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The Politics of the ARC Tunnel

Killing ARC would put Gov. Christie in the 'new' national Republican mainstream -- diametrically opposed to New Jersey's bipartisan tradition.

Credit: (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)

Governor Chris Christie's decision to call a halt to the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel shocked many New Jerseyans, who have come to expect issues like transportation infrastructure to garner bipartisan support. Given that the project has enjoyed almost two decades of backing from Democratic and Republican governors and congressional leaders, that the federal government, bistate and toll road authorities are paying most of the cost, and that work had already started, few anticipated that the gigantic project could be discontinued.

Yet Christie’s action should come as no surprise. He is in lockstep with the avowed positions of leading Republican candidates for governor across the nation, who, if elected, are promising to halt massive transportation projects that are in line to receive billions of dollars in federal funding.

Now the question for Christie and New Jerseyans is whether he will try to work out a solution with the Democratic Obama administration to reduce the potential cost to New Jersey taxpayers. This path would keep him aligned with the traditional moderate approach of New Jersey Republicans. Alternatively, he can abandon the project and return the $3 billion federal grant to Washington – a move that would further enhance his conservative credentials with the Tea Party anger that is sweeping the Republican party and the country.

Not Ambitious Enough

Just a few weeks ago, rumblings that Christie was considering killing the project in order to use the allocated monies to replenish the state’s bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund were typically met with disbelief. Indeed, if there were complaints about the project, it was that it was not ambitious enough. It didn’t allow New Jersey commuters access to Grand Central train lines and would not end at the existing New York Penn Station but a block or so away. Some conservatives questioned whether the region should embark on an imperfect $8.7 billion solution.

Still, the litany of project benefits, which had been developed and negotiated over a span of 20 years, were well-known and well-defined. ARC would speed New Jersey commuters under the Hudson River by rail to high-paying jobs in New York City.

  • For mass-transit advocates and commuters, it would increase the number of rush-hour trains from 23 to 48, double rail passenger capacity, and cut commuting time by as much as 20 minutes a trip.

  • For environmentalists, it would take 22,000 cars off the road and 66,000 tons of carbon monoxide and other pollutants out of the air each year.

  • For the unions, it would mean 6,000 construction jobs through the year 2017.

  • For businesses and job seekers, it could bring an economic spinoff of 45,000 new jobs.

  • For property owners, it could add $18 billion in value to homes within two miles of dozens of rail stations in nine counties.

  • For New Jersey, which gets back just 57 cents from the federal government for every tax dollar it sends to Washington, it would mean a $3 billion check coming from the feds. It would be the largest public works project in the nation but would be largely financed by regional agencies and the federal government.

On the Hook

But Christie has questioned whether these are benefits New Jersey can afford, saying that his concerns are that New Jersey taxpayers will be on the hook for any cost overruns. Christie has declared that the tunnel could run $2 billion to $5 billion over budget. “We cannot spend money we do not have,” he asserted, when making his announcement. And his fears are not unfounded: Mass transit advocates concede that large infrastructure projects typically run 10 percent to 30 percent over budget.

President Barack Obama has framed the issue differently – saying that the country sorely needs transportation infrastructure at the same time it needs to stimulate the economy.

“Our infrastructure is falling far behind what the rest of the world is doing, and upgrading it is vital to our economy and our future competitiveness,” Obama said, pointing repeatedly to the hundreds of billions of dollars being poured into state-of-the-art rail lines, airports, highways and bridges in Asia and Europe. "What we need is a smart system of infrastructure equal to the needs of the 21st century.”

These are clearly competing Democratic and Republican philosophies on transportation funding, which square off over the wisdom of states starting new projects when facing ongoing budget crises, and question the relative merits of government stimulus programs vs. tax cuts to revive a stagnant economy. And it is notable that Democratic President Obama and Republican Governor Christie, who finished first in a recent Virginia Tea Party straw poll as the candidate of choice to run against Obama in 2012, embody those different philosophies.

Maybe it should be expected that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who talked Christie into giving the tunnel a two-week reprieve in order to consider various policy options, is out of step with the national mood of the GOP when he said, “There are no Democratic or Republican bridges or highways.” After all, LaHood is a former Republican congressman from Illinois serving in a Democratic President’s cabinet. “Transportation funding used to be a bipartisan issue,” said LaHood ruefully after an October 11 White House press conference to discuss the Obama administration’s $50 billion plan to build infrastructure as an additional economic stimulus.

Consider:

As the New York Times noted two days before Christie’s pronouncement, Obama’s major rail projects face opposition from GOP gubernatorial candidates across the country:

  • In California, Meg Whitman is threatening to put the brakes on a $45 billion bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco that has already gotten $2.25 billion in federal stimulus funding.

  • In Wisconsin, Scott Walker is running against plans to build a rail line linking Milwaukee and Madison that has received $810 million in stimulus funding.

  • In Florida, Rick Scott is raising doubts about plans to build a rail line from Orlando to Tampa that has received $1.25 billion.

  • In Ohio, John Kasich has pledged to veto a $400 million rail line to run north-south from Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati.

Mainstream Republicans

The opposition of these large-state Republican gubernatorial candidates to large-scale mass transit projects, coupled with the solid opposition of Republican members of Congress to Obama’s $50 billion transportation stimulus, puts Christie’s inclination to cancel the tunnel squarely in the mainstream of a national Republican Party worried about the Tea Party movement.

But it also would underscore a dramatic shift for the New Jersey Republican Party away from investing in new transportation infrastructure. What's more, cancelling the ARC tunnel could be potentially as politically hazardous to Christie’s future reputation in New Jersey as it could be positive for his image nationally.

Former GOP Governor Thomas H. Kean, the most popular New Jersey governor in recent history, pushed for a massive infrastructure program that became the Transportation Trust Fund when he was elected in the middle of a recession in the early 1980s. The late Republican Congressman Bob Franks, one of the GOP’s most respected leaders, was one of the most passionate advocates for ARC.

And the tunnel itself would benefit a large swath of the New Jersey Republican base. ARC will bring direct commuter rail service to New York to NJ Transit’s Raritan Valley line, which runs in large part through Union, Somerset and Hunterdon County Republican suburbs currently represented by GOP Congressman Leonard Lance.

The new tunnel would also bring direct service to the northern Bergen County suburbs, which are the Republican bastion of the New Jersey’s most populous county. It would add trains, cut commuting times and increase property values in the staunchly GOP Morris and Essex suburbs. And it is critical to the future of the planned Middlesex-Ocean-Monmouth (MOM) line that would expand passenger rail service into Monmouth and Ocean counties, which provided Christie his biggest margins in the 2009 election.

Not all Republicans and Independents have joined the right wing of the Republican Party in denouncing infrastructure investments. Independent New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and retiring California Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger have joined Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Ed Rendell in putting together Build America’s Future, a non-partisan organization to advocate increased spending by both government and public-private partnerships to modernize the nation’s infrastructure. Like Obama, they note that America’s road and bridges are crumbling, and that China, other East Asian nations and Europe are speeding past the United States in building high-speed bullet trains.

Rendell said putting billions of dollars into transportation infrastructure “is the single-best job creation we can do for this country. It puts people back to work.”

But although Christie has given LaHood until this Friday to come up with what he deems an acceptable plan for the tunnel, it sounds as if he has yet to change his mind. Christie was quoted by the Star-Ledger on Monday saying he was comfortable walking away from the project unless the federal government finds another source of money to cover cost overruns. "I don’t want to hear about the jobs it will create. If I don’t have the money for the payroll," it will not create the jobs, Christie said. "This is not a difficult decision for me."

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