By Herbert Lash
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A billionaire real estate executive close to President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that contrary to recent news reports he believes a proposed new rail tunnel under the Hudson River connecting New York City and New Jersey is one of the most critical U.S. infrastructure projects.
Steven Roth, chairman and chief executive of Vornado Realty Trust, one of New York's largest property owners, said media in late January had incorrectly speculated about a two-sentence e-mail he sent to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in August.
Roth told Chao she was "doing great" and to "stick to your guns" after she forwarded an article that suggested the Trump administration opposed the tunnel, according to the e-mail obtained by Democracy Forward, a nonprofit government watchdog, after a Freedom of Information Act request.
The tunnel, known as the Gateway project, was proposed in 2011 after former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie canceled earlier plans to replace the century-old tunnel that connects New Jersey to Penn Station in midtown Manhattan.
The tunnel was heavily damaged by super storm Sandy a year later and a replacement is deemed urgent by Amtrak, which relies on the tunnel for its Northeast Corridor service, as do New Jersey Transit commuter trains.
"Gateway is far and away the most important infrastructure project in our region and one of the most critical for our nation," Roth told analysts on a conference call to discuss earnings at Vornado, a real estate investment trust.
Roth, who Trump appointed to an infrastructure council last year along with Richard LeFrak, another New York real estate billionaire, said every business and civic leader he knows in New York and New Jersey concurs with that assessment.
The Gateway project, whose cost has been estimated at more than $20 billion, "has no bearing whatsoever" for Two Penn Plaza, a Vornado-owned office tower that straddles the train station, Roth said.
"I am also confident that the federal government and both states' political leaders will devise an equitable core sharing agreement that gets this project built, which undoubtedly will involve substantial federal participation," Roth said.
Vornado is partner to a joint venture that has provided $230 million to help fund the conversion of a historic post office across from the problem-plagued Penn Station into a new train station as part of a $2.5 billion renovation of Penn Station.
(Reporting by Herbert Lash; Editing by Daniel Bases and Leslie Adler)