Photo of NY Penn Station entrance

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), chair of the influential House Appropriations Committee, returned fire to the Trump administration on January 4 with a letter to Federal Transit Administration Deputy Administrator K. Jane Williams, saying that the Gateway/Hudson River Tunnels project was the "most important infrastructure project in the country" and saying that "It is the responsibility of the House Committee on Appropriations to assure that such national priorities are met."

The Congressman's letter was in response to a December 29 letter from Williams to the governors of New York and New Jersey, which asserted that the states' belief that they had an agreement to split the costs 50/50 with the Federal Government was fiction. "There is no such agreement," wrote  Williams. "We consider it unhelpful to reference a non-existent 'agreement' rather than directly address the responsibility for funding a local project where nine out of 10 passengers are local transit riders." Frelinghuysen's rebuttal, citing the national impact of the project, said that "It is also imperative we pursue Gateway to ensure millions of Americans continue to access this vital economic Northeast Corridor that enables safe transportation of more than 800,000 daily riders, from Washington to Boston, in an area that supports approximately 20 percent of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP). Further, this rail project serves as a critical choke point for Amtrak's entire operation on the East Coast from Florida to Maine."

Williams' letter did not rule out Federal participation in the project, provided the assistance did not include loans to the states; the states had relied on Federal loans to meet part of their obligations on the project.

The back-and-forth in Washington on the tunnels project has sparked spirited debate among advocates and other observers, including whether a cheaper version of the project would suffice to keep the trains running (see articles below), or whether new tunnels are mandatory to avoid crippling commuter and long-distance rail service while damage to the existing tunnels from Hurricane Sandy flooding are repaired. Amtrak, which owns the tunnels, has stated that the tunnels will need to be removed from service, one at a time, for extended periods for the repair. With only one tunnel available, Amtrak says that peak-hour commuter capacity would be crippled, if new tunnels are not built first.

Congressman Frelinghuysen has represented New Jersey's 11th District since 1995. The district includes a considerable portion of the Morris & Essex Lines  and Montclair-Boonton line commuter territory of NJ Transit, and has generally  been considered a safe district for Republicans. However, the controversial Trump administration and renewed enthusiasm by Democrats may place it in play in this year's midterm elections.