It’s been a rough few weeks for New Jersey Transit and Garden State rail riders. Shortly after announcing yet another massive fare hike, the agency suffered through a week that saw rush hour delays pile up due to problems with Amtrak’s North Hudson tubes. After commuters suffered through problems on four of five days last week, the agency has already announced that it does not anticipate a problem-free Monday. Riders are being asked to find alternate ways into the city, and PATH, ferries and buses will cross-honor tickets.
It’s also been a rough few weeks for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. With national polls placing him toward the bottom of the crowded field of GOP 2016 presidential hopefuls, Christie has engaged in something of a Hail Mary campaign to drum up any kind of enthusiasm for his run for the White House. At one point, he seemed like a clear front-runner before the Fort Lee traffic scandal and general voter anger toward his policy decisions grew louder and louder.
Faced with mounting frustration directed at him from his constituents over last week’s New Jersey Transit delays, Christie at first ducked the question before his aides helped him correctly level the blame at Amtrak. He then let loose a stunning display of political arrogance. He would, he claimed, build the ARC Tunnel if elected president. The Times’ Rick Rojas reported:
“If I am president of the United States, I call a meeting between the president, my secretary of transportation, the governor of New York and the governor of New Jersey and say, ‘Listen, if we are all in this even Steven, if we are all going to put in an equal share, then let’s go build these tunnels under the Hudson River,’ ” Mr. Christie said in an interview with the radio talk show host Larry Kudlow, which will be broadcast on Saturday on WABC-AM. “Then, everyone has an incentive to have the project run right, to run efficiently because everybody is on the hook.”
The governor’s comments — and his hypothetical phrasing — has attracted the attention of his critics, who say his statements emphasize how little he has done to help improve transportation. “This is not a hypothetical issue, this is a real issue, and he could be doing something about it,” said Martin Robins, the founding director of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, who was the director of the tunnel project during the mid-1990s. “The question is, what has he done, what will he do in the next 18 months as the governor of New Jersey?”
In his interview comments, Christie reiterated his own long-held belief that, as he said, “New Jersey was going to be responsible for every nickel of cost overruns, which at the time was estimated to be three to five billion dollars.” He claims that he asked New York’s leaders for fiscal assistance and that they turned him down. He did not mention that the Feds had pegged the cost overruns at $1 billion; that both the feds and New York were willing to work out a deal; and that instead of reserving the money for a better-designed and fairly-funded rail tunnel, he instead sunk into a series of road projects throughout the state, leaving rail riders with nothing.
Time and again, Christie has tried to paint his ARC decision as something it wasn’t, and he even has supporters from the rail community who point to the design flaws in ARC as it was planned. The decision to send the tunnel to a dead end underneath Macy’s was the wrong one, but it wasn’t worth canceling the project and removing New Jersey’s money from a rail expansion project. Christie may have backed into a decision that was, in part, defensible, but he did it for none of the right reasons.
The Times’ editorial team wasn’t buying what Christie was selling. In a piece that unfortunately ran on Saturday and not during a more well-read day of the week, they laid the blame for trans-Hudson woes squarely on Christie’s shoulders. Their argument echoes mine:
Governor Christie originally said he stopped work on the new tunnel because it would cost his state too much money. Then, he got the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to reroute $3 billion that had been allocated for the project. Instead of a tunnel to benefit the whole region, the money went to patch Mr. Christie’s roads and bridges.
Normally, state gasoline taxes provide much of the revenue for local transportation needs. But Mr. Christie, a Republican aiming for the White House, has not wanted to raise any taxes. This refusal and his use of the tunnel funds for other purposes have kept the chokehold on transit in the Northeast. And without sufficient tax revenue, New Jersey Transit has added debt and been forced to squeeze more money from its customers. This month, it announced fares would go up an average of 9 percent on Oct. 1.
Even Mr. Christie’s commissioner of transportation, Jamie Fox, has begun working hard to get a dedicated tax to fix the state’s roads, bridges and mass transit. The governor, perhaps recognizing that he has a transportation crisis on his hands, has simply said that when it comes to revenue, “everything is on the table.” If everything really is on the table, Mr. Christie should help legislators come up with a gas tax that starts to dig the state out of its transportation mess. At the same time, he should support Amtrak and others as they start over with new plans for a tunnel under the Hudson.
When he canceled ARC, Christie did it with an eye on the national stage. Ending an expensive government project bound to benefit the more liberal northeast played well with the Tea Party at a time when they were ascendant. But now aging infrastructure is in the news, and New Jerseyans know where to point their fingers over the current failures and future problems that await on the horizon. Instead of a rail tunnel in progress with a design that could have been improved five years ago, the region has nothing but problems — which is identical to Christie’s presidential hopes. It’s no coincidence that these two issues are going hand in hand, and if Christie the governor is serious about helping solve the trans-Hudson problems, he’s not out of office yet.