For officials at transit agencies in and around New York City who often complained of being ignored by the Trump administration, Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s arrival to the White House has set off a race to tap into the largess the new president has promised.
President Biden, who is known as Amtrak Joe for his love of trains, is widely expected to shower federal funds on projects designed to improve the nation’s creaky public transportation network. As a candidate, he vowed to spend $1.3 trillion on infrastructure, and now transit officials and advocates are pressing him to deliver.
“It’s a new day, a new dawn and a moment in our history to say, ‘Let’s act and rebuild our infrastructure,’” said Carlo A. Scissura, chief executive of the New York Building Congress, a major construction industry group.
There is no shortage of needs in the New York area, whose aging transportation network has been long neglected, but there is general agreement on the top priorities as the region tries to recover from the pandemic.
A pandemic bailout for transit agencies
The lockdowns and shutdowns set off by the pandemic have left the region’s transit systems in deep holes. With ridership of trains, planes and buses still deeply depressed, transit agencies have suffered unprecedented drops in revenue that have threatened their ability to maintain basic service, let alone make necessary improvements.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs New York’s subway, buses and two commuter trains, received $4 billion in emergency relief from Congress in December, helping to avert major cuts for now, including the elimination of subway and bus lines.
Mr. Biden said the federal $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package he supports would include $20 billion for the country’s hardest-hit transit agencies.
But the authority’s chairman, Patrick J. Foye, joined the leaders of New Jersey Transit and several other transit agencies in asking for nearly double that amount — $39.3 billion — in a letter to congressional leaders.
New Jersey Transit, which operates a statewide network of trains and buses, is asking for additional money to shore up its finances, after receiving more than $2.6 billion in two relief bills last year.
And the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the region’s biggest airports and the PATH train system linking Manhattan to New Jersey, is seeking $3 billion from Washington to cover lost revenue from tolls, fares and traveler fees.
Tolling cars in New York to help save the M.T.A.
This was the year that New York was supposed to become the first American city to charge drivers for entering its central business district, which is in Manhattan. But that plan, known as congestion pricing, never got off the ground after the Trump administration failed to provide the required approval.
The lack of response was a blow to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which was counting on revenue from congestion pricing to help fund its ambitious spending plans.
The authority claims that congestion pricing could produce $1 billion a year that could be spent to modernize the system, including updating an archaic signal network that hobbles the subway.
The proposal calls for charging cars as much as $14 and trucks as much as $25 to enter a zone below 60th Street. Evvel the tolls start rolling in, the authority would borrow as much as $15 billion against them and put the money toward a sweeping $54 billion plan to overhaul subway stations, improve handicap accessibility and buy new trains and buses.
Unlike most other infrastructure projects, the congestion pricing plan does not require a lot of federal money. But the M.T.A. needs guidance from Washington on how to measure its environmental impact before it can proceed.
New train tunnels that have been delayed for years
The only rail link between New York and New Jersey, where many workers who fill Manhattan’s skyscrapers live, are tunnels that are 110 years old and decaying.
Nearly five years ago, the Obama administration agreed to make a massive project to build new tunnels under the Hudson River a top priority. Then, the Trump administration slammed the brakes on the plan, which is known as Gateway.
President Biden has signaled his interest in breathing new life into the plan, which is a pet project of Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York and the new majority leader. Building a “new, safer Hudson River tunnel” was an element of Mr. Biden’s campaign and his transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, said at his confirmation hearing that he looked forward to working with senators on the project “to move forward.”
At the hearing, Mr. Buttigieg said he saw “a generational opportunity to transform and improve America’s infrastructure.”
A major priority for the region are new rail tunnels under the Hudson River that connect New York to New Jersey. Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times
Gateway has been awaiting approvals from the federal Department of Transportation since 2018. The department still lists the expected date of a decision as two years ago.
Gateway would add capacity to the region’s overburdened commuter rail system, which plays a key role in fueling the local economy and was routinely saddled by delays and cancellations before the pandemic.
The states of New York and New Jersey, Amtrak and the Port Authority had pledged to cover about half of the enormous cost of the project. Building the new tunnels and repairing the old ones, which were severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, is estimated to cost $116 billion.
“Gateway has got to be at the top of the list,” said Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, an influential research and advocacy group.
Mr. Wright said the project’s cost is rising by 5 percent with each year of delay. “That’s $500 million every year the thing gets delayed,” he said.
The first phase of the Gateway project will replace a century-old swing bridge on the approach to the Hudson tunnels. Last month, New Jersey Transit moved to seek bidders on building the $1.8 billion bridge, known as Portal North.
On the Manhattan side, work is underway to move a utility building that stands in the way of clearing a path for the proposed tunnels, which would emerge from under the river beneath the Hudson Yards development.
A new ride to La Guardia
When he was vice president, Mr. Biden likened the dreary La Guardia Airport to what one might find “in a third-world country.’’
New York’s governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, took on the challenge of changing that grim review and enlisted Mr. Biden’s help in promoting a major overhaul of La Guardia, which is still ongoing.
One piece Mr. Cuomo insists on is an AirTrain that would connect La Guardia to the subway and the Long Island Rail Road.
The Port Authority is planning to build the AirTrain at a cost of more than $2 billion. But the project, which has been criticized for a route that would take passengers east of the airport, still needs federal environmental approvals.
In seeking a bailout from Congress, the Port Authority has warned that the pandemic has jeopardized many of its proposed projects. But the agency’s executive director, Rick Cotton, says it will be able to complete the La Guardia AirTrain and replace the obsolete Air Train at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey.
Mr. Scissura said building the La Guardia AirTrain, which would create many construction jobs in the city, is a “big priority” for the Building Congress.
Inching along the Second Avenue subway
The first section of a new subway line along the Upper East Side of Manhattan started running in 2017, nearly a century after it was first proposed. The next part should not take anywhere near that long, but it does not look to be coming any time soon.
Mr. Cuomo has promised that the M.T.A. would extend the Second Avenue subway north to 125th Street in East Harlem. That project has an estimated cost of $6.9 billion, half of which the authority expects the federal government to provide.
The authority had projected the second phase would be completed in 2027. But the havoc the pandemic wreaked on the authority’s finances has undoubtedly upended the schedule.
That would hardly come as a surprise to East Harlem, which has been promised a subway for decades.
Mr. Wright said that slice of Manhattan has long been a “transit desert” whose residents deserved a better subway connection, calling it a matter of social justice and racial equity.
“The community up in East Harlem has worked around this for years,” Mr. Wright said. “It would be a terrible precedent to walk away from that.”