Amtrak's ambitious Gateway project has been much in the news of late. The full project, which would take many years to complete, aims to build new tunnels under the Hudson for rail service, and then rehabilitate the storm-damaged existing tubes; add new bridges across the Hackensack River in New Jersey to replace the aging Portal drawbridge; and expand New York's Penn Station with a seven-track annex which would replace the city block to the south. Where the estimated $30 billion to do all this would come from has been the sticking point.

There had been a plan to secure the money, or so local politicians thought.  During the Obama administration, local pols met with the federal government and thought they had secured an agreement for the Feds to pony up half the total, the rest to be local responsibility, although the fine print was that the local funds would mostly come from federal loans.  "Fine print" is just a metaphor, it turns out, because the deal was never documented, and the Trump administration eventually denied that any such deal ever existed. Skeptics demanded "show me the document!" but none was forthcoming. Nonetheless, advocates met with President Trump and thought they had his backing to proceed, and bipartisan support included $900 million in the omnibus spending bill that was needed to keep the government operating after March 23. But as the clock wound down, the president reversed course, declaring his opposition to federal funding for Gateway and threatening to veto the entire package if the Gateway funds were included.  Advocates were baffled; speculation was that a feud with Sen. Schumer (D-NY), the Democratic senator leader, was behind the sudden change of heart.

In the end, the president signed the bill, which is reportedly about 1000 pages and almost nobody has read in detail.  It has some provisions that Gateway could potentially draw on, and advocates quickly declared success, claiming that $540 million in the bill is destined for Gateway, enough to keep it moving forward, they said. In addition, they said, Gateway could apply for some of $2.9 billion in additional money being made available.

Not so fast, said skeptics. They pointed out that all of the money being made available in the bill needs to be competed for, and that Gateway has been rated very low in priority by Department of Transportation scorekeepers, mainly because the "real" local money committed by New York and New Jersey was insufficient.  Relying on federal loans doesn't get you much credit for putting skin in the game. The area's representatives weren't listening, claiming that the funds for Gateway were in the bag.

Critics of the massive program have begun to question whether it will ever be built; see story below. Amtrak has maintained that the existing tunnels need to be taken out of service, one at a time and for an extensive period, to repair damage from flooding during Hurricane Sandy.  Without new tunnels to keep trains flowing during the repairs, Amtrak says, it would be impossible to run the density of trains that peak-hour service demands; one tunnel would limit trains to just six trains an hour in each direction, crippling the commuter rush hours. But is Amtrak crying wolf, just to get funding for a gold-plated solution? Skeptics note that only about half a mile of each tunnel was flooded, and that the damage is to the "bench walls" on the side of the tunnels, not to the basic structure; can't Amtrak fix these during weekends, just as tunnel work is done currently, when train density is lower?  We may only find out the truth if the funding for Gateway does eventually dry up and all the participants face reality.