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.”