Legislators from across North Jersey are hopeful long-awaited improvements to mass transit in the state’s most heavily populated region will soon move forward after getting a boost from President Donald Trump.
Introduced June 3, the Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation (INVEST) in America Act calls for a five-year, $494 billion investment in the country’s roads, bridges and transportation systems.
The measure to set U.S. transportation policy would replace the existing law, which is due to expire in September, and seeks to strengthen infrastructure against climate change impact, reduce carbon emissions, improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists and increase mass transit ridership.
Under the bill, $165 billion would be set aside for rail and transit upgrades, including $29.3 billion in funding for Amtrak, which owns the existing Hudson River tunnels. That allocation includes $13.1 billion for improvements to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line.
The measure still needs to pass House and Senate and be signed into law by President Trump, who has recently talked about funding infrastructure projects as a way to help restart the economy following shutdowns caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
Over the past several years, lawmakers, transit advocates and commuters have been pushing for the start of the Gateway Program, a $30 billion infrastructure project repairing a 10-mile stretch of the Northeast Corridor.
North Jersey legislators believe the INVEST in America Act is a step towards improving transportation on the line, which carries 2,000 trains daily and links eight states and Washington, D.C.
Improving the rail connection “and facilitating billions of dollars of commercial activity is arguably the most important infrastructure project in the nation,” said Congressman Albio Sires, a member of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.
In a June 5 statement, Sires said, “Beginning construction on the Gateway Project will create hundreds of jobs, ease transit on the East Coast and ensure that our region remains one of the most economically productive for the nation.”
Key INVEST Aspects
The congressman said through his work on the committee he has “worked hard to provide legislative solutions for the Gateway Project and our state” and added that he is “proud that they are included in the INVEST Act.”
Rep. Mikie Sherrill, who has been advocating to improve mass transit service in New Jersey and to advance the Gateway Project, said, “The COVID-19 pandemic only makes passing this package and getting shovels in the ground more urgent so we can jumpstart our economic recovery. I urge the House to pass this legislation so we can help our country and our residents in North Jersey.”
Among the key details in the bill are:
- Clarifies that federal loans under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act that are repaid with state funds are counted as part of the state government share of the project.
- Creates the Passenger Rail Improvement, Modernization and Expansion Grant Program, which will distribute $19 billion over five years to fund passenger rail improvements and expansion.
- Establishes the Projects of National and Regional Significance Grant Program, which will provide funding for passenger rail/transit projects that is authorized at $9 billion over the life of the bill.
- Expands funding for the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program from $1.2 billion over five years to $7 billion over five years and expands eligibility for the program to commuter authorities such as NJ Transit.
- Requires increased oversight and transparency in the Department of Transportation’s transit project authorization process, including requiring regular reports to Congress by the Secretary of Transportation about transit funding decision-making.
- Creates a new carbon pollution reduction program, investing $8.3 billion in highway, transit, and rail projects that will reduce greenhouse gases
- Invests $1.725 billion in zero emission buses, greening transit systems and improving air quality.
- Eliminates the local share for projects during the first year to help states and municipalities recover from the coronavirus crisis.
A big component of the Gateway Program is the replacement of the Portal North Bridge, a 2.4 mile-long swing-span bridge over the Hackensack River that often fails to close properly and has led to delays on the country’s busiest rail corridors.
Following a dinner June 12 with Gov. Phil Murphy at Trump’s golf course in Bedminster, the president signaled his support for the $1.7 billion project.
Trump tweeted: “Talked about many things, including the opening of the beautiful Garden State, getting people back to work and rebuilding America’s infrastructure with projects like the Portal North Bridge, which I have given authorization to proceed!”
In May, the Federal Railroad Administration allocated $91.5 million in federal funding to replace the existing bridge and make other upgrades to improve service along the Northeast Corridor. New Jersey plans to contribute about $600 million.
During Murphy’s daily press briefing on June 15, the governor said, “The commitment from the President that the $800 million federal share can move forward without delay means we can get more shovels in the ground.”
The governor called the project “critical to our long-term economic health” and “patience of the hundreds of thousands of daily commuters who know all too well the headaches and delays that happen when the bridge fails.”
Not only will the replacement project generate 15,000 union jobs, but it will be a “big step in creating the safe, modern and reliable infrastructure our state and our region need,” Murphy said.
“I cannot overstate the importance and I am honored to have been able to make the case for the Portal Bridge directly to the President, and I’m extremely proud to have gotten this result for our state,” the governor said. “Replacing the Portal Bridge is a key piece of the broader Gateway Program and we will not stop until we build the tunnels, build the resiliency and build out the capacity that our state and that our region needs.”