Greg Lalevee was thrilled to see the statements from U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, New Jersey Chamber of Commerce head Tom Bracken and Amtrak about the Gateway Tunnel project securing more than $500 million in funding in the omnibus spending bills passed in the House on Thursday.
He was happier still to see the project is now eligible to apply for a share of $2.9 billion in transportation grants — as reported first by NJ Advance Media.
Lalevee knows, as the business manager of Local 825 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, that his group would take the lead on the transformational 10-year project.
He’s just not ready to celebrate quite yet.
“I guess the real question is: Is it really true that there’s Gateway money here?” he told ROI-NJ. “I hear a lot of positive things. And it certainly looks as if there are a lot of people trying to thread a needle.
“You never would say, ‘No,’ to $500 million.”
“From our end, we really don’t have it in the plan right now, because there just doesn’t seem to be enough (money),” he said. “There’s a nice commitment here, but I’m not sure it’s enough of a commitment. I’ve seen all kinds of people getting ready to pop the champagne; we’re a long way from that.”
Don’t be confused. Lalevee desperately wants the tunnel to happen. Not just for the unions, but for the region.
He just wants a more definitive plan from those overseeing the money. And he wants to see more transparency. As it stands, the word “Gateway” does not appear in the spending bills — though it’s clear money for the project is in there.
According to CNN, the omnibus includes $650 million for Amtrak’s account that could be used for Gateway projects, as well as $153 million in funding for New Jersey and New York that also could be used for the project.
The omnibus also will fund $2.645 billion for a grant program the Gateway project would be eligible to compete for, and $250 million in a federal-state partnership program Gateway also could apply for.
There also is $592.5 million in rail infrastructure and safety improvement grants that Gateway could utilize.
Lalevee wants more. He wants people to start dealing with the entirety of a project that some estimate will cost $30 billion and take 10 years to complete.
“Where are dollars actually going to come from?” he said. “There has to be a real conversation.
“That’s the thing that compels me to remain very cautiously optimistic. When is there going to be some commitment to doing this, and what is the menu of things (that) gets everybody comfortable? Is the federal government in a position where they are saying, ‘Your number is X and you have to figure out the rest?’
“At what point is somebody going to at least put a marker in the ground that people can look at and try to get to? That’s where we need to be.”
Instead, Lalevee said he hears more negatives than positives.
“I’ve read the nonstarters, I haven’t read the starter yet,” he said.
Like so many others, Lalevee said time is being wasted.
“Every day is monumental in my eyes,” he said. “We’re looking at the existing tunnels that are 100 years old and clearly have Sandy damage, are clearly being run at, near or slightly over capacity. I think the amount of empirical data is there for people to make decisions about making a full-blown commitment here.
“What are those commitments, and then, is there a way to move people off a hard position and into a compromise position. Is it getting the administration, the two governors, maybe the Port, maybe Amtrak into a room and let them have at it until they walk out with something that works?”
Lalevee notes the bill still has to get through the Senate and get the signature of President Donald Trump.
That’s an interesting road, he said.
“You have to start to contemplate, is it a nonstarter in the Senate? A filibuster?” he said. “It’s always fun dynamics when the administration is in it, because Secretary (Elaine) Chao is in it. I’ve got to think that she and her husband (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky) are talking.
“There are all these little subtexts off of the big story. I feel like I’m a kid again readying Mad Magazine and looking at Spy vs. Spy. You’re trying to figure out, is this the best untold joke in the room? It’s very hard to figure that out. Seeing the positive comments are nice, but it’s not through the Senate and it doesn’t have a signature on it.”
Lalevee does take away one positive. Of late, he said, he feels the president is coming around.
“He seems to be OK with what’s moving, but who knows, does somebody go, ‘Yeah, Gateway,’ and he says, ‘I thought you told me Amtrak?’” he said.