The Agenda

Guest Post: Stephen Smith on How Gov. Chris Christie Went Off the Rails

Editor’s note: Recently, I’ve noticed that Stephen Smith, one of the smartest guys I know on cities and transit, has been expressing a great deal of frustration with Chris Christie, the popular Republican governor of New Jersey, on Twitter, where he goes by @MarketUrbanism. While many conservatives have given Christie a hard time for his apparent eagerness to bash congressional Republicans for failing to pass a Sandy relief bill, a move some have seen as opportunistic grandstanding, Smith has a much deeper, more substantive critique of Christie that was sparked by the governor’s praise for NJ Transit’s leadership despite its meager preparations for Sandy, preparations which were by any standard so inadequate as to constitute a firing offense. Christie has gained a reputation as a hard-charging chief executive willing to tell it like it is, yet in this instance, he made excuses for an egregious case of public sector mismanagement. As an admirer of Gov. Christie – indeed, as someone who just published a short column suggesting that he might be the best placed Republican presidential candidate in 2016 – I was very curious as to what Smith, a libertarian-leaning policy analyst and reporter who is not a partisan Republican, would have to say. My conclusion is that the governor has squandered an opportunity to be a thought leader on rebuilding America’s infrastructure in a cost-effective, taxpayer-friendly manner. But more than Smith, perhaps, I think that there is still time for Christie to change course, particularly if he follows the lead taken by sharp thinkers on transit in his legislature like State Sen. Mike Doherty 

New Jersey is unique among states in that the cores of its two largest metropolitan areas – Philadelphia and New York City – lie outside the state’s borders. As such, one of Governor Chris Christie’s most important jobs is making sure that New Jersey residents can reach job centers just outside of state lines. Unfortunately, his performance has been less than stellar.

New Jersey hasn’t seen a new rail connection to its most important job center, Manhattan, since the private Pennsylvania Railroad crossed the Hudson River over a century ago. These two tracks, which carry all of New Jersey Transit’s rail traffic into and out of Manhattan plus Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor trains, are nearly maxed out.

New Jersey and New York had been planning for years to build a new set of tracks beneath the Hudson, in a project called Access to the Region’s Core, or ARC. But in 2010, Chris Christie cancelled it. In spite of howls of protest from Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who seems to care more about winning money for transit than effectiveness, Christie did the right thing for commuters when he killed the project.

While extra rail capacity across the Hudson is sorely needed, the design chosen under Gov. John Corzine was riddled with flaws. The tunnels were a good idea, but the station as planned would have disgorged riders into an enormous (and enormously expensive) cavern deep below Macy’s on 34th Street, with all the attendant hassles and security risks of having to ascend fifteen stories to reach the street.

Furthermore, the “tunnel to Macy’s basement,” as the Sierra Club famously called the project, would have precluded what the region really needs: a tunnel from Penn Station to Grand Central, a plan known internally as “Alt G.” Alt G would have linked NJ Transit and the MTA’s two railroads and given riders of all three services access to both sides of midtown.

A tunnel between the two Manhattan hubs would have rendered the Macy’s cavern unnecessary, since track capacity is effectively doubled by trains not having to turn around in Penn Station. In fact, tunneling between the two stations may have been cheaper than digging below Penn.

Choosing Alt G would have meant cracking heads together at the MTA and NJ Transit, and forcing the agencies to stop fighting turf wars against and start working together to provide better service for the money they’re given – sums which are on par with European cities, despite popular impressions.

But Chris Christie didn’t even try. Instead, he used the state’s contribution to plug a gap in the state’s transportation trust fund, and send the federal money back to Washington. Republican State Sens. Joe Pennacchio and Michael Doherty, did try, however. They co-sponsored legislation to create a commission to work towards regional rail integration in light of the failed ARC plan, but it died in the General Assembly. Chris Christie never spoke on the issue.

It’s hard to say why exactly Christie killed the project without proposing any alternatives, but we can make some guesses. One theory suggests that he wanted to plug the state’s highway budget without raising the state’s gas tax. This is not exactly a fiscally conservative position, since the gas tax is actually a user fee. Plugging the trust fund hole with general revenues – and no wonder there’s a hole, since New Jersey has the third-lowest gas tax in the country – amounts to increasing the subsidy to motorists at the expense of all taxpayers.

Another theory posits that Christie wanted to prove his conservative bonafides at a time when Mitt Romney was searching for a running mate, and when Republican governors in Florida and Wisconsin were sending high-speed rail money back to Washington. No matter the reason, Christie’s decision seems short-sighted. Despite its suburban image, New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the union, and much of its wealth rides the train home on the train from Manhattan five days a week.

Of Manhattan’s Hudson River crossings, all three rail connections were built by private enterprise, while the three automobile tunnels and bridges were built by government. Now that the railroads have been nationalized, the solution will be a “big government” one regardless of whether it’s new tracks or new roads, so it’s odd that funding highways over rail has been embraced as the “conservative” course.

And the ARC tunnel isn’t the only transit issue that Christie has dropped the ball on. NJ Transit parked a third of its train fleet in a railyard that flooded during Sandy, despite a report warning that it was prone to flooding. But Christie had no problem defending NJ Transit for the $100 million mistake.

The PATH subway between North Jersey and Manhattan also struggled to recover after the hurricane, especially compared to New York’s Subway, with commuters affected for months. But Christie didn’t even so much as designate a bus lane to ease the plight of the displaced rail commuters.

Chris Christie has been a successful Republican governor in a liberal state, and has had no trouble striking a more liberal pose when he wants to. It’s a shame he hasn’t tried to do so on rail policy, where there’s a conservative case for bucking conservative conventional wisdom.


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