Senator Steve Sweeney is a mercurial man who is not adverse to changing his position on a matter nor to taking a non-progressive stance on an issue one day and a progressive stance on another issue the next day. He was against marriage equality until he was in favor of it. He had opposed limiting gun magazine round legislation, but later supported the bill. He urged pension/benefit overhaul in 2011 and now opposes overhaul until the governor makes “a good faith effort” to fully fund the pension system. He supports progressive ideals except when he does not. His changes are not dissimilar to those of some other legislators, but they are significant because he has the power of the senate president and is a likely gubernatorial candidate.
On environmental issues he has sometimes been supportive. However, yesterday he cast a deciding
vote blow against protecting the Pinelands. Gov. Christie had earlier failed to reappoint a commissioner who opposed the construction of a 20-mile gas pipeline through this protected area. Instead Christie who wants the pipeline built nominated Robert Barr as a new commissioner. Against loud protests from environmentalists, and only after an initial vote failed, Sweeney swung his support in favor of Mr. Barr who then won confirmation.
Today Sweeney, switching stances, was at Newark’s Penn Station for what was billed as a “a major press conference on Port Authority and transportation policy issues.” Following Christie’s disastrous cancellation of ARC, Sweeney today said, “No project is more critical to New Jersey than the construction of a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel. We can’t afford to have one of the existing tunnels closed.” More specifically he called for the Port Authority to divest itself of its real estate holdings and set aside $3 billion for the Amtrak-proposed Gateway Tunnel. Other speakers concurred that the PA’s mission is not real estate but to move people safely and quickly through the region. Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg added, “Our transportation infrastructure is being held together now by Scotch Tape.”
The press conference with about 40 attendees, including speakers, staff and the press, was in the beautifully restored Newark Penn Station main waiting room. This aspirational but necessary goal will likely take ten or more years to achieve and only after the Port Authority, NJ and maybe NY produce seed money (possibly $7 billion) to engage the federal government as a partner.
Sen. Nia Gill said “We deserve a state of the art transportation system not tunnels that are over 100 years old.” Professor Marty Robins, an authority on this matter, said, “We desperately need a new tunnel. Trans-Hudson transportation is the core mission of the Port Authority.” Sen. Sweeney pointed out that in the near future at least one existing tunnel will need to be closed for repairs, and because of how the system works three fourths of the trains would be closed down. The tunnels are in such disrepair that one might be closed at any time. Sen. Sweeney also said, “ARC was the economic thing to do then and Gateway is the economic thing to do today.” A Tri-State Transportation leader referred to it as a necessary “lifeline.”
Today’s press conference represents one small step. The senator is not proposing any state appropriation nor bills at this time. With the politics and lack of financial resources in Trenton and Washington, the proposal is an uphill battle. Nonetheless, some ten state leaders spoke out in its favor today. It will take many more voices to make this needed venture successful.