Chao, lawmakers tangle over Hudson River rail tunnel project
WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao Tuesday acknowledged that President Donald Trump has asked Speaker Paul Ryan to block funding for a multi-billion dollar railway tunnel project that's a top priority of the Senate's top Democrat.
In contentious exchanges with several lawmakers, Chao told a House committee Tuesday that Trump indeed is intervening to try to kill the project. She said that New York and New Jersey "have no skin in the game" and need to pony up more money to help pay for the "Gateway Project," which would build a new tunnel under the Hudson River and make other critical improvements to ease rail and transit congestion in the heavily-trafficked region.
Gateway is a top priority of Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and top Trump antagonist. At a Capitol ceremony last week, Trump urged Ryan, R-Wis., to block funding for the project, GOP aides said.
Chao cast the move as one of fairness, saying New York and New Jersey "need to step up and bear their fair share."
But Democrats and some Republicans say Trump's real motivation is to knock Schumer. Trump, whose home is in Manhattan, appeared to support Gateway at a friendly White House meeting last fall attended by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Schumer and others.
"The president made a commitment on Gateway. This isn't some New York project. This is the entire country and it would be really disastrous not to go ahead with it — especially if it's based on some vendetta against Chuck Schumer," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.
The House has approved $900 million for the project, which is also a top priority of House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J, as he negotiates a $1.3 trillion catchall spending bill to fund the government through Sept. 30. Schumer is also playing a strong hand in talks on the measure, but Trump's signature is required to enact it. The measure is slated for a vote later in the month.
The existing tunnel was damaged during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and is nearing the end of its useful life. The Obama administration supported the project and the Trump team acknowledges that it is much needed.
"They are two of the richest states in the country. If they absorb all these funds there will be no other funds for the rest of the country," Chao said.
The New York and New Jersey delegations say the states are willing to put up half of the project's cost.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chair of a key Senate panel with the responsibility to fund transportation projects, says she supports putting enough money into the budget to pay for Gateway but not explicitly "earmark" the money. So-called earmarks have been banned, though Frelinghuysen found a way to do so without explicitly running afoul of the rules.
"Our approach is to avoid earmarks but fully fund accounts now that we have some additional funding and then the competitive process will go forward," Collins said.