NEW YORK — President Joe Biden arrived in Manhattan Tuesday to deliver a message that elected leaders in New York and New Jersey have waited more than a decade to hear — the Gateway Program to improve the century-old rail link under the Hudson River is finally full steam ahead.
Biden visited the rail yard on Manhattan’s west side to formally announce a nearly $300 million grant for the decades-long project to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson and repair the existing one that suffered significant damage in 2012 from Hurricane Sandy. The federal award will allow developers to install concrete casing in the area, preserving the right-of-way for the new two-tube tunnel to connect to Penn Station.
Tuesday’s event offered Biden, and his Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, an opportunity to celebrate tangible wins from the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law after a tumultuous few months of air travel meltdowns, supply chain woes and a narrowly averted rail strike that threatened to sink the economy. Biden also stopped in Maryland Monday to celebrate more than $6 billion in upgrades for the aging Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel.
But the president’s visit Tuesday was particularly symbolic for the New York and New Jersey politicians in attendance who have witnessed the $16 billion endeavor suffer several delays over the years. Biden’s trip showed that after repeated setbacks, the critical infrastructure project finally has federal backing— even if it’s still years in the making.
“All told, this is one of the biggest and most consequential projects in the country,” Biden said at an event in a 30-track rail yard in front of commuter trains emblazoned with the presidential seal. “But it’s going to take time. It’s a multibillion effort between the states and the federal government. But we finally have the money and we’re going to get it done, I promise you.”
In 2009, officials did a ceremonial groundbreaking for a previous version of the tunnel project that was intended to alleviate commutes for the 200,000 passengers who relied on it everyday. The 10 miles of track stretching between Newark, New Jersey and New York Penn Station are a common source of delays and service meltdowns.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said he recalled the celebratory event that was over a decade ago “almost to the day.” Shortly after that, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pulled state funding for the project and workers who had started digging the tunnel entrance had to fill it back in.
“Our journey since that press conference has been long and winding. But today it brings me immense pleasure to say we’re finally getting it done,” he said.
The project was revived after Hurricane Sandy, which inundated the tunnel with seawater. Biden said signs of the damage remain.
“Today over 10 years later there’s still remnants of seawater in the tunnel eating away at the concrete, the steel and the electrical components within the tunnel,” Biden said.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said the storm underscored the need for the project, recalling how two hurricanes caused severe infrastructure damage when she first entered office.
“You need to have the redundancy, backups to make sure this region is never ever paralyzed because that’s exactly what would happen,” she said.
As elected leaders in New York and New Jersey tried to revive the tunnels after Christie killed them, they ran into opposition from then-President Donald Trump. Biden, a known Amtrak lover, made the project a priority when he entered office — approving a required environmental study that had languished.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a major backer of the tunnel, also celebrated the significance of Biden’s visit after years of disappointment.
“Finally, finally, finally, we can say Gateway will be built,” he said.
The federal award will defray half the cost of building concrete casing on the far west side of Manhattan, preserving the right-of-way for future trains to enter New York Penn Station. Amtrak and other local partners in the project are expected to pay for the rest of the work.
Construction is also underway on other components of the Gateway Program, including the planned replacement and expansion of the Portal North Bridge in New Jersey.
Workers are expected to begin digging the actual tunnels in fall 2024. The entire project isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2038 and will cost more than initial estimates due to delays.
Buttigieg said the project is long overdue, stating that “we cannot lead the world in this century if we depend on infrastructure from early in the last one.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy echoed the point about the tunnel that was first opened in 1910.
“One of these days we’ll get into the 21st [century], I hope sooner than later,” he said.