In a 52-page decision released on Friday, the Federal Transit Administration has determined that New Jersey must repay all of the $271 million the state had spent on the ARC Tunnel project before Gov. Chris Christie canceled the project this fall. Furthermore, if the state fails to pay the money soon, the FTA will begin to charge interest on amounts due at a steep rate. To fight this ruling, Gov. Christie, who has already spent close to $1 million on legal fees, could appeal the ruling in federal court.
Both The Record and The Times reported on the ruling this past weekend, and I’ve embedded the document along with a letter from Ray LaHood, the Secretary of Transportation, below. The ruling explores why New Jersey is legally obligated to return the funds and is appealable. The federal courts would have jurisdiction over the matter. Essentially, though, this move raises the stakes in the fight over what was to be the country’s largest public works project.
Patrick McGeehan from The Times had more:
In a letter to New Jersey’s senators and representatives in Congress, Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary, warned that his department had “many tools under the Debt Collection Act to recoup the lost federal taxpayer funds, including withholding future state funding from a wide variety of sources.” But “in consideration of the current economic challenges burdening New Jersey,” Mr. LaHood added, he hoped to “develop a workable payment schedule” and avoid having to resort to those collection methods.
Mr. LaHood should not expect to find a check in the mail any time soon. Mr. Christie, who was in Massachusetts on Friday to speak at Harvard University, declared in January that “we are not paying the money back.” Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Mr. Christie, said the governor’s staff would “review the decision before determining next steps moving forward.” One option is to sue the department to try to stop it from seeking to collect, but Mr. Roberts would not say if a lawsuit was being considered.
In the meantime, interest on the debt will pile up quickly. The federal government currently charges interest at a rate of 1 percent a year, which in this case amounts to more than $50,000 a week.
According to LaHood’s letter to Senator Frank Lautenberg, the crux of the matter concerns Christie’s representations to the FTA in previous years. Despite rising cost estimates in early 2010, the Governor pledged full support for the ARC Tunnel in meetings with LaHood in February, March and April of last year. Six months later, the project was off, and LaHood could not convince Christie to change his mind, and LaHood took a hard line against Christie in the letter.
“Any notion that the potential for cost growth constituted new and emergent information when the Governor made his decision is simply not accurate,” he wrote.
For now, the FTA is still willing to work with New Jersey to make the repayment process as painless as possible, but Washington’s patience is limited. “In consideration of the current economic challenges burdening New Jersey and all other states, I am not pursuing these collection methods at this time in the hope that we and the state of New Jersey can develop a workable payment schedule,” the secretary said.
Despite taking a hard line, LaHood bemoaned the fate of the ARC Tunnel, and right now, its legacy is one of a legal fight that isn’t over yet. “The purpose of my efforts,” LaHood said of his meetings this past fall, “was to avoid the very circumstances in which we now find ourselves: no jobs, no congestion relief, and an enduring debt whereby New Jersey must return $271 million to the Nation’s taxpayers.”
After the jump, read the letter and FTA decision.