WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Tuesday showcased a $292 million mega grant that will be used to help build a new rail tunnel beneath the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey, part of a broader effort to draw a contrast between his economic vision and that of Republicans.
The money is part of $1.2 billion in mega grants being awarded under the 2021 infrastructure law. The Democratic president's trip to New York City on Tuesday came on the heels of his stop Monday in Baltimore to highlight the replacement of an aging rail tunnel there, where he pledged that government spending on infrastructure will boost economic growth and create blue-collar jobs.
The New York stop also gave Biden a chance to highlight his administration jumpstarting a project that languished during President Donald Trump's time in office. The yearslong modernization of the Hudson project started in 2013 but stalled as Trump battled with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer over funding for the project.
“This is one of the biggest, the most consequential projects in the country," Biden said. “But we finally have the money, and we’re going to get it done. I promise we’re going to get it done."
The New York and Baltimore trips amount to a form of counterprogramming to the new House Republican majority. GOP lawmakers are seeking deep spending cuts in exchange for lifting the government's legal borrowing limit, saying that federal expenditures are hurting growth and that the budget should be balanced.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Biden are scheduled to meet Wednesday, with the Republican lawmaker intending to press his case for spending cuts even though White House officials say Biden won't negotiate over the need to increase the federal debt limit.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in America who doesn’t agree that there’s some wasteful Washington spending that we can eliminate,” McCarthy told CBS News on Sunday.
Mitch Landrieu, the White House senior adviser responsible for coordinating implementation of the infrastructure law, told reporters Tuesday that if Republicans are looking to “take away money from projects, they ought to, I think, identify which projects they don’t want.”
“And then you can have that discussion with the American people,” Landrieu added.
Speaking at a political fundraiser in Manhattan following his speech about the Hudson tunnel, Biden called McCarthy a “decent man" but said the Republican made “absolutely off-the-wall” commitments to seal the support of the most conservatives members of his party. The event, hosted by by former hedge fund executive Jeffrey Weber, raised $1 million for the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund.
To some in the Biden administration, the Hudson Tunnel Project demonstrates what could be lost if spending cuts are put into place. In total, the construction is projected to result in 72,000 jobs, according to the White House.
The project will renovate the 1910 tunnel already carrying about 200,000 weekday passengers beneath the Hudson between New Jersey and Manhattan, a long-delayed upgrade after decades in which the government underfunded infrastructure.
The grant would be used to help complete the concrete casing for an additional rail tunnel beneath the river, preserving a right of way for the eventual tunnel. In total, the project is expected to cost $16 billion and help ease a bottleneck for New Jersey commuters and Amtrak passengers going through New York City.
Biden made the case the project is critical far beyond greater New York.
“If this line shuts down for just one day it would cost our economy $100 million," Biden said. "And the current Hudson River rail tunnel can be a major chokepoint.”
Other projects to receive mega grants include the Brent Spence Bridge, which connects Kentucky and Ohio; the Calcasieu River Bridge replacement in Louisiana; a commuter rail in Illinois; the Alligator River Bridge in North Carolina; a transit and highway plan in California; and roadways in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Mississippi.
Not everyone has been pleased by the mega grant program. Some Republican lawmakers in Arizona say it gave preference to mass transit and repair projects over expansion and new construction.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., noted that the northeast corridor produces roughly 20% of the U.S. GDP and that Biden was finally ushering in long-awaited modernization to an essential artery that moves countless people and goods through the heart of the U.S. economy. Booker called it poetic that Biden — who regularly commuted from his home in Delaware and Washington during his years in the Senate — was the one getting the project back on track.
“This is a hallelujah moment,” Booker said.
Schumer criticized Trump for slowing the project during his term as he feuded with the Democrats.
“Get on the Joe Biden Express now because we are not stopping,” Schumer said. “For four years, the former president was shoveling you know what and now we’re going to put real shovels in the ground, wielded by real American workers.”
In an interview later, Schumer said he and Biden were both “giddy” over the rail tunnel project, adding that it was all they talked about in the presidential limousine as they rode to the site. Schumer said they were giving each other “high-fives” throughout the day.
For Schumer, the stakes of the Hudson River rail project were serious, given the risk of the 1910 tunnel failing without an alternative in place.
“There would be no doubt we would have a recession in the Northeast, if not the whole country,” he said.