» In canceling the ARC tunnel project, Governor Christie was fulfilling his mandate, bad decision or not.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s decision yesterday to cancel work on the development of the ARC tunnel project, designed to double rail capacity between his state and Midtown Manhattan, was undoubtedly a problematic one both for existing riders facing increasing congestion on commuter and intercity trains and also for the state’s future growth prospects, which are intertwined with its connections to the global financial center.
Some have equated this week’s announcement to the 1975 decision to cut off construction on New York City’s Second Avenue Subway. That delayed the completion of a project that is vital for the mobility of hundreds of thousands of residents of the city’s Upper East Side by almost forty years.
But despite the appearance of similarities, there are significant differences in the causes of the two events. One was the product of the virtual bankruptcy of the city government: Construction ceased on the subway project in April 1975 due to a complete lack of municipal funds (at the time, capital projects were funded by the city); by June, the Municipal Assistance Corporation, basically a group of bankers, had taken over the administration’s finances with the goal of proving to the stock market that their investments in the city were sound. The result was austerity imposed by a undemocratic regime forced down the throats of the city’s inhabitants. With little ability to raise taxes on a shrinking city population and no continuing support from the state (or the federal government), the subway expansion had to be put on pause.
The other case, also supposedly a case of a government incapable of managing its affairs and therefore unable to pay for major capital expenses, actually comes about in a far different context.
Whatever the positives and negatives of the ARC program, Governor Christie’s announcement falls directly in line with what can only be considered the manifestation of his political agenda, endorsed by voters when they elected him in November 2009. As a candidate, Mr. Christie made clear his dislike of government and specifically said he would not consider raising gas taxes to pay for transportation programs. Though he apparently was in support of the ARC project then, his focus on austerity — cutting government budgets for the purpose of cutting above all else — should have presaged his action this week. With only slight evidence that the project was over budget, the Governor made no attempt to raise support for finding a new revenue source in case it was needed. This shouldn’t come as a surprise for anyone who understands the perspective from which this man is coming.
Almost two years ago, I questioned the future of the Second Avenue Subway (now under construction), asking whether the recession and cost increases could put the project back on hold. Despite those expected construction price escalations coming true, the project remains on track, but only thanks to the support of politicians at the state level (which controls the subway-running MTA). Even with all the shenanigans in New York State politics, at least for now the government has agreed to step in and pay for cost overruns, something New Jersey apparently will not do. This is not a reflection of the better circumstances of the New York economy but rather a demonstration of a willingness to find the means to increase government investments.
If there is something really wrong with what happened this week, it should framed by the election of Mr. Christie in November last year, not minimized as some sort of foolhardy choice he has made now. We must assume that the agenda politicians promote during their campaigns has some effect on actual decision-making, and from that perspective it would be unreasonable for the Governor to act in any other way. If his brand of “fiscal responsibility” means cutting away at the government’s investments, then when faced with an opportunity to eliminate funding for the biggest transit project in the nation’s history, of course he would follow through.
New Jersey may be faced with an historic decline in revenues thanks to nationwide economic difficulties, but it remains one of the country’s wealthiest states in one of the world’s richest countries; it would certainly have been possible for it to find the money to cover the cost overruns, which at a maximum of $5 billion (spread out over many years) would have represented just over 1% of the annual gross state product. Isn’t the state’s arguably most important infrastructure project ever worth such an investment? Wouldn’t the benefits gained from the construction of ARC far outweigh its costs, both in terms of travel-time reductions for New York-bound commuters and the opening of new areas to redevelopment and future growth?
But Governor Christie didn’t care whether the project was, as some transit proponents argue, “desperately needed.” Nor would he have likely been influenced even by changes in the project that fixed many of the flaws inherent in the most recent plan. He simply did not want to spend his political capital on a project that might involve an increase in government expenditures. That stance is not in contradiction with Mr. Christie’s clearly stated feelings about the need to “restrain” government, so it should not come as a surprise whatever his previous comments in favor of the scheme.
Voting is not a meaningless game. Though most candidates claim that they plan to act as “rationally” and “reasonably” as they can in office, each — whether right, left, or center — comes into the game with his or her own agenda motivated by ideological preferences. Mr. Christie made clear from the start that his goal was to reduce the size of government. Perhaps we should have taken that mode of thinking more seriously.
Note that it is perfectly possible that a political compromise either at the state or federal level is reached that sets ARC back into motion, but I believe that the argument made here still applies no matter the ultimate result.
Update, 9 October: Governor Christie has agreed to reevaluate his position on the tunnel over the next two weeks. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood may have offered an incentive to change the governor’s mind…