When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie killed the flawed ARC Tunnel project in 2010, it came as a big surprise to people in the region and politicians in Washington, DC. With a major funding commitment from the feds, the project was among the largest public works in the nation, and despite its flaws, a trans-Hudson rail tunnel would have greatly improved access into and out of New York City.
Christie cut the cord over budget concerns. He claimed the project’s cost could double. He claimed New Jersey would have to foot the entire bill for overruns. Now, a new report issued by the Government Accountability Office [PDF] accuses Christie of exaggerating, if not outright lying, in his highly political battle over the ARC Tunnel. This was, alleges the GAO, all about politics and gas taxes.
Kate Zernicke of The Times has the scoop:
The report by the Government Accountability Office, to be released this week, found that while Mr. Christie said that state transportation officials had revised cost estimates for the tunnel to at least $11 billion and potentially more than $14 billion, the range of estimates had in fact remained unchanged in the two years before he announced in 2010 that he was shutting down the project. And state transportation officials, the report says, had said the cost would be no more than $10 billion.
Mr. Christie also misstated New Jersey’s share of the costs: he said the state would pay 70 percent of the project; the report found that New Jersey was paying 14.4 percent. And while the governor said that an agreement with the federal government would require the state to pay all cost overruns, the report found that there was no final agreement, and that the federal government had made several offers to share those costs.
Canceling the tunnel, then the largest public works project in the nation, helped shape Mr. Christie’s profile as a rising Republican star, an enforcer of fiscal discipline in a country drunk on debt. But the report is likely to revive criticism that his decision, which he said was about “hard choices” in tough economic times, was more about avoiding the need to raise the state’s gasoline tax, which would have violated a campaign promise. The governor subsequently steered $4 billion earmarked for the tunnel to the state’s near-bankrupt transportation trust fund, traditionally financed by the gasoline tax.
Somehow, Christie’s office claims that the GAO report backs up their position. After admitting that Christie fudged some numbers, spokesman Michael Drewniak defended the controversial decision. “The bottom line is that the GAO report simply bears out what we said in the fall of 2010 and say to this day: the ARC project was a very, very bad deal for New Jersey,” he said. It’s tough to make such a sweeping generalization when the final deal hadn’t been completed.
The Times has a bit more:
Mr. Christie further explained his decision by saying that the financing agreement with the federal government required him to declare that New Jersey would pay any costs above the $8.7 billion. That is the standard procedure for full-financing agreements, but the report found that there was no agreement when Mr. Christie canceled the project, and that the federal government, which was already paying 51 percent of the costs, had offered to help with any cost overruns, pledging additional money, low-interest railroad loans and public-private financing.
Before Mr. Christie declared the tunnel dead, his transportation advisers told state legislators that they had discussed taking money from the project to fill the transportation trust fund, which was almost empty. Since then, the governor has steered $4 billion in tunnel money to the trust fund, avoiding an increase in the state’s gasoline tax, the second lowest in the nation.
One of ARC’s earliest supporters, Martin Robins, now with the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers, slammed Christie. “In hindsight, it’s apparent that he had a highly important political objective: to cannibalize the project so he could find an alternate way of keeping the transportation trust fund program moving, and he went ahead and did it,” he said to The Times.
This is ultimately a lesson in national politics and local elections. Christie the Candidate vowed support for the ARC Tunnel, but then Christie the Governor gained national prominence in a political party searching for leaders. He canceled the ARC Tunnel near the height of the Tea Party movement as a statement on spending and taxes. He played fast and loose with numbers, and he stretched the truth. The New York/New Jersey region is worse off for it, and it may yet be decades longer, and billions of dollars more, before we see the need for a new trans-Hudson tunnel realized.