NJ Gov Cancels Mass Transit Project. Is America Going Off the Rails?

  • Published on October 9th, 2010

Two days ago, New Jersey’s Republican Governor, Chris Christie, cancelled the largest mass transit project in the US – a tunnel under the Hudson River into Manhattan that would double the region’s commuter rail capacity.

He said there wasn’t enough money – despite billions of dollars in Federal aid that were already committed.

Quite aside from the 6,000 jobs that will be lost if the project is cancelled, and the tens of thousands of commuters who won’t take jobs they won’t be able to travel to, this is a larger symptom of a much, much bigger problem. For the past 10 years, certain ideological groups seem perfectly happy to spend a trillion dollars on wars, but balk at spending anything on infrastructure here at home.

Bob Herbert puts it this way in the New York Times, in a column titled “Policy at its Worst”:

We can go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and threaten to blow Iran off the face of the planet…. We are the mightiest nation mankind has ever seen.

But we can’t seem to build a railroad tunnel to carry commuters between New Jersey and New York.

The United States is not just losing its capacity to do great things. It’s losing its soul. It’s speeding down an increasingly rubble-strewn path to a region where being second rate is good enough.

…This is a railroad tunnel we’re talking about. We’re not trying to go to the Moon. This is not the Manhattan Project. It’s a railroad tunnel that’s needed to take people back and forth to work and to ease the pressure on the existing tunnel, a wilting two-track facility that’s about 100 years old. What is the matter with us?

Christie says New Jersey can’t afford it, but that really doesn’t make any sense.

  • The project has been in the planning phase for 20 years, to upgrade the single century-old tunnel between New York and New Jersey that is near capacity.
  • New Jersey’s economy depends on workers commuting into Manhattan. They have to get there somehow, and right now all corridors are congested.
  • Billions of Federal transportation dollars are already committed – dollars which won’t go to New Jersey if the tunnel is stopped.
  • Half a billion has already been spent, and ground was broken a year ago.
  • The project could be paid for with a modest gasoline tax increase – NJ’s gas tax is currently one of the lowest in the nation. But any tax increase is anathema to Republicans.

Instead, Chris Christie has committed his people to more traffic congestion, more pollution, and fewer jobs.

Even conservative blogger Megan McArdle gets it:

Whatever you think of rail projects elsewhere, they work in the Northeast.  In the case of the New York tri-state area, that’s too mild; the fact is, the city could’t work without rail.  There’s simply no way to cram more people onto the island of Manhattan without mass transit.  Not only are the three major entry points from New Jersey thoroughly bottlenecked, but also, the streets are so congested that bringing more cars in would be disastrous.  And since Manhattan already has roads about everywhere you can put one, the only answer is rail.

To the extent that New Jersey benefits from salaries earned on Wall Street, and other high-paying New York industries–and it does benefit, quite a lot–the rail tunnel will benefit the state by allowing it to get more workers into and out of the city every day.  Unfortunately, improvements to roads and bridges are visible, while rail tunnels are out of sight.  The benefits from road repairs–smoother roads–are direct and obvious; the benefits from another rail tunnel–more frequent trains–are less noticeable, and less likely to be attributed to the project that made them possible.

Here’s Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman:

…And 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.

But American politics these days is anything but rational. Republicans bitterly opposed even the modest infrastructure spending contained in the Obama stimulus plan…

It was a destructive and incredibly foolish decision on multiple levels. But it shouldn’t have been all that surprising. We are no longer the nation that used to amaze the world with its visionary projects. We have become, instead, a nation whose politicians seem to compete over who can show the least vision, the least concern about the future and the greatest willingness to pander to short-term, narrow-minded selfishness.

…So this was a terrible, shortsighted move from New Jersey’s point of view. But that’s not the whole cost. Canceling the tunnel was also a blow to national hopes of recovery, part of a pattern of penny-pinching that has played a large role in our continuing economic stagnation.

