President-elect Donald Trump’s New York roots, role as a builder and promise to spend big money on transportation projects could bode well for the region’s commuters, including LIRR riders, experts said.
Despite the deep divide between Trump and Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton throughout the presidential campaign, both candidates agreed on the importance of upgrading the nation’s aging transportation infrastructure. In interviews throughout the campaign, Trump singled out the 182-year-old Long Island Rail Road as an example of a transportation agency in desperate need of modernization.
“You go to China and you go to other places, they have trains that travel 300 mph. We have the Long Island Rail Road that can hardly . . . move. I mean, we are like a Third World country,” Trump told Fox News in May.
New York’s network of subways, buses, commuter rails, roads and bridges makes up the largest transportation system in the United States and drives an economy that accounts for 11 percent of the U.S. gross national product, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The MTA alone moves nearly 9 million people a day, about a third of all transit riders and two-thirds of all commuter rail riders in the nation, according to New York City data.
A full 25 percent of Long Islanders’ personal income was earned at jobs in New York City in 2011, according to the Long Island Index, highlighting the importance of the region’s transportation network for Nassau and Suffolk residents. One-third of LI residents working in New York City ride the LIRR.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), an early Trump supporter, said the president-elect’s stated commitment to investing in mass transit was “a lesser-covered theme” of Trump’s campaign, and one that stands to benefit New Yorkers. Trump has proposed a $1 trillion plan to upgrade the nation’s transportation infrastructure — including trains, airports, roads and bridges — over the next decade by leveraging private financing and repatriating corporate dollars being kept overseas.
Zeldin said he expects that in seeing that plan through, Trump, a Queens native, “would not forget, from that respect, where he comes from.”
“It . . . just makes sense from a broader policy perspective to ensure that any investment in infrastructure is given due consideration in what is the largest mass transportation system in the country,” Zeldin said.
An incoming administration can have a big impact on local commuters, transportation experts said. It begins with the appointment of a transportation secretary.
On Tuesday, Trump named Elaine Chao, a former labor secretary, to the post. Chao, in turn, will fill key posts in the Federal Transportation Administration and Federal Railroad Administration — agencies that regulate transportation providers, including the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, LIRR and public bus systems in Nassau and Suffolk.
They also provide low-interest federal loans and grant funding for a range of projects, from the MTA’s $1 billion positive train control effort on the LIRR and Metro-North, to massive construction efforts such as the East Side Access to bring the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal, emergency repairs after natural disasters, and routine station rehabilitation and train car purchases.
The U.S. Department of Transportation also is considering a proposal to bring high-speed rail to the Island via a bridge or tunnel across Long Island Sound.
The president of the United States also appoints the members of the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board, the federal agency criticized by lawmakers and regulators for its lax oversight that has resulted in a high rate of fraudulent disability claims by LIRR retirees. A president can also intervene in a railroad labor dispute, as Barack Obama did in 2014 when he appointed a mediation board to help settle a dispute between LIRR unions and management.
Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors’ Association, applauded Trump’s appointment of Chao to transportation secretary, noting her experience as a deputy transportation secretary under President George W. Bush.
Herbst said he remains “optimistic” that Trump will impart on Chao his transportation priorities — which could benefit Long Island.
“Donald Trump knows what it’s like to sit in traffic on the LIE,” Herbst said. “That has to be helpful.”
Gateway plan a barometer
An early barometer for Trump’s influence on local transportation priorities could come in the form of Amtrak’s $24 billion Gateway plan, which aims to construct a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River. Planners have said the project could be a boon for LIRR commuters because the new tunnel is expected to add capacity for the railroad at Penn Station.
Outgoing U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and the Senate’s incoming minority leader, Chuck Schumer — a vocal transit advocate — have both called Gateway one of the most critical public works projects in the United States.
“While we’ve made significant progress on the Gateway project, we must continue moving full speed ahead, ensuring necessary funding is available and critical approvals are granted,” Schumer said in a statement, adding that he hoped the incoming transportation secretary will be “as committed to the project as Secretary Foxx still is. We have come too far to take any steps back.”
In 2010, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie canceled Gateway’s predecessor, Access to the Region’s Core — or ARC — a commuter rail tunnel project, citing its cost. However, in 2015 Christie and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo offered to pay half the cost of Gateway, and planners have asked the federal government to pay the other half.
