several of his nominees over Gateway, frustration at media portrayals of Schumer as a savvier negotiator and his natural inclination to undermine the Obama administration’s top-ranked infrastructure priority. The avid support for Gateway from potential 2020 Democrats like Cuomo, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker hasn’t helped, nor the moral-imperative tone its supporters tend to use. “When people say he needs to do something, he gets his back up and says: ‘Fuck you, I can do whatever I want,’” says one player in the Gateway drama.
Schumer is under intense pressure from the Democratic base to resist Trump on everything, while Trump’s attacks on Schumer delight his own base. But the Gateway stalemate won’t end unless these two outer-borough New Yorkers can resolve their issues. “Somehow, Gateway needs to extract itself from this partisan leverage play,” says Amtrak Chairman Tony Coscia, a Gateway backer from New Jersey. “It’s like we’re preparing the D-Day invasion, but we need to wait for the weather to clear.”
There’s a broad assumption among people who knew Trump as a Democratic wheeler-dealer in New York that he truly wants to be a bipartisan builder but that Republican ideologues in Congress and his administration have maneuvered him into a narrow conservative lane. Some make this sound like a sinister conspiracy to undermine a president new to Washington—several noted that Chao, the transportation secretary, is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as if this were a deep-state secret—while others speculate that Trump made a rational decision to give Republicans right-wing policies in exchange for lax congressional investigations. In both views, he has let Ryan and McConnell dictate his agenda, setting infrastructure aside to pursue a partisan path of Obamacare repeal and high-end tax cuts that busted the budget and limited his flexibility to spend on building projects down the road. Meanwhile, right-wing operators like his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, and deputy transportation secretary, Jeff Rosen, supposedly guided his bureaucracy toward Heritage Foundation policies he never would have embraced on his own.
“He had much more ambitious ideas about infrastructure, but he got boxed in by that Heritage gang that hates the federal government,” says one Trump ally from New York. “It’s a shame: He’s a builder, but he’s not getting to build.”
Several locals told me they are also confident that, in his heart, Trump understands the value of Gateway. He certainly understands the area; he used to own land that is now part of the gleaming $20 billion Hudson Yards development the tunnel will run directly underneath. At this year’s St. Patrick’s Day lunch at the Capitol, Congressman King sat at the head table with Trump and lobbied him to let some funding for Gateway remain in the omnibus. King had prepared a list of rationales, but he says Trump knew the issue better than he did. “Two sentences in, he was like: ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll do it, it’s important,’” King recalls. “He even told me we better get it going this year. As if I was holding it up!”
Billion-Dollar Puzzle Cities can be hugely expensive to build in; because the Gateway tunnel will run beneath Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, it needs a concrete casing to protect it from skyscraper construction planned over the site. | Cameron Davidson for Politico Magazine
On issues like Medicaid, taxes, gun control and even immigration, Trump has spouted bipartisan rhetoric before retreating to hard-right policies; infrastructure may be the most glaring example of that two-step. His infrastructure plan was mostly a plan to encourage others to develop plans, federalism with much less federal involvement. His austere budget proposal slashed transportation spending 13 percent. In fact, while Trump’s aides have complained that Gateway’s request for huge transit grants would vacuum cash away from other states, Trump’s budget would have eliminated those grants for everyone. He has not just proposed to build less infrastructure than he originally promised; he has proposed to build less infrastructure, period.
It’s hard to know why Trump does what he does, but he often seems to care more about winning than ideology, and he seems to think Gateway would be a win for his enemies. Politicians from both parties still talk about how infrastructure can create jobs and boost growth, but many Washington Republicans see some forms of infrastructure, from bike paths to wind farms to urban transit expansions like Gateway, as Democratic infrastructure.
A Short History of Trump’s Infrastructure Promises
August 2, 2016: In an interview with Fox News, candidate Donald Trump says he will double rival Hillary Clinton’s infrastructure spending pledge. The previous November, Clinton had proposed $250 billion in new federal infrastructure spending, plus $25 billion toward a national infrastructure bank.
October 23, 2016: Trump releases a 100-Day Action Plan, which includes legislation intended “to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over 10 years” through private-public partnerships and tax incentives to encourage local investment.
