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Some Sketchy Good News Has to Suffice at NJ Transportation Conference

Christie lashes out at Democratic lawmakers, overshadows transit issues.

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Governor Chris Christie speaks at the New Jersey Alliance Annual Transportation Conference in Trenton.

Their train never left the station, but members of the New Jersey Alliance for Action remained optimistic that they might ultimately connect with other transportation links across the state.

Gov. Chris Christie's attack on Democratic legislators overshadowed transit issues at the alliance's annual transportation conference at the Trenton Marriott. An audience of contractors, engineers, consultants, and bureaucrats gobbled up the Governor's partisan red meat, giving him standing ovations on arrival and departure.

Before he arrived, though, a parade of speakers from the administration and transportation providers talked bullishly about a number of transportation projects, such as raising the Bayonne Bridge over the Kill Van Kull to allow larger vessels to use the Port of New York and New Jersey.

Immediately preceding the governor, Amtrak board member Anthony Coscia, former chairman of the Port Authority, gave a spirited pitch to build more rail tunnels between New Jersey and New York City. Amtrak unveiled the "Gateway Project" just days after Christie formally killed long-planned tunnel construction called Access to the Region’s Core, or ARC, spearheaded by NJ Transit, shortly after construction had started.

Coscia highlighted the importance of the Northeast Corridor to the nation's economy, and the significance Amtrak's line through the region plays for its own passengers as well as those on trains from NJ Transit and other commuter rail lines. While efforts are underway to improve equipment and service, they still face "the major bottleneck, which is to bring trains on trans-Hudson crossings," he said.

Besides reaching capacity for NJ Transit trains into the city, the inadequate number of tunnels prevents the adoption of advanced technology, such as trains that could slash travel times, Coscia said.

"Imagine taking 90 to 95 minutes to go from New York to Washington, or from New York to Boston," Coscia said, adding better train service would provide an economic boom for the entire region and cities along the route, such as Newark and Trenton.

Plans already are under way for some small segments of the estimated $15 billion Gateway Project, such as replacing the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River and developing the new Moynihan Station in New York. But best-case scenarios put overall completion at about 2025.

"There are plenty of good ideas. Our biggest problem has been execution," Coscia said, adding, "what we need is to get the job done."

Breezing in on that air of expectation, Christie mentioned a few projects like the Skyway and the Whittpenn Bridge in Kearny. He urged the gathering to lobby legislators for his $1.6 billion transportation capital budget, which relies on a bond issue for funding.The word "Gateway" did not pass his lips.

He also left unmentioned a decision being discussed at a legislative budget hearing by state Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff. To help close a gap in the spending plan, the administration will divert $295 million in revenue from the Turnpike Authority to non-transportation uses. By borrowing the money, the Administration is delaying its promise to rely less on bonding for transportation needs.

The conference heard upbeat reports on some transportation issues. In particular, the $1 billion Bayonne Bridge work will enable the port to take advantage of the ongoing expansion of the Panama Canal, according to Beverly Fedorko of the New York Shipping Association.

Scheduled for completion in 2014, the work will double the capacity of that vital artery, spurring competition among East Coast ports for the expected increase in tonnage. The ability to accommodate larger cargo ships will be increasingly important, Fedorko said.

During three decades reporting in New Jersey, Joe Tyrrell has covered everything from Avon to Zarephath, with a particular emphasis on politics and government, the environment and agriculture. He founded the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, which unites civic groups, citizens and journalists to promote transparency and ethics.

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