Home Public Transit Policy The federal rail debate as seen through Gov. Christie

The federal rail debate as seen through Gov. Christie

by Benjamin Kabak

When northeastern politicians gathered at Penn Station on Monday to accept Florida’s high-speed rail dollars, a handful of New Jersey’s representatives to Washington, D.C. made their appearances while New York’s Governor issued a perfunctory station. Conspicuous in his absence and silence was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. For more than six months now, Christie and the federal Department of Transportation have squared off over the New Jersey governor’s decision to torpedo the ARC Tunnel without first searching for a better funding solution. Now, as high speed rail plans inch slowly forward, Christie and his actions have come to represent one side of the great divide.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal today, Lisa Fleisher and Andrew Grossman explore how Christie’s position is representative of one line of political thinking on public infrastructure spending. It is newsworthy, and obviously so, to highlight how the redistribution of Florida’s HSR money intentionally omitted funding for New Jersey Transit projects. They write:

As spending on infrastructure projects becomes increasingly controversial, two camps of public officials have emerged. One is represented by Mr. Christie and some other Republican governors who have turned down federal money for rail projects because they’re worried about their states bearing the burden of cost overruns. The other is represented by the coterie of congressmen and officials from New York and New Jersey who surrounded Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as he declared that he’s willing to open his wallet to “reliable partners” who will also open theirs.

Federal officials were reluctant to fund the Portal Bridge project in part because they were wary of starting another major project with Mr. Christie, whom they viewed as unreliable because of his decision last year to cancel a trans-Hudson rail tunnel that was partially federally funded, according to people familiar with the matter. The calculation was a practical consideration, rather than spiteful or political one, these people said.

A spokesman for Mr. Christie said the governor is committed to rail projects. “The governor has been pretty clear that he recognizes the need for infrastructure investment and particularly increased trans-Hudson rail capacity,” a spokesman for Mr. Christie, Kevin Roberts, said. “That being said, the governor was obviously clear when it came to the [trans-Hudson tunnel] project specifically that it wasn’t an equitable deal for New Jersey.”

Whether or not the deal was an equitable one for New Jersey is still a point of contention. Proponents allege that the ARC Tunnel, despite potential cost overruns, would have led to markedly faster commutes and a corresponding increase in property values throughout the Garden State. They also claim that Gov. Christie did not attempt to figure out how to keep cost overruns from spiraling out of control. The DOT assessment issued last year said costs could have ranged from $1-$5 billion over budget, and while Christie has latched onto the higher figure, he didn’t even try to address the overruns while the project was still largely an idea on paper.

Opponents, though, see the federal government as cutting a good deal and then running away. Dangling federal dollars but no promises of future funding partnerships, the feds can convince states to shoulder the burden for expensive infrastructure upgrades. It’s a valid concern, but we haven’t seen those concerns play out in real life. Will the feds leave states high and dry or will Washington representatives find a way to forge better funding partnerships?

Ultimately, though, the words of Frank Lautenberg, a Senator from New Jersey who is embroiled in the battle over $271 million in ARC funding, ring true. “We learned something in New Jersey,” he said on Monday. “We learned that if you reject federal money, you gain nothing. You gain nothing. And you pay a heck of a price for it.”

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David May 11, 2011 - 5:44 pm

They just should have offered to hang pork chops in the ARC Tunnel and Christie would have LOVED the project….

Eric F. May 12, 2011 - 9:08 am

Hey let’s make some Lautenberg is really old jokes too. What’s Frank Lautenberg’s social security number? One!

Christopher Stephens May 11, 2011 - 5:48 pm

“Opponents, though, see the federal government as cutting a good deal and then running away. Dangling federal dollars but no promises of future funding partnerships, the feds can convince states to shoulder the burden for expensive infrastructure upgrades. It’s a valid concern, but we haven’t seen those concerns play out in real life. Will the feds leave states high and dry or will Washington representatives find a way to forge better funding partnerships?”

When you say you haven’t seen those concerns play out in real life, is that because you can cite examples of where the feds kept funding such partnerships, or is it because states have refused to put themselves in that position?

Benjamin Kabak May 11, 2011 - 5:57 pm

Some of both. States haven’t put themselves in that position but when they’ve begun large projects — such as SAS or ESA — federal dollars have flowed toward them.

