Rarely in politics do you enter a fight where you can’t lose, but that’s exactly what Gov. Chris Christie did with the aborted ARC tunnel.
Three weeks ago, the governor put down the shovel and put the tunnel on hold, saying he would defer his final decision for two weeks. During that time the Obama administration, Democratic supporters among New Jersey’s congressional delegation and others were given the opportunity to find someone besides New Jersey taxpayers to be on the hook for cost overruns on the project.
Talk about win-win. If tunnel supporters found another entity to cover the inevitable cost overruns, Christie would look like a master bargainer. If they couldn’t come up with the money, Christie would look like a man of his word -- and of the people -- someone unwilling to pursue a project the state couldn't afford, one that would add billions to the burgeoning debt the state has saddled future generations with.
As the time for the decision approached, the tunnel looked more and more like a boondoggle.
The first absurdity was that the tunnel wouldn’t go to Penn Station. Instead, it would go to a location some 150 feet below Macy’s basement. Alaska had a notorious “bridge to nowhere”; New Jersey was looking at a “tunnel to Macy’s.”
The tunnel’s financing originally looked like a great plan. New Jersey would contribute $2.7 billion, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey would pony up another $3 billion and the feds would throw in $3 billion. The flaw in the plan: New Jersey would be on the hook for any and all cost overruns.
Though the original project was expected to cost about $9 billion, potential cost overruns were estimated by some to push the price as high as $14 billion. That’s today’s estimate. Cautious taxpayers are right to figure that even $14 billion is a lowball estimate.
Looking closely at the mega-project's financials also made Garden State residents wonder, “Why doesn’t New York City have to contribute?
Good question. The tunnel would bring shoppers, tourists and workers to New York. They’d spend big bucks. City tax revenues would increase, yet the Big Apple didn't have to contribute a penny.
Tunnel supporters accused the governor of wanting to use the tunnel money to replenish the state’s depleted Transportation Trust Fund. Some of these supporters were the same people who rejected the 1998 plan to increase the gas tax to pay for the TTF.
Opponents of the tunnel, and most taxpayers, would easily choose refunding the TTF without a gas tax. Score another one for the governor.
Midway in the battle to save the tunnel, supporters of the program rolled out a report by the Regional Plan Association that found that the $9 billion to $14 billion tunnel would shave 16 to 30 minutes off the commute to New York. That's if they lived at the end of most rail lines and were willing to wait a decade or so.
Senator Lautenberg went to Newark Penn Station and said that the time shaved off daily commutes would provide, “precious minutes to spend with our families and loved ones.”
Lautenberg is right about the frustration of having “precious” minutes stolen from our private lives by long daily commutes. But most New Jerseyans don’t take the train; they commute by car. They’re stuck in traffic, driving over potholes and traversing rickety bridges because the TTF is broke and our capital program is stagnant.
New Jersey taxpayers, and drivers, would rather have a transportation improvement program that fixes roads today, not one that reduces commuting time from Bay Head to New York by 30 minutes in 2020.
The final arrow in the quiver of the tunnelistas was the labor unions. They joined with Senator Lautenberg, Congressman Pallone and others publicly urging the governor to keep on digging.
But union support was perfunctory. Privately, New Jersey’s statewide heavy construction unions are saying that they’d rather have a functioning Transportation Trust Fund financing construction throughout the state today, than a tunnel project that would provide jobs only to local unions in the Hudson-Bergen area a decade from now.
Part of winning in politics is knowing which fights to pick. With the ARC tunnel, Chris Christie picked a winner.