There seems to be a propensity in certain ideological quarters: that it’s perfectly fine to spend billions of dollars – but only if it’s dedicated to blowing something up. Actually building something useful… not so much.

Krugman again:

So here’s how you should think about the decision to kill the tunnel: It’s a terrible thing in itself, but, beyond that, it’s a perfect symbol of how America has lost its way. By refusing to pay for essential investment, politicians are both perpetuating unemployment and sacrificing long-run growth. And why not? After all, this seems to be a winning electoral strategy. All vision of a better future seems to have been lost, replaced with a refusal to look beyond the narrowest, most shortsighted notion of self-interest.

I wish I could say something optimistic at this point. But at least for now, I don’t see any light at the end of this tunnel.

About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.
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  • We’ll still need to do something about trans-Hudson railroad access, though. The two mainline tunnels were built more than 100 years ago and restrict train traffic to two tracks. An outright cancellation of the new tunnels would be a mistake, even with the cost overruns, because of capacity issues. What is needed is a better tunnel alignment and better connections between railroads so that Manhattan service can be improved. We also need more rail capacity going into Manhattan, but we need better connections than the currently proposed ARC project.

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  • Ben

    Is the writer of this column an objective, professional?

    • Jeremy Bloom

      I’ve been a professional writer for more than 30 years.

      As for objective, a) this is a website that tries (at least) to present views on the environment from across the political spectrum. In this column alone I have presented comments from liberal Paul Krugman and conservative Megan McArdle.

      If you want more objectivity than that, I suggest you write constructive criticisms, as several other readers have done, and then we can dialog.

  • The objection of “certain ideological groups [to] spending anything on infrastructure here at home” extends back more than just ten years. Ronald Reagan’s presidency, which began in 1981, and his previous terms as governor of California, showed the same outlook. The extreme partizenship and unwillingness to compromize that characterize much of today’s politics make progress in any realm nearly impossible, it seems.

    Yes, there are the issues of cost, consumption of fuel, new technology and so on to be addressed. But the discussion would be more likely to be successful with a reappearance of civility and tolerance of others’ views.

  • Ann

    Now here’s an idea: Why don’t we bring over some of those financial industries to NJ. That way, the New Jerseyans don’t have to be taxed so that people can commute to New York, and thereby benefitting New York state and New York businesses. It’d be an incredible energy saver, and New Jersey does have the space. Yes, we have put people on the moon, and have longstanding military involvement, but guess what we also have telecommuting, FedEx, internet, and more. Why do we need to spend money to work to get money to pay to build a rail so we can go to NY to work to get money to pay to build a rail so we can go to ……Yes the infrastructure may be over a 100 years old, but what once worked for those times does not any longer. Immigration was different then, per capita, extended family living situations. How many people had cars then? TV and the plane weren’t even invented. Let’s progress, rather than trying to make this work for those that DON’T WANT to change, and those THAT IT BENEFITS.

    • Jeremy Bloom

      This is an interesting take that I (obviously) didn’t get into in the article…

      But there is an open question as to whether it makes sense to move forward with projects like these, or whether it would be better to encourage people to work locally, or telecommute. That would certainly be a more sustainable model.

      Throw a few billion dollars at the problem from that angle and it might even work out better…

  • The way the previous Governor(Corzine)signed on to this protect the State of NJ is responsible for any cost overruns. Those overruns are now projected to run as high as $7 billion additional dollars. In fact, without a shovel even touching the ground the project is already over budget. Only an idiot would right a blank check like that. Until Mayor Bloomberg or the Federal Government is willing to write the check for any run over costs the project should be squashed. NJ citizens can’t afford any of the additional costs.

    • Jeremy Bloom

      Thanks for posting this…

      While I agree that NJ can’t afford to be left holding the bag for cost overruns, I still disagree with Christie’s negotiating tactic. It’s traditional to THREATEN the hostages, not kill them outright. 🙂

      It does appear as if he intends to continue negotiations, though, so I guess this corpse isn’t completely dead yet…