Transportation

Amtrak Calls for New Institution to Fund Infrastructure

May 1, 2015

A NJ Transit train departs Secaucus Junction

By Marc Bussanich 

New York, NY—At the Regional Plan’s Association annual Assembly last week Amtrak announced they would be advancing $300 million towards a new trans-Hudson passenger rail tunnel. But in order for the $20 billion Gateway Project to be built, Amtrak’s chairman said that a new regional enterprise or institution should be created to fund and oversee large infrastructure projects. 

Anthony Coscia joined a panel on stage at the Waldorf-Astoria where the RPA’s president, Thomas Wright, told the panelists that when he took a survey of the Assembly’s participants at an earlier panel discussion most believed that a new tans-Hudson tunnel wouldn’t be built in 20 years—the amount of time Amtrak has warned a new tunnel must be built to replace the current 104-year old tunnels or else face a 75-percent reduction in train service.

When the questioner asked Mr. Coscia how could Amtrak fund the rest of the $20 billion project, he joked that if anybody in the room had $20 billion to spare it’d be helpful. He then said that the reality is that other stakeholders should be involved in funding and constructing the new tunnel, not just Amtrak. In fact, New Jersey’s Senate President Steve Sweeney told LaborPress in a video interview that the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey should sell off some of its real estate assets to fund the project.

“We’re talking about a rail system that connects New York City to the rest of the continent. We know that what we have is inadequate and we know we can’t keep cost-estimates under any expectations. I’ve spent a very long time on this project and I haven’t had one person tell me that this is unnecessary or isn’t urgent. Everyone agrees on the merits,” said Coscia. 

But he admitted Amtrak’s frustration with the seemingly lack of urgency from federal and local leaders to identify available funds.

“Our approach at Amtrak the last five years has been we’re just not waiting anymore. We’re just going to do it. Our approach is that we are starting this project. We’re spending $300 million of our own money, which is a precious amount of money for us given that we are underfunded and we have other state-of-repair projects and capital requirements,” said Coscia.

He then noted that the case to build a new tunnel is so compelling, as ridership along the Northeast Corridor has been increasing year-over-year for the past decade, that “it’ll become a platform for us to develop the kinds of institutions and capability that will lead to the completion of this project and the completion of other projects.”

By which the questioner then asked him what is that institution.

“I think it’s a fair comment to say that the other institutions in the region recognize this need as much as we do. They’re in a very difficult situation—politically and governmentally—but they do understand and that is a consensus we have to build toward.  But we have to redefine the way we look at how these institutions are made to deliver significant capital initiatives that relate to infrastructure. We all start from the notion of–should the government do it or the private sector, should this be a New York or New Jersey project, should it be Amtrak, or MTA or NJ Transit. We all bear some burden of having looked at it with tunnel vision, but the reality is we need to wipe the slate clean and need to look at creating a whole new paradigm how we pursue these things,” Coscia said.

He said the mechanisms are already there to do it, but requires political leadership.

“We have the ability here in the New York metropolitan area to create a new enterprise that does have the ability to draw both resources and talent from a variety of places to oversee things. The Port Authority was created in 1921 to do exactly this—an entity that created a balance of expertise and revenue sources that could be a sponsor for large-scale capital projects. Think about what the metro New York region would be like if there were an entity that everyone globally recognized as a real leader in putting together efficient financing and infrastructure project management transactions—people would want to live here, companies would want to relocate here and the quality of life would be enhanced in so many ways. It’s up to us not to stick this in a silo, but create a mechanism that gets beyond the institutional limitations we think we have. I think the pathway to do that exists, but I think what is necessary is the leadership to take on that challenge.”

@marcbuss marc@laborpress.org  

April 30, 2015

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