May 23, 2017: The White House releases a budget that includes a target of $1 trillion in infrastructure spending. Senate Democrats release an analysis showing that the budget’s cuts to some transportation programs amount to a $145 billion reduction in overall federal infrastructure spending.
February 12, 2018: The White House issues a 55-page infrastructure plan, which aims to use $200 billion in federal money to generate an additional $1.3 trillion in investments from cities, states and private investors over 10 years.
Getty Images; Flickr
The basic political divide in America today, perhaps even sharper than race, is between people who live close together in Democratic-leaning metropolitan areas and people who live spread out in Republican-leaning rural areas and exurbs. Gateway may be vital to America’s most important financial and political corridor, but for some Republican skeptics, it looks less like a necessary fix for the nation than an overpriced gift to New York, a federal intervention to preserve the viability of a Democratic machine and dense urban development in general. King says that for many members of his party, New York still signifies union bosses and urban blight, cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. “New York is a fun political target for those guys, because it’s not their idea of how life should be,” he says. “They only like New York when they’re fundraising.”
Trump grew up in New York and shaped the skyline of New York—and many of his donors live here, too—but his home base is not his political base. It’s not a coincidence that his infrastructure plan included a $50 billion set-aside for rural projects, versus only $20 billion for “projects of national significance,” while forcing urban projects to raise more revenues from users, private investors and local taxpayers. His administration has already revamped an Obama-era program for innovative transportation projects to focus primarily on rural infrastructure, announcing that the program would steer funding to “projects located in rural areas that align well with the selection criteria” at the expense of “such projects in urban areas.”
One administration official acknowledged to me that from a cost-benefit perspective, infrastructure investments in metropolitan areas make much more sense than rural projects. They’re more useful to more people and businesses. But the official also noted that urban infrastructure projects tend to have spectacular cost overruns, in part because it’s hard to move dirt and steel and concrete where large number of people and businesses already are. And public works already cost more in New York than anywhere else in the world—a function of generous union rules, a ubiquitous tangle of aging utility wires and sewer pipes, significant expenses for every street closure, exorbitant land costs and a slew of other big-city logistical difficulties.
“Gateway is more than a political fight over a tunnel,” Coscia says. “It’s a test of whether this country can develop the muscle strength to build complex infrastructure projects. And I get the skepticism, because we haven’t been good at that for a long time.”
On May 14, I met Porcari in the grand hall of Washington’s Union Station, so we could ride an Acela train together to New York and check out the dilapidated Hudson tunnels. It was Monday morning of Infrastructure Week—the official one, not another White House messaging attempt—and workers were setting up an event where Secretary Chao would speak about the administration’s plans. “Ironic, isn’t it?” Porcari quipped. We still had time before boarding, and he wanted me to see what he called “the ultimate metaphor for America’s infrastructure.”
An earthquake rattled Washington in 2011, knocking a panel off Union Station’s 96-foot-high domed ceiling. That little-noticed incident turned out to be incredibly fortunate, because it prompted officials to take a closer look at the ceiling under which thousands of people walk each day. Porcari took me up to a crawl space atop the station to show me what they found; when the ceiling was built 110 years ago, it was basically glued to the roof with fabric dipped in plaster of Paris. “It could have collapsed and crushed everyone in the hall,” Porcari said. The discovery triggered a $20 million ceiling renovation, cluttering the station with scaffolding and netting for five years. The original mishmash of crushed wooden dowels and plastered fabric was left in place, with a steel superstructure erected around it that should hold up the ceiling for another century. American Express got some nice press for donating the gold leaf used to repaint the dome, but the engineering feat above it was completed in obscurity.
That’s what Trump was talking about at that September meeting when he noted the tricky politics of the Gateway tunnel. He teased Cuomo that he ought to ask for more money for LaGuardia, a more visible infrastructure project. The United States has 56,000 structurally deficient bridges, 15,000 high-hazard dams and an $836 billion backlog of highway maintenance; the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the nation will need to invest $4.5 trillion to achieve a state of good repair for its infrastructure by 2025. But there’s no real political momentum driving unsexy long-term projects, or the even-less-sexy day-to-day maintenance needed to avoid them. Infrastructure is a priority for business as well as labor, but it doesn’t seem to be anyone’s top priority. At Infrastructure Week, Chao talked about its importance to competitiveness and productivity, then noted: “The difficulty is: How do you pay for it?” The secretary of transportation did not answer her own question. “It’s a difficult issue,” she repeated.
