Bills

Senate bill has at least $474 million less for Gateway than House bill

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Illustration of train movements on Penn Station’s 21 tracks in New York City during a 40-minute period in a morning rush hour, with tunnels from New Jersey on the left and Long Island on the right.
Amtrak

Amtrak’s Gateway project would get far less money in a Senate bill unveiled Tuesday than the more than $900 million a House committee voted to provide earlier this month, setting up a showdown that will not likely be settled until this fall. 

The House and Senate appropriations committees did agree on one thing: Both rejected deep cuts to Amtrak that President Donald Trump sought in the 2018 budget. Bills advancing in both chambers would continue service on all Amtrak routes, including long-distance lines primarily in the South and the West that Trump sought to shut down.

At a hearing Tuesday, the chairwoman of the Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee, Republican Susan Collins of Maine, was heard on an open microphone criticizing Trump’s budget as “incredibly irresponsible.” 

While Amtrak was spared deep cuts, the House and Senate bills differed on Gateway, a $27 billion project that includes a new tunnel under the Hudson River, new bridges in the Meadowlands and two new tracks between Newark and New York City. The federal government is expected to cover half the cost of the project, with New Jersey and New York sharing the rest.

Work on a new Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River could begin next year, and work on environmental reviews for a Gateway tunnel are expected to be completed in the coming year. Both projects have been pitched as national priorities because the existing bridge and tunnel are more than 100 years old and frequently the cause of delays on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and NJ Transit commuter trains.

The House Appropriations Committee, chaired by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, approved a bill earlier this month providing more than $900 million through several programs to get the Gateway started. 

One line-item, for a program to bring the Northeast Corridor up to a “state of good repair,” was funded at $500 million. The Senate bill provides only $26 million, or the same as this year.

The House bill also said another $400 million from the $1.5 billion for transit projects could only go to projects that serve both a transit agency and Amtrak, a description that would only fit Gateway. The bill excluded funding other projects that were not already receiving funding.

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The Senate did not include that $400 million set-aside, and did make funding available other transit projects in the pipeline, including projects in California, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington State. But the Senate bill also appropriated $2.1 billion for transit projects, or about $600 million more than the House.

Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, said Gateway could get some of that $2.1 billion, but the Department of Transportation will have more discretion to decide where the money goes than the House would have provided.

Neither house has passed a budget resolution that sets the overall spending level for the coming fiscal year, and House and Senate appropriators have begun writing spending bills for individual departments using different overall totals. 

Those differences will not likely be settled until September, when the looming end of the fiscal year will require House and Senate leaders to reach an agreement to avoid a partial government shutdown.

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