Alon Levy May 11, 2011 - 6:57 pm

SAS has a fairly small federal match – $1.35 billion, not much more than a quarter of the construction cost.

And I’m pretty sure this is the lowest-cost-per-rider rail project under construction in the US today.

Bolwerk May 12, 2011 - 1:05 pm

The feds are leery about investing in SAS too, thanks to the way the city shagged the project back in the 1970s.

Steve B May 12, 2011 - 11:45 am

I disagree with the writer’s contention here. Boston’s Big Dig project was a clear example of the feds saying “no” when the project’s costs spun out of control. Ultimately, although the Dig was a federal aid project, the State of MA was on the hook for almost the entirety of the cost overruns, which were in the tens of billions. I disagree with Gov Christie’s decision to kill the ARC project, but he is correct in that the federal government could not be counted on to add to their contribution if and when the project’s costs began to escalate.

Hank May 12, 2011 - 8:43 am

They should’ve added double-wide seats…. [insert other Chris Christie is a fat joke]

In all seriousness, Christie can say what he will about being committed to transit but he fundamentally doesn’t care. He is spending his money on roads for his base voters in the south of the state and Xanadu for his business cronies. Transit is low on his priority list.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines May 12, 2011 - 9:04 am

[…] After the Christie ARC Debacle, Feds Leery of Investing in Jersey Rail (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

Eric F. May 12, 2011 - 9:07 am

“In all seriousness, Christie can say what he will about being committed to transit but he fundamentally doesn’t care. He is spending his money on roads for his base voters in the south of the state and Xanadu for his business cronies. Transit is low on his priority list.”

He followed through with a light rail extension in Bayonne. Is working on light rail extension projects in south Jersey. Work on the Lackawanna Cut-Off is proceeding. He commited over $50 million to renovate a train station in Elizabeth. He has commited funds to the Portal Bridge replacement. The Port Authority is commitying funds to PATH signal upgrades. Basically, you have not the slightest idea what you are talking about.

The major road project taking place in the state right now is a project that begun under Corzine. Xanadu was also a Corzine initiative that Christie is trying to make the best out of. But other than that though, you are absolutely right.

Alon Levy May 12, 2011 - 12:35 pm

The issue is not that. The issue is that Christie not only returned federal funds, but also returned them irresponsibly. A responsible person would’ve asked to revisit the project and make it more affordable; that’s what the Greens in Baden-Württemberg are doing now with Stuttgart21. Christie could have asked for a change to Alt G amidst cost overruns, like the people in charge of California HSR construction are now revisiting alignment alternatives to keep costs from escalating.

Now, I don’t think Christie is inherently anti-transit. He just wanted an opportunity to grandstand, heard that ARC was controversial, and turned it into his 15 minutes of fame. He made a political decision to prioritize his national prospects over governing, and should be treated accordingly.

Eric F. May 12, 2011 - 1:30 pm

Actually, this is a great line from the doddering Lautenberg:

“We learned that if you reject federal money, you gain nothing. You gain nothing. And you pay a heck of a price for it.”

I know that dementia is a big problem in this age group, but Frank, you ARE the federal government!

VLM May 12, 2011 - 1:36 pm

Do you not know the difference between money granted to a state by a federal agency (executive branch) and Lautenberg, a Senator (legislative branch) that you seem to hate on ideological grounds? I take it you voted for Christie, yeah? Of course you’re going agree with his decision to cancel the tunnel despite a need so glaringly obvious only a blind person wouldn’t be able to see it.

Eric F. May 12, 2011 - 1:40 pm

NJ does not have the money to build ARC! It doesn’t matter how needed it is. I believe very strongly that something like ARC is desperately needed, and ARC itself is waaaay better than nothing, which seems the only actual true to life alternative. However, a project of this nature is a true federal concern on national mobility and civil defense grounds, and the feds should be all over it. Frank’s “deal” is a lousy deal essentially designed to bankrupt the NJ Turnpike authority, NJ Transit and very possibly the entire state government. That’s not ideology, it’s math.

sfdsfad May 12, 2011 - 2:44 pm

Christie cancelled ARC because he wasn’t willing to raise gas taxes to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund. It’s not about money, it’s about him compromising the future to meet short-term needs.

