Transportation

Does pork barrel politics still work? GOP lawmaker pushes $900M for NY/NJ railroad infrastructure

Will pork barrel politics still work in the Trump era?

Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen seems to be betting yes.

A huge railroad and transit project to build new bridge and tunnel capacity for travel between New York and New Jersey would receive a whopping $900 million next year if Frelinghuysen has his way.

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The lawmaker is moving to boost the New York and New Jersey Gateway project in large part by eliminating a popular $500 million infrastructure grant program championed by former President Barack Obama. That program funded transportation projects nationwide, including set-asides for rural areas.

Frelinghuysen also would earmark $400 million in mass transit grants toward a new tunnel under the Hudson River to service Amtrak and a New Jersey commuter rail line.

The move is a blast from the not-so-distant past, when powerful lawmakers like Sen. Robert Byrd used the annual appropriations bills that fund the government to move billions of dollars into their states.

Frelinghuysen faces challenges from the right with a potential primary and on the left from Democrats in his bid for another term next year in a competitive north-central New Jersey district. It's his first potentially competitive election cycle since entering Congress in 1995.

"Rebuilding the Hudson Tunnels is of vital importance to my home state of New Jersey and our region," Frelinghuysen said in a statement confirming the $900 million set-aside. "New Jersey residents have been plagued by perpetual delays and decaying infrastructure."

The move by Frelinghuysen may receive its strongest backing from powerful Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York.

"The No. 1 infrastructure project in all of America is the Gateway project," Schumer said recently. But elimination of the Obama-sponsored TIGER grant program, which was created by the 2009 economic stimulus measure but has won bipartisan support since, is likely to face opposition in the Senate.

"Look, I don't want to rob Peter to pay Paul," Schumer said Tuesday. "We need money for Gateway but we need money for TIGER as well."

The Gateway project would construct two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River and rebuild a bridge over New Jersey's Hackensack River. All told, it's expected to cost $20 billion. The project would replace aging tunnels that are nearing obsolescence.

The tunnels, and a new bridge over New Jersey's Hackensack River to replace a century-old span, are the first phase of the Gateway program, an ambitious effort to improve rail capacity on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston and specifically around New York's Penn Station, the nation's busiest train station.

The Northeast Corridor around Penn Station has been beset by problems in the last few months. Two derailments, a power failure, signal problems and other issues at Penn Station pushed Amtrak to begin a major two-month overhaul project Monday to replace aging tracks and other equipment that have caused numerous delays for commuters.

The money is contained in a $56.5 billion transportation and housing funding bill that's slated for a vote by an appropriations subcommittee Tuesday evening. It's one of 12 long-overdue spending bills that Frelinghuysen and other lawmakers are working to advance, despite intra-GOP quarreling and a dysfunctional budget climate in Washington.

The measure rejects almost $10 billion in program cuts proposed by President Donald Trump in his unpopular May budget, restoring almost $3 billion for community development projects and a $150 million appropriation to subsidize money-losing air service to rural airports, among other programs.

Later Tuesday, Frelinghuysen will unveil a homeland security funding measure that's sure to fund Trump's $2.6 billion request to plan and begin construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.