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Tunnel Politics Take Two: Feds Look to Cave to Christie

Last October, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was roasted by the deep thinkers at the New York Times for having the chutzpah to refuse to sink his state deeper in debt to build a new train tunnel under the Hudson River. Acting on the principle that it would be madness to spend billions that his state doesn’t have, Christie pulled the plug on a project that was beset with astronomical cost overruns even though he acknowledged that commuters would ultimately benefit from having another tunnel for New Jersey Transit and Amtrak to use to cross into New York City.

At the time, Christie was derided for his “lack of vision,” but yesterday it appears as if his political opponents got the message. At a press conference in Newark, Democratic Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez announced, along with the head of Amtrak, that the federal government would try a different approach to building the tunnel. While the new version of the tunnel will probably wind up costing even more than the one Christie deep-sixed, this time New Jersey won’t be stuck paying for the inevitable cost overruns that even the governor’s conservative estimates pegged at over $8 billion. Instead, it will be a federal project to which the states of New Jersey and New York may eventually contribute. And, despite the horror expressed by such advocates of fiscal responsibility as Paul Krugman, the new tunnel project will actually make a lot more sense, since it will connect to New York’s Penn Station transportation hub rather than concluding in a dead end beneath Macy’s department store, as in the original plans.

The new tunnel is, however, a long way off, with the projected completion date sometime in 2020. In fact, a federal engineering study about the feasibility of the plan is expected to take up to three years, but at least that will give the states some time to ponder how much they will be able to kick in to help get it built. Christie was right that this was always more a federal responsibility, but despite all the happy talk coming from Lautenberg and Hernandez, the financial details are still fuzzy. President Obama waxed lyrical about high-speed trains (which the new tunnel will facilitate) in his State of the Union speech, but while such trains make more sense in the Northeast Corridor than anywhere else, it is still far from clear whether they will ever come close to being economically viable.

Not surprisingly, Christie was elated by the new plan, saying that he was “thrilled” that his concerns about the old project had been addressed. While no one in New Jersey is happy about the dismal service offered by New Jersey Transit or the fact that it will be many years before things get better, those who predicted that his tunnel decision would sink Christie were dead wrong. Voters wanted a governor would treat the state treasury as something other than a bottomless piggy bank for boondoggles like the tunnel (whose bloated costs were unhappily reminiscent of plot lines in The Sopranos) when they elected Christie. He stuck to his principles and then forced the rest of the political establishment to follow his lead. So chalk this up as another victory for Christie.



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