It’s been more than six years since Gov. Chris Christie made the controversial decision to halt work on a major trans-Hudson rail-tunnel project that would have doubled capacity into Manhattan for New Jersey Transit commuters. At the time, he cited concerns about possible cost overruns.
But with Christie now in his final year in office, and still struggling to restore a reputation damaged by the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal and his controversial endorsement of President Donald Trump last year, the decision to cancel the tunnel project back in 2010 appears to be coming back to haunt the Republican governor.
Christie has drawn heavy fire from commuters on social media in recent weeks as a rash of train delays and derailments has brought new attention to the region’s failing, century-old mass-transit infrastructure. Yesterday the governor was also the target of a group of protesters who crashed a news conference that he attended at Newark Penn Station with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and other elected officials.
The event was organized by Booker to apply pressure on the federal government to live up to its promise to share the cost of replacing existing rail tunnels and other infrastructure owned by Amtrak and used by NJ Transit that are now more than 100 years old. It came just weeks after an initial budget blueprint released by Trump recommended pulling funding for a key grant program; the program was to help fund a new, multibillion dollar tunnel-replacement project and other infrastructure repairs that the administration of former President Barack Obama had previously signed off on.
Christie back in the crosshairs
But yesterday’s news conference also ended up putting Christie back in the crosshairs, with all of the questions from reporters who gathered at the train station directed at the governor. For example, Christie recently told The New York Times that he still speaks regularly with Trump despite getting passed over last year as his vice-presidential running mate, and he was pressed yesterday to explain why his regular access to Trump isn’t enough to ensure the new infrastructure work, with a price tag of at least $20 billion, is a top federal priority.
“The president is well aware of my point of view on this project and I absolutely will continue to speak my mind on this, both publicly and privately,” Christie said moments before Booker ended the news conference.
A groundbreaking for the $8.7 billion tunnel project — known as Access to the Region’s Core — was held in June 2009, when Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine was gearing up to run for re-election, with Christie as his GOP challenger. The project had enjoyed bipartisan support through the planning stages, and was in line to receive $3 billion in funding from the Port Authority and another $2.25 billion from the state and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. The federal government was also on board to provide an additional $3 billion for the tunnel work, which was scheduled to be completed in 2018.
But after beating Corzine in November 2009, Christie about a year later decided to halt construction that had already started and cancel the project. He said concerns that the project was likely to run billions of dollars over budget justified the decision because it threatened to put further pressure on the state’s finances, which were already in ruins thanks to the Great Recession. Christie also took issue with the project’s design, which called for NJ Transit trains going into Manhattan to arrive not at Penn Station, as they currently do, but at a new terminal less than half a mile away, near Herald Square. (Conditions at Penn Station, which is owned by the federal government, have been blamed for causing two derailments in recent weeks.)
Christie ignored the pleas of federal officials and the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg who expected to design a better deal for New Jersey, saying the time for negotiations had passed.
Lautenberg: ‘…one of the biggest public policy blunders’
At the time it was made, Christie’s controversial decision served to burnish his standing nationally among conservative GOP leaders. It also allowed the governor to use much of the funding that had been set aside for the tunnel to prop up the state Transportation Trust Fund, holding off an unpopular gas-tax increase until after he ran for re-election in 2013.
Lautenberg, the longtime Democratic senator and transportation advocate, predicted that Christie’s decision would eventually be seen as “one of the biggest public policy blunders in New Jersey history.” And a report released several years later by the nonpartisan U.S. General Accounting Office called into question Christie’s concerns about significant cost overruns, indicating his own administration insisted as late as August 2010 that the project would cost no more $10 billion.
During the news conference yesterday, Christie joined Booker and other officials, including Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, in calling for Trump’s secretary of transportation Elaine Chao to visit the region to see for herself why the infrastructure here still needs to be replaced. In addition to replacing the wonky rail tunnels which were damaged by floodwaters during 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, the Gateway project also calls for the replacement of the Portal Bridge, a century-old river-crossing near Secaucus Junction that serves as a chokepoint for trains heading in and out of Manhattan.
“She needs to see the project that we all agreed upon during the Obama administration, which is a significant improvement over the projects that have been proposed in the past,” Christie said.
Booker offered the same invitation to Chao at the start of the news conference, saying the recent incidents, including a 30-minute train delay that occurred just yesterday morning at Penn Station, demonstrated the situation had become a “crisis.”
One sign read ‘hypocrite’
“We’re teetering every single day on the brink of truly a traffic Armageddon,” Booker said.
But as the politicians spoke, protesters organized by the New Jersey Working Families Alliance stood behind them, holding up signs that directly targeted Christie. One sign read “hypocrite” in all capital letters, and another referenced the bridge-lane closure scandal known as Bridgegate while labeling Christie as the state’s worst transportation “disaster.”
Once reporters started asking questions, Booker urged them to focus not on any of the prior decisions, but those that need to be made going forward to ensure that the ongoing commuting problems are addressed.
“That’s history, and I hate that I have to revisit that all the time,” Booker said about Christie’s decision to kill the ARC tunnel. He also credited Christie for working with him in recent years as a finance plan for Gateway came together with cooperation from the region’s U.S. senators, as well as Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“I don’t want to keep revisiting history,” Booker told the reporters. “I want to talk about where we are right now.”
Booker, Christie have history of working together
Booker, a Democrat, has a history of working with Christie that goes back to the governor’s first months in office in 2010. Booker, then serving as Newark’s mayor, was one of the earliest supporters of Christie’s push to establish a new cap on local property tax hikes.
Booker also appeared with Christie at an event in Newark in 2013, just as the governor was seeking re-election and Booker was running to fill the Senate vacancy that was created by Lautenberg’s death earlier that year. Though they formally endorsed each other’s opponents, Booker joked during the event that he wanted to show Christie some “guv love” due to their longstanding ability to work together.
But yesterday, the protesters who crashed Booker’s news conference didn’t share his goodwill toward the governor, or the view that the past is the past when it comes to Christie’s decisions on infrastructure.
Analilia Mejia, director of NJ Working Families Alliance, took issue with Christie now positioning himself as a champion of the New Jersey commuter after canceling the ARC project and leaving NJ Transit underfunded for years, resulting in two fare hikes during his tenure.
“We think that this is more hypocrisy,” Mejia said after the news conference ended. “He has been at the helm of a bleeding of resources.”