Saturday, October 09, 2010

A Tunnel To Somewhere

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has decided to kill the Access to the Region's Core (ARC) project which, the Associated Press reports

had been in the works for about 20 years. Currently, NJ Transit and Amtrak share a century-old two-track tunnel beneath the Hudson River. The new tunnel would add two more tracks, more than doubling the number of NJ Transit trains that could pass under the river.

New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat, had helped secure $3 billion for the project, which would be run by New Jersey Transit, and called cancellation "one of the biggest policy blunders in New Jersey history." The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had pledged $3 billion, leaving cash-strapped New Jersey itself with $3 billion to contribute.

New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation, as reflected in the roadways and tunnel clogged by commuters traveling daily to New York City. Extraordinary economist and New York Times' columnist Paul Krugman noted

right now, by any rational calculation, would be an especially good time to improve the nation’s infrastructure. We have the need: our roads, our rail lines, our water and sewer systems are antiquated and increasingly inadequate. We have the resources: a million-and-a-half construction workers are sitting idle, and putting them to work would help the economy as a whole recover from its slump. And the price is right: with interest rates on federal debt at near-record lows, there has never been a better time to borrow for long-term investment.

Another of The Times' columnists, Bob Herbert, added

The railroad tunnel was the kind of infrastructure project that used to get done in the United States almost as a matter of routine. It was a big and expensive project, but the payoff would have been huge. It would have reduced congestion and pollution in the New York-New Jersey corridor. It would have generated economic activity and put thousands of people to work. It would have enabled twice as many passengers to ride the trains on that heavily traveled route between the two states.

The Republican governor's decision, destructive to both the environment and the state's economy, is, at first glance, thoroughly regrettable. And at second glance. Ideally

the project would have created 6,000 construction-related jobs annually and close to 45,000 permanent jobs once completed. It would have provided one-seat rides to Manhattan, gotten 22,000 cars off the roads every day and eliminated nearly 70,000 tons of greenhouse gasses gases every year.

However, New Jersey's transportation trust fund is nearly depleted and the governor appears determined not to raise gas taxes in order to pay for a project which (even at current projections) would not be completed before he leaves office, whether after one or two terms. (A governor in New Jersey is limited to two terms.) There is speculation, additionally, that Christie, who has become a hero to Republicans enamored of his attacks on public education, teachers, the New Jersey Education Association, and school children, is playing to a GOP base newly aghast at any spending, other than for the Pentagon.

But there is an alternative explanation. Recently, due to ineptitude on the part of the Christie administration, New Jersey lost out on $400 million of Race to the Top funds available from the federal government. Governor Christie's very Education Commissioner, Bret Schundler, who supported Christie in his primary run and was known statewide as an enthusiastic conservative, had negotiated with the state's teachers union and gotten it to buy into major reforms. This infuriated Christie, who found it insufficient, rejected the plan, and ordered a new one drawn up instantly. New Jersey fell three points shy of the needed 500 to receive federal funds and after a disagreement, fired Schundler. We pick up the story from the major newspaper (in which it had been shoved out of the front section) in southern New Jersey:

Schundler -- subpoenaed to testify before the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee -- said the proposal he'd gotten the New Jersey Education Association to endorse would have enacted 90 percent of Christie's education reform agenda and didn't block the governor from pursuing the rest in the Legislature. But Christie, battered on talk radio for compromising with the NJEA, abandoned the plan.
"The union gave us almost everything we wanted, and I was convinced their support gave us a winning application," Schundler said.

"My view is that the compromises I made to secure the NJEA's support were inconsequential and that the governor made a bad decision when he vetoed our agreement," Schundler said. "That decision probably cost New Jersey a minimum of 14 points in the grant competition, and the governor made it knowing that every point would count."

New Jersey's bid for federal Race to the Top funds missed winning $400 million by three points, of a potential 500. Had Schundler not deleted required budget information from the bid, it would have had five points more -- enough to win. He was fired by Christie -- not for the mistake, but for having apparently misled the governor about efforts to correct the application, a charge Schundler denies.

Whether Bret Schundler has been lying or telling the truth- and the preponderance of evidence indicates the latter- he was testifying before a state legislative committee and bringing very, very bad publicity to the governor. Except that there really wasn't much publicity. Blue Jersey suggests

What I want to focus on is the very suspicious timing of this announcement by Christie; a man known for the flair for political theater.

With former Education Commissioner Bret Schundler testifying before the State Senate about Christie's laser focus on playing politics with the NJEA at the expense of $400 million in education funding that his hijacking and errors caused, this would otherwise have continued to be a black eye for Christie.

But as noted last month, Christie was already deciding back in March whether to use another of his "budget gimmicks" that he decried during his campaign, and shift $2 billion from this project to the Transportation Trust Fund. Of course, this came mere days after Christie flat out denied there was any decision made or any connection between the 2.

So it certainly seems that Christie had made up his mind on this a while back - as Christie has a history of making snap decisions without much deliberation. And the timing of this to coincide with Schundler's damning testimony - and before the 30 day moratorium Christie declared on additional construction was up - reeks of political opportunism.

There is good news in this theory. It suggests that New Jersey's Republican governor is not hostile to construction jobs, economic progress (consider values of property close to the tunnel), or efforts to staunch proliferation of greenhouse gases. He may be, simply, someone who holds the interests of his state secondary to those of his political viability, an attractive commodity in today's GOP.

1 comment:

Dan said...

I'm wondering if this was a bargaining tactic to get more money from the Feds and the Port Authority. After he canned it, the Labor Dept. did come to him. The pressure to build is high, and the federal government is better suited to pay for cost overruns than is the state.

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