Gateway Development Corporation Chairman Jerry Zaro participated in a conversation last week with Montclair State University Professor Brigid Harrison, discussing the importance of the Gateway project and the challenges it faces.
You can listen to the audio of the conversation below:
During the course of the hour-long conversation, Zaro (who was appointed GDC Chairman on April 10, 2018 by Governor Murphy) said that ‘the Gateway Tunnel project is something nobody thinks of. Every Amtrak train that goes from Washington DC to Boston and every NJ Transit train goes from Newark into Penn Station into NY crosses over a bridge. Then you go under the Hudson. Now these pieces of infrastructure were built in 1908 and it’s important to understand we’re 110 years old. They were put into service in 1910 and that’s too old for infrastructure that is carrying passengers on a daily basis. The economy is dependent upon it. It has been the life of the economy of the country because if you take the GDP from Washington to Boston, 20% of the GDP of the whole country is along that rail line’.
He touched on the importance of the project not just as an economic imperative, but a safety issue. ‘If this tunnel sneezes, all of us are going to catch a cold’, Zaro said. ‘But yet it is all avoidable if we build this new bridge, which we already have our engineers, we have our applications in to the federal government. We have committed already $900,000,000 of the $1.6 billion needed to build it, and we’re waiting for Washington to give us the grants and loans that always come with these size projects of national significance’. Zaro said that failing to complete the project could leader to a national disaster. ‘What we have is a national disaster happening in slow motion. If it happened overnight and the tunnel shut down, it would be the most compelling news story on every TV channel and internet source’, he said, later adding that ‘we’re going to get this tunnel built. The only issue is if we’re going to do it in response to a disaster or if we’re going to do it in a preventative way’. He pointed to legislation sponsored by CD5 Rep. Gottheimer and NY Rep. King which demands the federal government create a contingency plan and an economic estimate for a ‘doomsday scenario’ where one of the tunnels is shut down.
He mentioned that in Europe, train stations are in far better shape than many in the United States, saying ‘you’ll be astonished to see the train stations in foreign countries’, later adding that ‘I’m old enough to know that America is a great, great country, but we’re not going to be able to stay great unless we take care of our infrastructure throughout the country’, he said. ‘We all drive on these roads, you see the potholes. In my mind there’s no better place to start keeping America great than doing the largest infrastructure project in the country, the most sorely needed project, the Gateway Tunnel’. Speaking about Penn Station in New York, he remarked the it ‘can’t survive at current, so there are going to be band-aid fixes, wasted money, before we make it better’.
Speaking primarily to a political science crowd, Zaro honed in on the political angle that’s been tying up the project. ‘It’s no secret that NJ and NY voted for the president’s opposition. It’s no secret that the president and Chuck Schumer are in a feud. And it’s no secret that Senator Schumer’s #1 priority is building the Gateway Tunnel. So our application sits on that desk in Washington. 200,000 people are put at risk. 13% of the NYC workforce jeopardized. 20% of the nation’s GDP endangered over a political tantrum’, adding that ‘the administration puts out excuses because they just can’t say we’re being petulant, so they come up with excuses, but they’re all false. The Congress recognizes that notwithstanding what the president is doing, this is a crisis and this is not a joke and it’s not a game’.
He spoke about the federal government’s current resistance to the project, saying ‘I was disappointed they were playing politics but I was not surprised. There was a lot of doublespeak, but it was all bogus. The biggest one is we didn’t have skin in the game, so we committed $6B of local money, and of the money we’re asking from the federal government, we have to repay that with state money. They said they didn’t count that as skin in the game. It is without precedent’.
Recalling one of the great stare-downs in American history, the Cuban Missile Crisis, saying ‘we were on the brink of nuclear war, I remember being in my class, and we had drills and we would go under this wooden desk, and when President Kennedy spoke and he said we may have to fight, the whole country, Democrats and Republicans were behind him. Why? Because he had built that trust, we don’t have that. God forbid, if this president or the one before him had tried to mobilize the country, he just couldn’t do it’.
‘We could build the bridge tomorrow, we just need the federal government to give us the OK. We are engineering the tunnel, but the tunnel is $12B, I don’t want to make light of these numbers, but when we ask contractors to assemble a bid, it costs the company about $25-$30M. It takes them months to research and figure out how they’re committing to bring something in with billions at stake. They’re not going to bid and spend that money unless they know we have the money’.
One questioner asked whether there’s potential for a deal between Democratic lawmakers and the President – Gateway funding in exchange for border security/wall funding. Zaro said he’s open to exploring all options. ‘$5B is nothing to the federal government, so it is the symbolism of the Democrats giving in to what they believe to be a cruel immigration policy. Our symbol in NY is this tunnel. Yes, it is the 200,000 people on the tunnel, but if that tunnel goes down, people will flee this state because we will not be able to afford it. House prices will plummet and people will leave the area’.
‘In the administration of President Obama, Republican Governor Chris Christie and Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo of NY made a deal to fund this tunnel and bridge in the last year of the Obama Administration. In the first month of Trump’s administration they all met down there, he goes ‘I understand the deal, we’re going to continue it.’ Three months later he changed his mind.’
‘The first grades that we got from our professor in Washington were medium-high, the Trump administration said we were medium-high. He got mad at Schumer and suddenly we’re medium-low. Nothing else changed. If anything our application was stronger and had more local money. How can you downgrade an urgently needed project? A five-year old child could see that we desperately need this tunnel’.
He noted that, in Congress and among state leadership, there is bipartisan support for the Gateway project, pointing to a recent letter (co-signed by all of the NJ congressional Democrats) calling for the USDOT to complete its environmental review. He said ‘the letter came out, it was 22 legislative leaders and it was totally bipartisan. Once again pleading for the funding saying that this is a national emergency and calling, without being too technical, for the ROD, Record of Decision for our environmental impact study. If the government gives us our earned ROD, we can go out tomorrow and really ramp up this bridge. We can acquire property, we can bid out contracts. Doesn’t mean the money, that’s a separate approval, but at least we can do the work. Their vindictiveness has now reached a point that they won’t even give us that, which is not tied to money, they won’t even give us the head start by giving us this record of decision’.
He said that ‘Sen. Menenedez, Booker, Schumer, Gillibrand, who just happened to be Democrats, all the Republicans, recently retired NJ Rep. Freylinghuysen, terrific advocate, Peter King, Republican in NY, terrific advocate. We have advocates in both parties who worked really hard and we wouldn’t have this billion allocated in the last two years without the fight of our Congressional leaders’.
Harrison noted that Zaro himself isn’t a partisan guy – in fact, he’s worked for both Republicans and Democrats in a variety of leadership positions in the last eight consecutive governor’s administrations, five Democrats and three Republicans. ‘I miss the good old days when the heroes I read about, LBJ would bash heads all day on the floor of the senate with the minority leader on the Republican side and then they would meet after dinner and have drinks and play poker. And they were great friends and respected each other, they knew they had different agendas but they worked together. And that’s when the country was at its best. It didn’t cater to this fringe or that fringe. They found that great common ground of 60-70% of the people. Today we don’t have this because I can’t talk to you if you’re not in my party’, he said. ‘We have lost civility, we have lost discourse, we tolerate behavior in our own party instead of saying that’s wrong. We are missing accountability. That’s dangerous because discourse ends, acrimony begins, and look at what’s happening in this country’.