Now that Governor Christie has officially killed the ARC tunnel project, the political posturing and gamesmanship that has been building ever since he ordered a review of the project is in full gear.
The Governor said, in the current economic climate, the proposed new train tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan simply is too expensive. “The ARC project costs far more than New Jersey taxpayers can afford and the only prudent move is to end this project,” he explained.
Given that the cost was estimated at $5 billion in 2005, that it grew to $8.7 billion by 2008, and that current projections range as high as $14 billion, Christie certainly has a point.
On the other hand, supporters of the project contend that, despite the current fiscal crunch, the new tunnel is a much-needed mass transit project that will address the region’s long-term needs. They argue that the decision may jeopardize future federal funding since the federal government already had committed $3 billion for the tunnel, and that using money New Jersey had earmarked for the tunnel to replenish the state’s Transportation Trust Fund (as Christie is expected to do) also is short-sighted because it fails to provide for a stable source of funding for the TTF, which finances road improvements and other transportation work. Critics of the decision to pull the plug also contend that ending the project will result in the loss of some 6,000 jobs.
Each of these points also has validity, which is why we are likely to continue to hear some spirited exchanges between the Governor and his critics. But their time and energy would be better directed if it were focused on what can realistically be done to improve rail transportation between New Jersey and Manhattan. The status quo is unacceptable, and given population projections, the situation is only going to get worse.
Unfortunately, history shows that warnings about the dangers of failing to address long-term mass transit needs have not always been heeded.
A few years ago, I conducted a study of the impact of New Jersey newspapers on the development of the state’s transportation infrastructure. I learned that, in the 1950s, while New Jersey was growing at an astronomical rate and enjoying post-war prosperity, The Newark Evening News was sounding a warning call that severe congestion problems would ensue if the state did not place a greater emphasis on mass transit. “Failure by the people’s representatives and the transportation interests to capitalize on this opportunity toward solving a problem so vital to the whole area would be deplorable,” the newspaper wrote in a 1954 editorial.
Five years passed without a significant investment in mass transit, so The News issued another editorial warning: “In Los Angeles, we see what could happen to our own New York-New Jersey metropolitan area if we fail to heed the experts and work out a balanced transportation system that would assign the long haul to rails and the short haul to rubber.”
In addition to regular editorials, The News published daily stories on the status of a federal mass transit proposal (which was sponsored by the state’s two U.S. Senators), as well as a special series -- on increases in highway traffic fatalities -- that underscored the need for greater investment in mass transit. Reporters covered transportation conferences all over the country to report on what experts were saying, and there were several stories on successful transportation projects that had been implemented in other states.
Although the state ultimately did make some investments in mass transit, the commitment was not as great as the paper had advocated. It is little wonder then that, by 2003 when Governor McGreevey issued an Executive Order establishing a Blue Ribbon Transportation Commission to develop a plan for New Jersey’s future transportation needs, traffic congestion had reached epidemic proportions. The order noted that New Jersey drivers were wasting 261 million hours sitting in traffic per year, costing each driver an annual total of nearly $1,300.
With the ARC tunnel project, it will be a while before the dust settles and we learn whether the Governor made the correct decision or if his critics are correct. One thing we do know, however, is that trading barbs back and forth – the posturing and gamesmanship that already is well underway -- will do nothing constructive to address our region’s future mass transit needs.
Richard A. Lee is Communications Director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy – New Jersey.