Ridership through the Hudson tunnels has nearly tripled since 1990, and the Northeast Corridor’s population growth won’t wait for a transportation system that can accommodate it. The system is already straining, and several Gateway backers suggested to me that it might take a crisis that shuts down a tunnel and gridlocks New York to shake the political system out of its inertia, just as it took the 2008 financial crisis to drive financial reform. “It would bring the economy to its knees,” says Jerry Zaro, the New Jersey trustee overseeing the Gateway project. “There’s just no time to waste. We’ve got to start building big things in this country again.”
Homeward Bound A New Jersey Transit train carrying commuters home across the Portal Bridge at dusk, part of the dense rail network that knits together the cities of the Northeast—and a key component of the country’s economy that has become a political football in the age of Trump. | Cameron Davidson for Politico Magazine
In fact, the modern impossibility of building big things is often overstated. Cuomo, for example, is building plenty of big things in New York—the new Tappan Zee Bridge and LaGuardia overhaul that Trump praised, an East Side Access commuter rail project from Long Island to Grand Central Station, a Second Avenue Subway nearby and much more. His success seems to stem from his willingness to spend money and his sheer force of will, a nicer way of describing his willingness to make people miserable until the work is complete. Two sources told me about a meeting at which Cuomo threatened subway contractors that if they missed their deadline, he would invoke the “doctrine of decertification,” so they could never work for the state again. Afterward, an aide gently noted that that particular doctrine was not real, an observation that provoked a gubernatorial tirade but no change of policy. “People freak out and hate his guts, but they get the job done for him,” an aide told me.
Why the Gateway Tunnel Matters for New York and New Jersey’s Economy
Source: Partnership for New York City
It is true, however, that America has trouble building big things quickly and cost-effectively.
Cost estimates for the East Side Access project have ballooned from $2.2 billion to $11 billion, while its target completion date has drifted from 2009 to 2022. The first phase of the Second Avenue Subway cost $2.5 billion per mile of track, five times the average elsewhere in the world. Gateway’s leaders are trying to cobble together $440 million to build a mere 550-foot-long tunnel section so that the next Hudson Yards skyscraper can be built on top of it. Politics and ideology might be the driving forces behind the administration’s opposition to Gateway, but some Trump aides are reasonably concerned that its costs could spiral out of control.
Of course, Trump and the GOP showed none of this fiscal concern about tax cuts that cost 50 times as much. Congressman Budd says that was because tax cuts create economic growth that boosts tax revenues; when I asked why that wasn’t true for infrastructure investments, he muttered that spending was different. The Republican Party still supports infrastructure in theory, but in practice it has chosen tax cuts and military spending instead. Chao is right that the question of who pays for infrastructure is difficult, but the White House answer of “not us” is not really an answer.
Ultimately, though, Trump still sees himself as a deal-maker and a builder, and just about everyone involved with Gateway thinks there’s a path to a deal so that the project can get built. If the Democrats take back the House in the midterm elections, infrastructure might become Trump’s best chance to get legislation passed before the next presidential race. And supporters are already trying to figure out how to make Gateway more palatable to the president—most likely with additional state dollars, though one player suggested they should just name the tunnel after Trump. They believe he will come around eventually, because they simply can’t imagine continued inaction in the face of an existential threat to New York City. I heard words like “unfathomable” and “inconceivable” a lot while reporting this story. “I have to believe there’s a deal to be made, because everyone agrees the project needs to be built,” Coscia says.
But President Trump is the maestro of the unimaginable, the unfathomable, the inconceivable. The iconoclast who violated one norm after another before winning a seemingly unwinnable election isn’t going to worry about the earnest pleadings of New York civic leaders who always looked down on him. “It’s not like we’ve got a grand strategy; that’s not how things work around here,” one administration official told me. “But we’re pretty good at not doing things!”
So, the stalemate continues, and Coscia still waits for an engineer’s 4 a.m. call warning him a tunnel will need to go out of commission for months. “That would light everybody’s hair on fire, but you’d think everybody’s hair would already be on fire,” he says. “The thing is, failure really is an option.”