Christie's gamble

29 October 2015

Protecting his state from potential cost overruns, newly-elected New Jersey governor Chris Christie proudly brought the Access to the Region's Core (ARC) tunnel project to a halt in 2010. The USD 8.7bn rail project under the Hudson River would have connected New Jersey to New York through two, single-track 2.26km-long tunnels.

At a press conference Christie said the state couldn't risk the project costing more than had been originally planned because the budget could increase to USD 11bn, or even USD 14bn. At the time the contracts had not yet been awarded, though five contractors had been pre-qualified to proceed to Phase II for the final design and construction.

New Jersey commuters weren't completely left stranded (yet). There is an existing tunnel crossing below the Hudson to New York. Though of course, Christie couldn't have known that Superstorm Sandy, specifically, would flood the only existing tunnel--one nearing the end of its useful life-- with brackish saltwater in autumn 2012, which is reportedly accelerating the tunnel's demise. Last year Amtrak, which owns the tunnel, has said one or both of the tubes will need to be taken offline for major repairs in fewer than 20 years.

In the absense of ARC, Amtrak has proposed the Gateway Tunnel. It's not an identical project but would add a new crossing. The unfunded line has a current price tag of USD 14bn. The potential opening date is easily more than 10 years away, even if the funding were secured today.

New York's governor Andrew Cuomo is not interested in paying for the project, and actually said to reporters this summer, "it's not my tunnel....It is an Amtrak tunnel that is used by Amtrak and by New Jersey Transit."

In 2010, approximately USD 3bn had been set aside for funding from each the federal government and the Port Authority for the ARC project. This summer, the federal government offered a loan to the two states to help cover the Gateway project's USD 14bn price tag. The New York and New Jersey governors finally had something to agree upon; they'd prefer cash.

At this point it's hard to imagine a way Christie could spin the ARC cancellation to his benefit. Taking the federal government to task over its loan offer isn't going to offset the numbers.

Whether the politics of axing ARC pays off for Christie and his presidential aspirations is yet to be seen. Fortunately for him, it's distracting his critics from bringing up the 2013 "Bridgegate" scandal.

Christie has not been directly implicated in the week-long, unnecessary lane closures on the George Washington Bridge to intentionally create traffic jams in Fort Lee, New Jersey. However, the lane closure fiasco happened at the hands of his staff and appointees, who to an extent, speak to the character of the politician who placed them in charge.

The ARC cancellation may somehow be a silver lining for Christie, but it's definitely a cautionary tale for other politicians.