The $128 Million Question: Where's the ARC Tunnel Letter?

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(New York - Jim O'Grady, WNYC) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stood up at a press conference on Thursday morning at the state house in Trenton and uttered what could have been a $128 million phrase.

“The offer was a nice start,” he said.

He was referring to a letter from federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that offered a rebate in the above amount against a $271 million charge the feds have presented the state for preliminary work on the cancelled ARC rail tunnel under the Hudson.

Christie killed the project in October because of projected cost overruns. LaHood, in the letter, proposed to give the state $128 million back for projects that improve air quality by cutting traffic congestion. But only if New Jersey pays the whole bill by December 24.

The governor’s positive reaction on Thursday was a reversal of sorts. The prior two days, he’d refused to acknowledge the potential deal because the letter that contained it, dated Tuesday, hadn’t been sent to him. Instead, it was addressed to New Jersey Senators Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg. By Wednesday evening, though the offer had been widely reported, Governor Christie’s spokesman Michael Drewniak insisted it still hadn’t reached the state house.

“Neither the Governor’s Office or New Jersey Transit has heard from Secretary LaHood,” said Drewniak in a statement. “If and when we are contacted by the secretary, we will review their proposal.”

The disconnect may have had something to do with testy public relations between the Republican Christie and the Democrat Lautenberg.

Senator Lautenberg had teamed with Senator Menendez to work with the U.S. Department of Transportation on reducing New Jersey’s ARC bill. That is why the Transportation Secretary wrote the senators with his proposal. LaHood “was responding to a direct request from the two New Jersey senators,” said U.S. Department of Transportation spokeswoman Olivia Alair.

Yet, it is Christie who will approve or reject the proposal and Christie who last week directed New Jersey Transit to hire DC law and lobbying firm Patton Boggs to fight the $271 million bill at a rate of $485 an hour. Christie is clearly one of two parties to the conflict.

But not only was the governor's mailbox empy, he had to read about the offer in a Tuesday press release by Lautenberg that described Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC Tunnel as “disastrous” and “ill-advised.”

Christie was already not a fan of the senior senator from New Jersey. “All he knows how to do is blow hot air,” the governor told a reporter from New York magazine when asked about Lautenberg’s repeated denunciations of the ARC tunnel’s demise. “I don’t really care what Frank Lautenberg has to say about much of anything.”

Of course, the prospect of a $128 million rebate may be all that’s needed to calm the collision of personalities and political agendas. Still, the question remains: why doesn’t the Department of Transportation crank up a fax machine and send a copy of the letter to the governor?

“I’m sure they have faxes,” said the Christie’s spokesman, Kevin Roberts, on Thursday evening. “My understanding is the letter was addressed to our two senators. I’m not sure why we didn’t make it into the CC line.”