Obama’s administration has helped cue up Gateway, in part by expediting the federal environmental review process and putting it in the pipeline for potential grant money.
“All of this was, of course, done with the assumption that it was steady-as-she-goes from an Obama administration to a Clinton administration. . . . Suddenly the ground falls out from underneath us, and we’re now at a cliff,” said Martin Robins, director emeritus of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Institute at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He is hopeful that Trump will pick up the mantle for the project, especially as he looks for ways to work with Schumer.
“This may not be a huge lift for the Trump administration,” Robins said. “It could be an easy transition, but it requires a lot of knowledge and devotion and commitment to move the project along.”
Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University, said he expects Trump, as a builder, to back transportation infrastructure projects that are “feasible” and will yield quick results, without necessarily putting priority on more progressive concepts such as “public health, walking or biking.”
And with the metropolitan area housing several hubs with various transport modes, tunnels, bridges and international airports, it’s a good bet Trump will look homeward to make a splash, Moss said.
“We’re not going to see him take on fantasy projects. We’re going to see projects that can be built. He likes to get things done,” said Moss, who expects infrastructure will be an area of common ground among lawmakers and voters from both parties.
Asked for his take on Trump’s election win, MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast said he evaluates all candidates for elected office on their appreciation for the agency’s importance to the region and New York’s importance to the nation’s economy. “From that perspective, we’re excited,” Prendergast said of Trump.
MTA board member Mitchell Pally, of Stony Brook, was also optimistic about what Trump’s presidency could mean for the authority and its efforts to promote transit-oriented development. Pally said Trump, as a New Yorker, “understands the importance of mass transit.” And as a real estate mogul, Trump “understands the importance of location. An apartment building . . . near a rail station is worth a lot more than one that is not.”
Concerns raised on agenda
Others are not convinced that Trump’s presidency spells good news for public transportation providers and users. Republican lawmakers, especially those beholden to rural parts of the country, have historically been reluctant to support federal funding for urban transit initiatives.
And critics have speculated that Trump’s pick of asphalt lobbyist Martin Whitmer to head his transportation transition team may signal a priority on roads over transit in Trump’s infrastructure plan. A 10-page transportation policy paper released by Trump advisers during the campaign made no mention of transit.
“Yes, he is a New Yorker. And we hope that’s something that will play into an awareness of the importance of transit to this region . . . But in regards to how the federal government might support transit capital in this region, there is some cause for concern,” said Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a transit advocacy group.
Vanterpool said Trump’s plan to fund infrastructure projects largely through private investment, with no talk of raising the gas tax, could result in higher costs for — and less say from — transit users. “Transit is not meant to be a profit-generating enterprise,” Vanterpool said.
While saying it is “too early” to judge the merits of Trump’s transportation goals, Wendy Pollack, spokeswoman for the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit planning and policy group, emphasized that sound planning is about more than construction. It should address issues such as climate change, expansion of economic opportunity and building of “inclusive, healthy, successful communities.”
The concern over how Trump’s presidency will impact public planning is shared by smaller transit providers, including Michael Setzer, chief executive of the Nassau Inter-County Express, or NICE Bus. Setzer, who relies on federal funding to buy new buses, said he’s been “scouring” Trump’s public comments about transit for some indication about what he should expect.
“If the emphasis on infrastructure means greater capital funds, that would be a very good thing for Nassau County,” said Setzer, adding that Trump is “probably the hottest topic in the transit industry right now.”
“You’d think as a New Yorker, he would at least recognize that cities don’t work well if they don’t have solid public transportation,” Setzer said. “He may not ride the subways, but I’m sure his people do.”
LONG ISLAND PROJECTS
Some Long Island-oriented transit projects that could be on the Trump administration’s to-do list:
- Approving federal funding for Amtrak’s $24 billion Gateway project, which aims to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River — potentially creating more capacity for the LIRR at Penn Station.
- Seeing through the implementation of positive train control — federally mandated crash prevention technology that must be in place on all railroads, including the LIRR, by 2018.
- Advancing the DOT’s NEC Future initiative, which aims to modernize the Northeast Corridor used by Amtrak, including by potentially bringing high-speed rail to Nassau and Suffolk via rail tunnel or bridge across the Long Island Sound.