Sandy Relief Bill Would Help Region Prepare for the Future

Congress has begun debating a $60 billion funding package that would rebuild and strengthen the tri-state region’s battered infrastructure in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. A strong transportation component of the relief package would pay for both repairs and projects to make the transportation system more resilient in the face of a “new normal” of more extreme weather.

The Senate’s proposal, which was announced on Monday, includes $12 billion for transportation, most of which would go to the public transit systems the region relies on. $5.4 billion would go to transit agencies for recovery and repair work and another $5.4 billion would pay for “mitigation” projects that protect against future storms. It also includes $921 million for road repairs and $336 million for projects on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (on which NJ Transit also runs commuter rail service).

Advocates have said that the rebuilding effort should include these types of forward-looking projects. Earlier this month, NJ Future organized a conference which brought together FEMA officials, engineers, academics, and others who argued that, in the words of NJ Future chairman Peter Reinhart, rebuilding must “[take] into account doing things better and smarter.” Writing in the Star-Ledger last week, Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s Janna Chernetz argued that:

Investment that will increase capacity and redundancy is needed in our transit system. The canceled Access to the Region’s Core tunnel project would have doubled cross-Hudson capacity [on NJ Transit’s rail system]. Similar proposals, such as Gateway, must be given serious, interagency, bi-state consideration. Buses, which carry more passengers each weekday across the Hudson River than rail does, deserve greater priority and improvements can be put into motion faster than rail.

After Sandy, many NJ commuters were shifted onto a bus system that had been bursting at the seams even before the storm. The result was multi-hour delays and intense crowding that frustrated and inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of people.

Also last week, Governors Andrew Cuomo, Chris Christie, and Dannel Malloy penned a joint op-ed in the Washington Post in support of the funding package. They wrote, “our needs are real and immediate, and Congress must act — as it has so many times before — to assist our recovery and help us build back better and stronger than ever.”

The relief package being debated in the Senate would be attached to a military and veterans spending bill (HR5854) that has already passed the House. This means that if the Senate passes a bill, the next step would be negotiations in a conference committee to iron out differences between the House and Senate. Congress would then vote on whatever compromise comes out of the committee. House Speaker John Boehner has reportedly said the House will not seek to “offset” the Sandy bill by cutting spending elsewhere, but has not said what funding levels the House would support. Many of the region’s House members, including Republican Reps. Peter King and Michael Grimm (both from New York), have called for an up-or-down vote on the Senate bill. Meanwhile, some conservative activist groups (like the Club for Growth) have come out against the bill.

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