WESTFIELD — Westfield Town Hall, typically a nexus for municipal governance and local news, played host to national political figures on Monday, when Congressman Tom Malinowski and United States Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg joined local government leaders to discuss infrastructure and commuting issues facing communities along the Raritan Valley Line.
The meeting was held as a bipartisan infrastructure bill continued to make its way through Congress. The proposed trillion-dollar infrastructure bill would allocate billions of dollars for critical New Jersey infrastructure, potentially funding long-needed projects like the Gateway Project, a plan to upgrade the rail infrastructure between New York and New Jersey and build a new tunnel under the Hudson River.
This visit by a major federal official and lawmaker featured a town-hall-like meeting where local officials such as Mayor Shelley Brindle of Westfield and Mayor Kathleen Miller Prunty of Cranford were given an opportunity to discuss key infrastructure issues affecting municipalities like Westfield, Cranford and other commuting towns along the Raritan Valley Train Line — key commuter communities dependent on rail and bus travel into Manhattan.
Speaking to a press corps that included local, state and national news representatives gathered on the front lawn of the Westfield Municipal Building, Secretary Buttigieg, also known as “Mayor Pete,” the former two-term mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate, discussed infrastructure improvements for New Jersey commuters as part of the proposed congressional infrastructure bill.
“We have an opportunity, like we haven’t had in my lifetime, to modernize our transportation infrastructure, to make people’s commute safer, faster, more reliable,” remarked Secretary Buttigieg. “And that’s exactly what this bipartisan infrastructure framework is going to do. Including the largest investment in public transit in our history. And the most we’ve done for passenger rail since Amtrak was created in the first place.”
The infrastructure bill, according to the Associated Press, would provide substantial funding for infrastructure projects in addition to roads and bridges, such as broadband internet, water pipe infrastructure and other public works that municipal and state governments often struggle to finance on their own.
“New Jersey alone would expect to see over four billion dollars for public transportation,” explained Secretary Buttigieg. “There’s funding for big projects like the Hudson Tunnel Project and the broader Gateway program,” he said. “And I know that the leaders here in this state know exactly what to do with that funding.”
Leaders of Union County and members of the Raritan Valley Line Mayors’ Alliance (a bipartisan organization advocating “direct service” or a “one-seat ride during weekday peak hours and weekends”) had a chance to address Secretary Buttigieg and Congressman Malinowski directly during a round-table discussion designed to provide an opportunity for local government leaders to express infrastructure concerns and solutions.
Mayor Miller Prunty of Cranford addressed many of the issues plaguing the communities and commuters who use the Raritan Valley Line to gain access into New York City.
Aside from the inconveniences and delays affecting local commuters, resulting in prolonged time on trains and buses, the aging infrastructure carrying residents to their places of employment are in danger of failing — given the age of overburdened bridges and tunnels and the overburdened railway systems providing essential connections into Manhattan and beyond.
Aging and neglected infrastructure, according to Mayor Miller Prunty’s comments, is not merely a public-safety risk — but a potential economic crisis waiting to happen.
The economic well-being of communities along the Raritan Valley Line is tied to the functioning of train and bus lines. If one of the tunnels into Manhattan were to shut down for a prolonged period of time, or a bridge on the Northeast corridor was to close, the consequences could be catastrophic to the region. Property values would be affected, according to Mayor Miller Prunty, not to mention a significant influx of traffic congestion on the roads.
Mayor Miller Prunty, a member of the Raritan Valley Line Mayor’s Alliance, called for “equitable, safe and convenient” commuting services and said any potential crisis caused by the shutdown of a tunnel, or bridge, is “preventable.”
Mayor Miller Prunty also highlighted the benefits of improvements to the Raritan Valley Line access into New York, by arguing that improvements to infrastructure would be an economic boon to the 32 municipalities represented by the Raritan Valley Line Mayors’ Alliance.
“We know direct train service would greatly improve the quality of commuting,” said Mayor Miller Prunty. “But it would also put most of our towns in a much better position to compete for Presidential and congressional investment.”
Mayor Miller Prunty additionally highlighted other potential benefits if rail infrastructure was to be improved, including further economic investment in the surrounding towns, a rise in property values, and employers having a greater ability to attract a range of skilled employees throughout the Raritan Valley corridor and beyond.
Mayor Brindle, one of the founding mayors of the Raritan Valley Line Mayors’ Alliance, made her case for significant overhauls to the region’s infrastructure, specifically mentioning the necessity of a new tunnel connecting New York to New Jersey.
Mayor Brindle drew on her own experience as a commuter and a parent navigating the long delays on the train, saying she would often miss family dinners and activities and her kids’ sporting events.
“I was never the mom I wanted to be when I walked in the door at night,” said Mayor Brindle.
After listening to various local government leaders, Secretary Buttigieg commended their efforts, applauding their creativity and the urgency to fix the issues plaguing their constituents. He said it was the federal government’s role to provide financial support for the solutions generated by local government officials on the frontline.
“When I was mayor, I felt it was mayors, county and local officials that were really on the frontlines,” said Secretary Buttigieg. “Now that I’m Secretary [Department of Transportation], I know that’s true.”
Addressing the Gateway Project directly during the roundtable, Congressman Malinowski said there are items within the infrastructure bill specifically suited for “major regional projects,” including building a new tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey.
“After years and years of tragic delay, and resistance, we’re almost there,” said Congressman Malinowski, who serves the 7th District in New Jersey. “I have no doubt the money will be there. I have no doubt we will get to approval.”
In reaction to the roundtable attended by Democratic Congressman Malinowski and Secretary of Transportation Buttigieg, Rachel Lee of the Republican National Committee offered a statement in response to their trip to Westfield and meeting with local officials.