Why Gateway Tunnel project, step closer to reality, is more than just transportation play

Zaro sees project as economic stimulus that comes with societal and economic benefits, too

Apparent victories by the two Democratic candidates in the U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia did more than just swing control of the Senate to the Democratic Party this week. They likely eliminated the final stumbling block for the funding of the Gateway Tunnel project — an urgent request that has been stonewalled by President Donald Trump.

Jerry Zaro, one of the state’s three trustees of the Gateway Development Corp. and a partner at Sills Cummis & Gross in Newark, said the project never has been more important. And the importance, he said, goes far beyond the necessity of replacing a tunnel that is in danger of collapsing.

“It’s not just a tunnel,” he said. “There are very few things that accomplish multiple objectives like this will. For transportation, it speaks for itself. You can’t have a 110-year-old tunnel, carrying 200,000 people a day, reliably and safely forever.”

Then there are the economic, environmental and social benefits, he said.

“Think about the tens of thousands of jobs that this will create,” he said. “The economic stimulus to the region could help narrow income inequality in this area. And then, there’s the spillover effects of helping environmental emissions by taking cars off of the road. Where else can you get all these societal, economic and environmental benefits from one program. That’s what our program can do.”

Zaro is clear: He does not think the tunnel should replace stimulus checks. He just doesn’t understand why we can’t have both as a way to help society recover.

“I am not suggesting that we take emergency relief dollars that are so sorely needed for people right now to put food on the table and be able to keep a roof over their head now,” he said. “They’re not mutually exclusive. But, I think that, if we do spend on these other things, we will get a tremendous return — multiple-level return — as we go forward.”

Zaro is confident it will happen.

He said Gov. Phil Murphy has had good conversations with President-elect Joe Biden and his designee to be transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg. And he knows Biden — a longtime Amtrak rider and an environmentalist — gets it.

“I think Biden is a guy who truly understands transportation and mass transit needs — and that we can’t be serious about trying to get greenhouse emissions down if we don’t get cars off the road,” he said. “We can’t have cars off the roads if we don’t have mass transit. And we can’t have mass transit if we don’t have a resilient, reliable, redundant system. And that’s what this tunnel will bring. I think everybody gets it.”

And, with the Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, a willingness to appropriate money shouldn’t be as big a stumbling block either.

Zaro, in fact, hopes Congress will find money to fund a number of infrastructure projects.

“I don’t want to claim that we’re the only project in the country,” he said. “I think there are many similar projects. And, if we’re going to spend money, let’s create jobs, let’s improve our infrastructure and let’s try to get the most out of every dollar we possibly can.

“We’ve been shoveling money out the door now for decades without getting too much return on the investment. Drive on any road around here or look at the condition of our train stations or at the conditions of our airports. Then, fly into other countries. Why is it that the richest country in the world has the worst infrastructure? We’ve allowed it to crumble.”

Fixing it, he said, will help fix our economy.

“Every time you pave a road, you’re creating jobs, you’re creating taxes, you’re creating economic opportunity for the workforce — you’re uplifting the economy of that region and you’re making it more desirable for commercial enterprises to locate into your region because of the reliable infrastructure network,” he said. “So, why are we not investing in infrastructure?”

He’s confident that Biden will see this.

“Every president gives it lip service,” he said. “Trump gave it lip service coming in, but he didn’t build a road, bridge or tunnel. Now’s the time. We get money out into the economy and we get a vastly improved infrastructure system. I think it’s just wonderful convergence of opportunity.”