by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
As he runs for president in 2016, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) is being dogged by a decision early in his gubernatorial term to cancel construction of a rail tunnel between his state and New York City.
Transportation advocates have said the tunnel, which would have carried Amtrak and New Jersey Transit commuter trains under the Hudson River, would have eased commutes between New Jersey and New York City.
Christie has said recently on the campaign trail that he would be willing to revisit the train capacity issue, but transportation advocates are accusing him of changing his tune now that he is trying to woo voters nationally.
“New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says as president he’d move aggressively on Amtrak’s long delayed Hudson River rail tunnel project — yes, the same tunnel project he killed as governor five years ago,” AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Ed Wytkind wrote in an op-ed in The Huffington Post on Wednesday.
“While cynics (note: I’m a cynic) question motives here and wonder just how much hypocrisy we’ll have to endure in this presidential election, I’ll take what I can get,” Wytkind continued.
Killing the rail tunnel, known as the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project, was one of Christie’s first high-profile decisions after he was elected in 2009 in a surprise win over then-New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat.
The project was originally projected to cost $8.7 billion, but it faced cost overruns. When Christie cancelled it, the price tag was up to $11 billion.
Christie cast the decision at the time as an example of the type of fiscal responsibility that he promised voters in the Garden State when they elected him governor.
“Considering the unprecedented fiscal and economic climate our state is facing, it is completely unthinkable to borrow more money and leave taxpayers responsible for billions in cost overruns,”he said in an October 2010 statement. “The ARC project costs far more than New Jersey taxpayers can afford and the only prudent move is to end this project.”
Amtrak officials have identified expanding train capacity between New Jersey and New York as one of the company’s most pressing needs.
“The century-old tunnels require constant attention and maintenance, but the volume of traffic is simply too high to permit maintenance and repair work during weekdays,” Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman wrote in a February letter to House Speaker John Boehner and Vice President Joe Biden detailing Amtrak’s 2016 budget requests, noting that the tunnels were first opened in 1910.
“Since 1999, Amtrak has kept the tunnels in serviceable condition only by shutting one of the Hudson or East River tubes on weekends for 55 hours to permit access for essential maintenance,” Boardman continued. “These weekend closures severely constrain service to the nation’s busiest rail station.”
Transportation department officials in the Obama administration have also sought to meet with Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) about the condition of the rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey.
“The condition of the trans-Hudson tunnels is a major threat to the region and to our nation’s transportation system,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote in a July 27 letter to Christie and Cuomo requesting a meeting this month.
“Our administration has long been committed to building a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River,” Foxx continued. “President Obama and former Secretary Ray LaHood pledged $3 billion to the ARC tunnel five years ago. The project was cancelled, the funds were directed elsewhere, and the prospect of a new tunnel has languished.
“It is increasingly clear that the problems of this crumbling asset will not go away, and we remain committed to advancing needed repairs and replacements,” he added.
Foxx said the Obama administration is now supporting a new proposal from Amtrak called the Gateway project to build two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River to double the train capacity between New Jersey and New York.
Christie’s gubernatorial office notes that the ARC and Gateway projects are different rail tunnel proposals. The 2016 hopeful’s aides have said the cancelled tunnel would not have been taken trains directly to Amtrak’s New York City station, even if had been approved.
Christie has blamed Amtrak recently for delays on New Jersey Transit this summer, as rail traffic between New York and New Jersey has backed up.
“NJ Transit commuters were victimized by nearly an entire week of extreme delays and cancellations for one reason only: Amtrak’s indifference to New Jersey commuters and its abject neglect of the infrastructure that New Jersey and our entire region relies upon,” he said in a July 24 statement, after being bombarded with complaints about train delays from commuters.
The AFL-CIO’s Wytkind argued in his Wednesday op-ed that it is Christie’s 2010 decision to cancel the Hudson River tunnel project that is exacerbating problems with the flow of trains now.
“The case for building this tunnel is a no-brainer today and was a no-brainer when it was first proposed,” Wytkind wrote.
“Studies going back more than 20 years tell us that time isn’t on our side as these tunnels deteriorate,” he continued. “The current tunnels under the Hudson going into New York City are over 100 years old and in sad shape: capacity is near 100 percent, delays are on the rise and ridership projections for Amtrak and NJ Transit are on a steady upward trajectory.”