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Nearly $300 million of the federal funding will go to a high-profile rail tunnel project linking New York City and New Jersey.
The Biden administration announced Tuesday it will spend $292 million to pave the way for new rail tunnels under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey, along with additional funding for eight other big-ticket infrastructure projects throughout the country.
The so-called Mega grants totaled nearly $1.2 billion. More than 100 agencies applied for the grants, which were created by the 2021 infrastructure law. Other awards are intended to improve a thoroughfare called a “corridor of death” in Philadelphia, to widen highways used to move freight and evacuate people along the Gulf Coast, and to replace a cloverleaf interchange in Tulsa.
Earlier this month, President Biden announced a grant for a new Ohio River crossing in the Cincinnati area, which includes a $250 million Mega grant as part of a $1.64 billion federal subsidy package.
But the New York award has taken on outsized importance, both in terms of the dollar amount and as a symbol of the political obstacles that have stalled crucial infrastructure. The grant announced Tuesday will help build a concrete tunnel under the Hudson Yards development, between New York’s Penn Station and the eventual openings of two new tunnels beneath the river. The current tunnels are at capacity, providing about 200,000 passenger trips per weekday on Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains.
Officials in the New York region have been clamoring for a second set of tunnels leading into Penn Station since Superstorm Sandy flooded and damaged the existing ones in 2012. The storm illustrated the vulnerability of the entire Northeast rail corridor where it narrows to two tracks that use tunnels completed in 1910 to enter the busiest passenger hub in North America. They devised the “Gateway Program” to add another set of tunnels and make related upgrades around the crossings.
Biden joined Govs. Kathy Hochul of New York and Phil Murphy of New Jersey at in New York Tuesday to tout the grant. He called it “the most significant investment in rail service since we created Amtrak more than 50 years ago.”
The president who commuted to Washington on Amtrak as a senator for Delaware for 36 years reassured a small crowd that the project was going forward, after more than a decade of doubt about its viability.
“The first piece of the new Hudson tunnel is being built. It’s one of the biggest parts of the Gateway Program,” Biden said. “This is just the beginning. It’s the beginning of finally constructing a 21st century rail system that’s long, long overdue in this country.”
In fact, Biden was coming off another major announcement about fixing a bottleneck on the Northeast Corridor that Amtrak owns between Boston and Washington, D.C. On Monday, the president appeared with Maryland’s new governor, Wes Moore, to announce that the federal government would pay up to $4.7 billion in grants dedicated to improving the Northeast Corridor to dig a new rail tunnel in Baltimore to replace a 150-year-old passage.
Last year, Biden came to New Jersey to break ground on a replacement for the century-old Portal North Bridge a few miles from the Hudson River. The current structure is so low it has to swing open and closed to allow traffic on the Hackensack River to pass, causing delays for many of the 450 trains that use the span every day.
Bipartisanship was a major theme when Biden visited Cincinnati to announce funding for a crossing between Ohio and Kentucky. U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate’s Republican leader, joined the president for the announcement, as did Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, also a Republican.
But the event in New York was dominated by Democrats, including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who has long been a Gateway champion.
Schumer relished the moment, recounting how two prominent Republicans from the region had nearly derailed efforts to build new tunnels. Then-Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey abruptly pulled funding for a previous rail crossing effort, which Schumer called “one of the worst decisions that any governor on either side of the Hudson has made.”
Debate over the project also flared under former President Trump.
He and his administration “set about sabotaging Gateway by halting all administrative approvals on completely bogus grounds,” Schumer said. What Trump really wanted, the senator said, was for Congress to approve money to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. The dispute led to a government shutdown.
“When he invited me into the Oval Office to try to force an agreement to build the wall and then maybe [build] Gateway, I had a few choice Brooklyn words for him,” Schumer recalled. “No effing way, Mr. President!”
Things changed once Biden came into office and pursued an infrastructure funding law, according to Schumer. “Gateway,” he said, “is finally leaving the station.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who was also at the event, said the process for selecting the first round of Mega grants was “wildly competitive.”
The other grant winners announced Tuesday are:
- The city of Philadelphia, which won $78 million to make safety improvements along a 12-mile stretch of Roosevelt Boulevard. Roughly 14% of all road fatalities in the city occur on that corridor, which is served by 28 bus routes. The city will upgrade traffic signals, reconfigure intersections, add median barriers and pedestrian islands, and include accommodations for bicyclists and transit vehicles.
- The Oklahoma Department of Transportation, which garnered $85 million to upgrade the interchange between Interstate 44 and U.S. 75 on the west side of Tulsa. The state will replace “cloverleaf” style ramps, as well as adding wider shoulders and median barriers.
- The North Carolina Department of Transportation, which will receive $110 million to replace a swing bridge over the Alligator River near the state’s barrier islands. The project would also include broadband improvements. Installing a permanent bridge would increase reliability for road users and eliminate the need to make a 99-mile detour when the swing bridge malfunctions, according to the governor’s office.
- The Mississippi Department of Transportation, which will use $60 million to widen Interstate 10 near the Gulf Coast.
- The Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development, which secured $150 million to build a new bridge for I-10 over the Calcasieu River. The existing bridge is older than the interstate highway system it is now part of and has a higher crash rate than similar stretches elsewhere in the state. It has also been a significant bottleneck during seven recent evacuations.
- Metra Commuter Railroad in the Chicago area, which will use $117 million to replace 11 bridges and four miles of track on the city’s North Side. The tracks connect downtown Chicago to its northern suburbs and to Kenosha, Wisconsin.
- The California Department of Transportation, which received $30 million to make improvements to Highway 1 in Santa Cruz County to better serve buses and to help cyclists and pedestrians cross over the thoroughfare.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.
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