Eric F. May 12, 2011 - 3:20 pm

Oh, ok, so ARC depended on a gas tax increase. Got it, can you point to any statements made by the Fed DoT or the Corzine administration that took this position? And why wasn’t such an increase proposed in or before 2009 when the project began?

Bolwerk May 12, 2011 - 2:48 pm

Oh, come on, NJ easily had the money to build ARC. You can argue building ARC wasn’t smart use of money, and as a design goes it’s hard to argue ARC wasn’t stupid no matter how flush NJ could be, but the money was mostly lined up, including a hefty contribution from the Port Authority. Even in the extreme event that money ran out, the option to raise taxes or tolls or something is always there – not saying it’s a good idea either, but it’s an option.

I agree there is a national need for a tunnel, but New Jersey does have an independent need to run NJ transit trains and NJ transit is busy enough that it would very much make sense to have its own tunnel. Regardless, an acceptable option, which Christie didn’t even bother trying, would have been to push for another alternative that didn’t have the projected overruns. Of course, that takes leadership, and doesn’t score you political points with the lower side of the USA’s IQ distribution. Like, huh huh, that Christie fella sure stuck it to those liberals in NJ! Alaska and Alabama may be amused, but NJ got fcuked.

Eric F. May 12, 2011 - 3:24 pm

ARC is an epitomatic “interstate” commerce route and a linchpin for (federalized) Amtrak’s operations. It’s hard to imagine a more obvious case for federal support than this.

To say “tolls can be increased” is just whistling into the wind. Turnpike tolls are right now in the midst of amulti-year increase, there is no reason to believe that there is capacity to further burden toll payers for this project, setting aside the point that it is not equitable to do so. The Turnpike does not have unlimited toll diversion capabilities, and what ARC required of NJ was a more or less unlimited cash commitment. NJ’s credit cards were all maxed out before CC made his oath of office. The state is broke. I’m not gleeful about it, but that’s all there is to it.

Bolwerk May 12, 2011 - 4:03 pm

Yeah, by an accident of colonial charters, commuting to Manhattan is interstate commerce, but it only directly benefits two states: New York and New Jersey, and New Jersey is the primary beneficiary in that case. The only reason I see the feds should be funding a commuter rail tunnel is they take so much of New Jersey’s and New York’s money anyway. Other than that, it really should be worked out between NJ and NY. (Long-distance rail is different, of course, but ARC wasn’t for that.)

If there’s frequent traffic congestion, there’s probably room for a toll increase – to the point where there is no more congestion. Of course, that might not be a revenue raiser per se. Anyway, I wasn’t saying it’s a good idea, I was just saying there are options.

Alon Levy May 12, 2011 - 4:53 pm

Yes, Port Authority is exactly the agency to run these things. The AirTrains are a paradigm of efficient construction, PATH looks like a little Tokyo Metro on the Hudson, and World Trade Center was the pinnacle of urban livability.

Bolwerk May 13, 2011 - 2:16 am

What are you talking about? I didn’t even imply the PA should run it. I think it’s quite clear the PA doesn’t even take rail seriously, much less want to run a railroad.

Alon Levy May 13, 2011 - 3:59 pm

My point is that this is what happens when the feds tell two states to work things out and washes its hands off of it.

Bolwerk May 13, 2011 - 4:49 pm

By my count, here is a list of agencies/stakeholders that were stupid:
– MNRR for not letting NJT into GCT.
– MTA for not forcing the issue with MNRR.
– NYC and NYS for not forcing the issue with the MTA.
– NYC again for saying, Oh, hey, this is our city and we should stop making it into a Byzantine shithole.
– NJT for not raising a bigger stink, or at least pushing for a way into
– The feds for even agreeing to fund such an inferior option.
– Christie for not trying to fix the mess.
– I feel like I should blame NJ rail advocates for something, but I may not be able to come up with anything better than douchebaggery.
In almost all of the above cases, inaction/obstruction was pointless and harmful to everyone involved.

