The project is widely considered to be among the most pressing and most expensive infrastructure needs in the country, and state and local leaders have long sought federal funding to jump-start work on it. But the Trump administration threw the project into doubt late last year by casting aside an agreement reached during the Obama administration that would have the federal government pick up half the project’s cost.
And now, according to four officials familiar with the discussions, Trump has taken a personal interest in making sure no federal dollars flow to a project that is considered critical to his hometown’s long-term economic prosperity.
Trump delivered his message to Ryan on Wednesday during a meeting at the Capitol, three people familiar with the conversation said. Trump was on the Hill for a ceremony for the late Rev. Billy Graham, who lay in honor in the Rotunda. Ryan seemed surprised that Trump brought up the project in their conversation, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
A spokesman for Ryan declined to comment. A White House representative did not respond to a request for comment.
The motivations behind Trump’s opposition are not entirely clear. It is a direct challenge to a key political rival, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has been among the most powerful and vocal backers of federal funding for the project. Until recently, Schumer had held up several Trump nominees, including his pick to head the Federal Railroad Administration, to protest the administration’s failure to support the project.
But the Gateway project also has had powerful Republican backers, including former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), who represents thousands of suburban constituents who rely on the Hudson River rail tunnels for their daily commutes to and from Manhattan.
Congressional appropriators, with Frelinghuysen’s backing, are looking to spend at least $950 million in federal funds on the Gateway project in the coming omnibus spending bill. Lawmakers are expected to pass the legislation ahead of a March 23 government shutdown deadline.
A spokeswoman for Frelinghuysen did not respond to a request for comment.
In an interview this week, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee on transportation, said the project was among the top priorities to be funded in the new bill. He cited the project’s impact on the nation’s largest metropolitan area and the risk to the national economy if the existing rail tunnels were to fail.
But Trump and his aides have come to take a different view of the project, seeing it as a potential boondoggle that should be funded by New York and New Jersey taxpayers. The administration’s opposition became clear in December, when just before the New Year’s weekend, a top Federal Transit Administration official told the governors of the two states that the 50-50 deal negotiated under the Obama administration was “non-existent.”
The project was not always seen that way by Trump advisers: A document issued by Trump’s transition team listed the Gateway project as the No. 1 national infrastructure priority.
Some on Capitol Hill think that Trump is using his opposition to funding the project as a bargaining chip to get Schumer and other congressional Democrats on board with a much larger infrastructure bill that would move through Congress this year. But the bigger obstacle to an infrastructure bill is not Democrats — it is conservative Republicans who are wary of pursuing hundreds of billions of dollars in additional federal spending.
Trump has been lured to support the project by New York and New Jersey politicians, including Christie, Schumer and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D). Christie led a delegation to the Oval Office this year with Schumer, a sometimes friend and sometimes foe of the president. They engaged in chitchat with the president about New York infrastructure, with the president criticizing the airports, reminiscing about his days as a developer and even asking somewhat technical questions about building tunnels.
After their last Oval Office meeting, officials left saying that Trump was on board with the project.
But opposition to the project has lingered elsewhere in the administration. And according to a Democratic congressional aide, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has told lawmakers that funding the Gateway project means less money will be available to fund smaller projects in their districts.
The House included $900 million in potential funding for Gateway in a spending bill that it passed in September. But an amendment backed by 155 Republicans and four Democrats attempted to strip the funding from the bill. The legislation has not been taken up in the Senate.
“North Carolina and the other 48 states should not have to foot the bill for this hall of fame earmark,” said Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.), who offered the amendment.