When President Joe Biden presented his nearly $2 trillion infrastructure plan Wednesday — a plan that proposes $621 billion for transportation, including $80 billion to modernize Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor — Tony Coscia was more than just cautiously optimistic.
He called it “extraordinarily good news.”
But Coscia, the chairman of Amtrak, did not call it a done deal. He did not say this definitively means the Hudson River tunnel project — the once-in-a-century Gateway Program that will dramatically update commuter traffic before the tunnels themselves collapse — will get done.
It just means enough potential funding to cover the expected costs of the Gateway Tunnel project is being proposed. And that’s a huge milestone.
“For the first time ever, an administration has put something on the table that has the capacity to fix the problem,” he said. “That’s not happened in all the years that I’ve been associated with Amtrak.”
More than that, the proposal would help Coscia and Amtrak make all of the updates that are needed along the Northeast Corridor — an action that could rebuild our transportation infrastructure and benefit everyone and the environment, he said.
“We’re talking about giving mobility options to people who now do not have mobility options,” he said. “And we’re doing it in a way that is sensitive to climate impact.”
Of course, all of this requires Congressional help.
Biden, of course, is hopeful his proposal will be able to get the necessary 60 votes needed to pass in the U.S. Senate. If not, Congress will have to use the slightly more difficult reconciliation process — as it did with the recent American Rescue Plan.
Coscia, a longtime partner at Windels Marx in New Brunswick, is hopeful, too.
ROI-NJ caught up with Coscia to discuss all of the potential ramifications. Here are his thoughts, edited for space and clarity.
ROI-NJ: Let’s start with your big-picture reaction. As someone who has been pushing for years for the Gateway Program — and other Northeast Corridor projects — what does Biden’s proposal mean?
Tony Coscia: It means, for the first time, a U.S. president is willing to make a commitment at levels that would truly transform infrastructure in the country. In particular, the transportation system. It’s funding for projects that are long overdue and critical to a better economy, one that recognizes the importance of sustainable development. It means projects like Gateway now have the opportunity to be fully funded.
ROI: I think a key phrase is, ‘projects like Gateway.’ While the region has obsessed over the effort to rebuild the Hudson River tunnels — and rightfully so — that is not the only need, correct?
TC: That’s right. This initiative also creates the opportunity for the other major capital projects that Amtrak has been trying to do, like the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, the Susquehanna River Rail Bridge, the Sawtooth Bridges in Hudson County, a bridge that spans the Connecticut River and a number of others. All of these different projects need to be done.
In the past, because so little was done for so many years, there was such a backlog of major projects that none got done. When a little bit of resource was made available, everybody competed with each other. The inability to come to a consensus on which one should go ahead resulted in nothing happening. Everyone was arguing over a number that was way too small for what the demand is.
Now, you have a president who is willing to commit enough resources to complete enough of these projects to break loose that logjam and advance more than one very worthwhile project.
ROI: But this represents more than just a transportation initiative. This is about more than paving a road, building a bridge or fixing a tunnel. This is more than just making it easier to get from Point A to Point B, correct?
TC: Correct. This is about creating new options for mobility and doing it in a way that is good for the environment. For decades, people have ignored things that are absolutely important for transportation — things that could unlock all kinds of potential and improve quality of life.
Travel by train produces the lowest carbon footprint. In comparison to cars and buses and airplanes, traveling by train is incredibly supportive of a sustainable development initiative. By creating more opportunity for more people to use trains, we’re accomplishing a lot.
ROI: Of course, going from Point A to Point B is important, too. Especially if you are a New Jersey commuter. And even if you’re a commuter who does not go into New York City. Will these plans help those commuters, too?
TC: Absolutely. As the owner of the Northeast Corridor, the spine which all of these training routes hang off of, we feel our ability to dramatically improve that will create opportunities for additional service opportunities that NJ Transit can take advantage of.
ROI: We can’t let you go without talking about Amtrak, which you joined as a director in 2009 and have been the chairman of since 2013. How much has the pandemic hurt Amtrak — and all the progress you had been able to make?
TC: We literally had turned profitable for the first time in Amtrak’s history about 60 days before the pandemic hit. We actually were in the black. But it wasn’t a wasted effort. This isn’t a zero-sum game.
We built a great team and we were able to accumulate so much capital that we were able to get through the pandemic through a bunch of smart efforts. Then, we were fortunate because the American Rescue Plan provided $1.7 billion directly to Amtrak to cover our operating losses during the pandemic.
Congress has now basically given us the money to hire back all our employees and restart all our routes. And we have the capital we started with, which we will now be investing in the system.
ROI: Sounds like you have plenty of reasons to celebrate?
TC: This plan would enable us to undertake a critical mass of projects that would truly make the system work better, as opposed to just doing things on the margins. It is an unbelievably positive development.