The Access-To-Region-Core Tunnel Debacle

Without a good infrastructure, there can not be economic growth.

There is no chance that a new tunnel will be planned – much less built – within any near future. And it was just announced that MTA # 7 train will not be extended to New Jersey after all. Our rail crossings of the Hudson River will remain the two 100-year-old tubes shared by Amtrak and NJ Transit.

When governor Christie announced the cancellation of ARC in October 2010, I was not critical of his decision, based on the figures he provided and the fiscal situation of New Jersey. I also had some reservations on the New York end of the tunnel although I must confess I did not have an abundance of knowledge of the engineering portion of the job.

It now appears that governor Christie misled the people of New Jersey with a deliberate campaign of exaggeration of the cost in order to justify the cancellation of the project. And it also appears self-evident that at least one of his motives was to raid the Port Authority NJ-funds allocated to ARC to refill the empty coffers of the NJ Transportation Fund. The latter is supposed to be funded by the NJ gas tax but that revenue has been used to balance the budget rather than fixing roads and bridges. 

U.S. GAO – Commuter Rail: Potential Impacts and Cost Estimates for the Cancelled Hudson River Tunnel Project.

“I refuse to compromise my principles,” Christie said, according to the Star-Ledger. “So when they want to build a tunnel to the basement of a Macy’s and stick the New Jersey taxpayers with a bill of $3 to $5 billion over, no matter how much the administration yells and screams, you have to say no. You have to look them right in the eye, no matter how much they try to vilify you for it, and you have to say no. You have to be willing to say no to those things that compromise your principles.”

Christie has become a legend in his own mind but cancelling the tunnel and turning down the $3 billion in federal funds for it have made him a rock star in the intellectually challenged republican party.

It was Jeff Tittle, the unpredictable director of the Sierra Club in New Jersey, who coined the phrase “The Tunnel to Macy’s basement.”  Thanks Jeff. Sometimes I wonder on whose side the Sierra Club is. It is possible that the Sierra Club is on the side of the Sierra Club. In any event, Christie rapidly adopted the catchy propaganda line, as well as an odd cost-projection made by the Federal Transportation Administration which estimated a higher cost rising curve in August 2010. Both allowed Christie to put his foot in the door: He cancelled the ARC and took the Port Authority money.

NJSpotlight writes that Michael Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman, emphasized in an email yesterday: “No matter what projects are proposed or under consideration now or in the future, the governor will not sign New Jersey up for another such project unless there is a truly equitable cost-sharing structure, with participation from all the benefiting parties, including New York.”

Allegedly, the issue, according to Drewniak,  is how Port Authority of NY and NJ had distributed its revenue. Remember ARC was a NJ/NY/US/Port Authority operation. Whereas  the Port Authority had marked its NJ revenue for the tunnel, which would benefit both NY and NJ, it put all the NY money into the World Trade Center tower which only benefits NYC. But the PA management is – to  great extent – Christie’s creation. He is the one who has sent  as many as 50 0f his buddies there. He has got no one to blame but himself.

If the GAO report is correct and the cancellation was done to cannibalize the ARC money to refill the empty coffers of the NJ Transportation Fund, this may turn out to be the stupidest act by this administration. Once the work had been advanced sufficiently, a correction to the NY-end could have been more easily considered. A vital infrastructure project and engine for regional job creation was dismantled just to perform a political stunt.

Governor Christie has not hesitated in committing public funds to private construction projects which have much less benefit to New Jersey. Among those are the Revel casino, the Xanadu mall, and the relocation of several companies withing the state. Comparatively, the cost of the tunnel would have been greater but so would have been its benefits and the latter would have been longer lasting. A tunnel is there to stay for the next 100 years. We can not say the same for the Revel or Xanadu.

Now what?

If I am elected governor in 2013 I will take several steps to set the conditions right so that if there a possible interstate agreement on building a tunnel, New Jersey will be in shape to undertake the enterprise .

1. I will seek to reform the NJ contract bidding laws to make cost overruns in public projects less likely. This effort may include making performance bonds mandatory in public contracts and allowing change-orders only in catastrophic circumstances. These measures will make low, unrealistic bidding with-the-idea-of-inflating-the-price-as-we-go, less likely.

2. The Port Authority of NY and NJ is an interstate compact sanctioned by Congress. I would most likely seek to denounce the compact and extricate New Jersey from the PA. Because the bridges and tunnels connecting NJ and NY are still – on this side of the Hudson – on NJ territory, we would have a say on the tolls. This separation would allow New Jersey to keep all its portion of the revenue generated from the river crossings and eliminate a site of festering political patronage.

3. Actively seek the partnership of the U.S., New York, and Amtrak toward the new tunnel.

4. Reanimate the New Jersey economy so that we are on sounder fiscal footing to engage in this grand undertaking.

We need that new tunnel. But if we attract businesses from NYC to NJ – as I expect once our tax, economic, and political reforms are in place – we shall need that new tunnel more than we need it now.