I don’t really buy that the PA’s fuckups over the years can be blamed on anyone but New York and New Jersey. The Rockefellers wanted the WTC, NJ wanted PATH, and the PA did what it was told. The worst I can say is, maybe the PA shouldn’t have so much control over bridge/tunnel revenue and who can make a crossing between NJ and NY.

petey May 12, 2011 - 9:42 am

“New York’s Governor issued a perfunctory station.”

if only new stations appeared by someone’s say-so!

Al D May 12, 2011 - 10:52 am

Gov. Christie cannot possibly be committed to rail projects. Were he to be, instead of killing off ARC, he would instead have tried to save it, by reshaping its scope. For example, I don’t think anyone, not even Mr. Christie, would disagree that at least 1 more rail tunnel is needed. So, start building that tunnel and work to re-shape the more objectionable parts of the project along the way.

Eric F. May 12, 2011 - 11:06 am

You guys can beat this dead horse until it’s as flat as a pancake, but the simple fact is that NJ does not have the money to build ARC. It never did, and Christie just acknowledged the obvious. You can throw these silly “but the Turnpike widening” arguments all you want, but those are self-financed projects that cost a small fraction of ARC. You can repeat your misinformation talking pioints all you want, but the facts won’t change.

Douglas John Bowen May 12, 2011 - 11:16 am

Sidestepping other ongoing New Jersey rail projects listed meticulously above, Gov. Christie had very, very little to do with HBLRT’s extension into Bayonne. He did not move to stop it, that’s true, but the project was so far advanced that the political gain in stopping it would have been miniscule. Just to show we’re not being partisan on the matter, former Gov. Jim McGreevey faced the same political headwinds when weighing whether of not to pull the plug on the RiverLINE — with tacit backing from parent New Jersey Transit at that — and chose not to.

As for Mr. Kabak’s continued take on ARC, here’s a voice for one group of so-called “opponents” who did not “see the federal government as cutting a good deal and then running away.” Our collective concern was of a project continually revamped to offer less utility (benefits) even as costs continued to spiral. IF NJ Transit had held firm on those benefits in the face of spiraling costs, many of us would have been far more willing to “defend” the ARC project, as we have countless times in years past. It was NJT who ran away from the original, true “access” to the true region’s “core.” Not us.

Woody May 12, 2011 - 11:42 am

I agreed with Christie to pull the plug on ARC. The project dead-ended in more ways than one. But I strongly disagreed with his unseemly haste to reallocate all of Jersey’s money, AND the Port Authority funds iirc, to roads, roads, and more roads.

If he had said, ‘Times are hard, let’s bank this money’, or, ‘I want Jersey Transit to go back to the drawing boards, to work with Amtrak and New York, and see if there isn’t another way to do this’ well then, fine. I’m sure Jersey Transit has a long list of projects on its To-Do list. And Amtrak was out the door with its own tunnel plans within days.

But Christie’s roads, roads, more roads stuff revealed his basic values of trucks and cars over transit.

Douglas John Bowen May 12, 2011 - 12:06 pm

Hard to argue with your post-ARC assessment, Woody, and in many ways it does show the governor’s true (lack of) commitment to rail and public transit. It’s a risk some of us took, “agreeing” with or urging the governor to pull the plug, knowing his motives did not match ours.

We accepted the risk — and accept the opprobrium that just keeps coming. Because know what? Amtrak indeed “was out the door with its own tunnel plan within days,” contrary to numerous ARC supporters, including numerous organizations, who asserted, claimed, and downright swore that ARC’s death would leave trans-Hudson plans in the void “for years, for decades”–and were not above attacking individual ARC critics on a personal level in the process.

The void lasted three months. Neither RPA, nor anyone else, so far has acknowledged the discrepancy, at least publicly.

Benjamin Kabak May 12, 2011 - 12:10 pm

I didn’t realize Amtrak’s plan was anything more than a pie-in-the-sky idea on paper. There’s been no movement on feasibility or funding, and ARC was canceled seven months ago. The void is still there.

Eric F. May 12, 2011 - 1:36 pm

“But Christie’s roads, roads, more roads stuff revealed his basic values of trucks and cars over transit.”

What exactly does this mean? Is this just a talking point off some list? What roads are you talking about? Show me the ARC money financed road, I’d love to see it.

