He committed billions of dollars to overhaul LaGuardia Airport and build a new Tappan Zee Bridge, but New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken a wary approach to building a new Hudson River rail tunnel, even though the stakes could be higher.
The existing Amtrak tunnel connecting New York City and New Jersey is a century old and in disrepair. Electrical wires corroded by Hurricane Sandy's floods prompted hours-long delays last month that highlighted the tunnel's condition and previewed what could become a chronic problem if nothing is done.
Yet Cuomo, a Democrat, sees little light ahead in this tunnel project.
He balked at an invitation from U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to meet with him and New Jersey's Gov. Christie to discuss the construction of a new tunnel, saying there was "no reason to meet now."
He told reporters recently that the outlook for the tunnel was "not especially bright."
If that's true, then it's bad news for millions of commuters, not just the 200,000 people who ride trains through the tunnel each day. Amtrak estimates that the existing tunnel - which has a single track in two tubes, one for either direction - has a life expectancy of about 20 years. Closing one tube for a year of repairs would reduce the number of trains using the tunnel from 24 to six per hour at peak times, forcing tens of thousands of people onto ferries, buses, or cars and further clogging the region's already congested streets.
Longer term, failing to build a new tunnel could strangle the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington right at its most critical chokepoint, drive down home prices in New Jersey, and cut tax revenue for New York City, according to Richard Barone, director of transportation programs at the Regional Plan Association.
A new tunnel, part of a $14 billion plan to improve or replace outdated infrastructure in New Jersey and New York, would likely take a decade to build.
"We're likely to see the region's economy take a serious hit," he said Wednesday. "We'll be scrambling to adapt to an untenable situation where there aren't any good options."
Nonetheless, there are several reasons that Cuomo is reluctant to start up the tunnel-boring machine. He said the project wouldn't work unless Washington committed a sizable investment. An earlier tunnel proposal included $3 billion in federal funds, but was axed by Christie in 2010. Now, Cuomo said, the feds are promising only loans.
"If the federal government is serious that this is critical, which it is . . . we need federal funds," Cuomo said last week. "They need to put their money where their mouth is."
Christie has said he would support a new tunnel project if part of the cost were borne by the State of New York or New York City, neither of which pledged funds for the previous one.
Cuomo's tunnel stance is a departure for a governor who has seemed to revel in taking on big infrastructure projects. He used federal loans to finance the $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge. Last month, he joined Vice President Biden to announce a $4 billion plan to rebuild LaGuardia's cramped terminals.
There are several key differences between those projects and the tunnel, Cuomo noted. Private airlines will cover roughly half of the cost of the new LaGuardia. And while the Tappan Zee is a state bridge, the new tunnel would be owned by Amtrak and used for New Jersey trains.
"It's not my tunnel," he told reporters last week. "Why don't you pay for it?"
New York Sen. Charles Schumer this week proposed the creation of a new collaborative effort by the two states, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the federal government to secure financing for the project. He also vowed to seek federal dollars.
"It will take energy, commitment, several leaps of faith, but above all else: It will take cooperation," Schumer said of the project.
Port Authority chairman John Degnan has said the agency was willing to invest in the project, but that could be complicated by its having to redo its 10-year capital plan to include funding for a new bus terminal in New York City, expected to cost several billion dollars.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation said the agency would work to secure help from Congress, too - as long as the states get on board with the project.
"We know this project will be hard to get done," said Suzanne Emmerling. "We also know the alternative is much worse."