It’s been nearly nine months since the ARC Tunnel met its untimely demise, and still New Jersey and the Feds are fighting over the money. Gov. Chris Christie wants to keep the earmarked dollars and apply them to the state’s other underfunded transportation projects while the Feds, unhappy that the Garden State unilaterally pulled the plug on the largest public works project in the country, just want the dollars back.
The legal fight, which isn’t over yet, is starting to cost the state, and while the numbers are ticking ever upward, there is a rationale behind the battle. In a fairly nuanced piece from The Star-Ledger, Salvador Rizzo looks at the economics behind the legal challenges. Of the costs, he writes:
Gov. Chris Christie’s fight with the federal government over abandoning a train tunnel under the Hudson has already cost New Jerseyans more than $1 million in legal fees and interest, records show.
For a month, Christie has been vowing to appeal a decision from the Obama administration ordering the state to repay $271 million for abruptly pulling out of what was the largest public works project in the country.
In the meantime, interest on New Jersey’s debt is adding up at the rate of $225,000 a month. In addition, bills from Patton Boggs, the Washington law firm hired by Christie in December to fight his battle, have averaged another $300,000 a month, invoices obtained by The Star-Ledger show. The interest on the $271 million, which began accruing on April 29, could be frozen by a federal judge once an appeal is filed, but neither the governor nor Patton Boggs has said when the case will be brought to court.
New Jersey’s transit advocates aren’t quite sure what to say about the expenses and mounting interest. “Christie is not arguing about dollars and cents. He’s saying they don’t owe anything, and he’s on unsound ground,” ARC advocate Martin Robins said. “I suggest we should be talking in terms of collaboration and reduction in the debt that he owes and that he caused by the stomping of this project.”
Yet, even if there’s a small chance — say ten percent — that New Jersey could keep the money, it’s a fight worth pursuing for some time. As with the MTA’s dispute over the TWU raises, if New Jersey believes it has a fighting chance, it could spend dollars on lawyers up to the point of recovery. So if there’s a 10 percent chance of keeping the entire $271 million, legal economics would dictate expenses of $27.1 million.
In fact, some advocates think the state may be able to keep some of the money. As the former head of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign said to The Star-Ledger, attorneys from Patton Boggs are making “some persuasive arguments.” Some — but not all — of the stimulus money going into the tunnel project had been awarded before the ARC-specific grants were signed, and Christie might be able to keep those funds.
Ultimately, though, this still feels like wrangling over a missed opportunity, and as one former Port Authority official said, Christie was awfully quick to cut bait. “Only the governor felt that the entire burden would have fallen on the state of New Jersey,” David Widawsky, the PA’s one-time lead on the ARC Tunnel, said. “Over the course of the many years of construction ahead, these kinds of things could have been worked out.”