And what is “trucks” “over tarnsit”? Was ARC supposed to haul produce and building supplies? Take a look at central NJ and the NJ ports, the roads are clogged with massive truck caravans, and spending a gazillion dollars on ARC does absolutely nothing to make freight traffic quicker or safer.

Bolwerk May 12, 2011 - 3:00 pm

People tend to have the (IMHO mistaken) impression that building a new rail line takes cars off the road. It may be true for the short-term, but I don’t think it results in less net traffic in the long run because any savings just eventually gets replaced with new traffic (cf., induced demand).

The flip side, of course, is taking away a route means a fraction of trips disappear.

Boris May 12, 2011 - 10:02 pm

You are right, but building a new rail line increases mobility. Any transportation facility induces demand, to some extent; that’s to be expected.

Bolwerk May 13, 2011 - 2:27 am

Yeah, but what I was getting at is, a rail line needs to be justified for its own sake – not just a way to relieve highways. I think what Eric was referring to was an argument that building a rail line relieves a road. I don’t think that’s very believable.

Alon Levy May 13, 2011 - 1:30 am

Do you have a reference for this type of induced demand? I’ve seen it for new highways, but not for new railways relieving highways.

Bolwerk May 13, 2011 - 2:33 am

For a rail line causing a highway to have less traffic? Nope, I doubt it ever happened, but I was just acknowledging the possibility. I’ve heard planners argue that it happens many times, or that the existence of a railway means x fewer car trips – but I think it’s always based on a mistaken assumption that the bulk of the transit replaced a car trip that would have happened anyway.

There aren’t many potential examples to draw from, anyway. DC Metro Orange Line I-66 segment maybe? Even that’s poor, because it’s fed by the highway, and even if that effect did occur, it was probably overwhelmed by the rapid population growth that region was experiencing. BART?

The only other thing I could think to investigate in the U.S. is the possibility that Amtrak draws long-distance traffic away from the I-95 corridor. But that could just induce more local traffic, if it even happens.

Eric F. May 13, 2011 - 8:50 am

Very good point. I plan to quit my job and all recreational activities and spend 24 hours a day crusing the Long Island Expressway as soon as traffic lightens up enough.

Bolwerk May 13, 2011 - 12:09 pm

I kind of figured you did that anyway.

Douglas John Bowen May 12, 2011 - 2:57 pm

The argument, sir — voiced directly to/at me and others by folks at the Regional Plan Association, among other pro-ARC folks — if that there wouldn’t even e discussion about such a thing. RPA (and those others) set the parameters, which have been blown out of the water, courtesy in part of pro-ARC disciple Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg himself.

Before this week, lots on Amtrak’s wish list was pie-in-sky-ideas — third track in Delaware, finishing Harold Interlocking changes, the potential for constant-tension catenary (or any newer catenary) anywhere between New York and Washington. Funny how real money has surfaced for some of those things.

Bolwerk May 12, 2011 - 3:01 pm

Thank Florida, I guess.

Eric F. May 12, 2011 - 3:36 pm

But they are lame. Obama could have funded a rebuilt of Portal in 2009. It could have been completed by 2012. He coudl have renamed it the Obama Bridge, and it would be an iconic structure that somethling on the order of a quarter million people would see every day. A physical testament to the transformative power of well-placed infrastructure spending. Instead you get some minor stuff at Harold, which Alon Levy did a good job explaining is not all too important. I wouldn’t get too excited about the NJ catanery either. Maybe it’ll help a bit, but the construction on a working train line is — I bet — going to be very disruptive.

Chris G May 12, 2011 - 12:11 pm

I still say Amtrak start limiting NJT’s access to the tunnels and NEC. NJ says they don’t need the new tunnel that’s fine. Most of NYC would be quite happy without NJ.

Bolwerk May 12, 2011 - 1:12 pm

It’s not a good idea, for the same reason Jersey not paying for its needed transportation is not a good idea. People will still need to go to Manhattan, and most will find a way. Many of the more affluent will simply drive, and clog our region’s roads even more.

Like it or not, ARC was one of the most critical pieces of infrastructure on the drawing board in the entire USA. It wasn’t being done right, but it was critical.


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