Stucknation: Tunneling Through Muck and Mire

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's call to abandon an almost $9 billion passenger rail tunnel under the Hudson River because of fears of potential cost overruns has been denounced as short-sighted. Critics say the decision was driven by a selfish desire to burnish his national reputation as a cost cutter.

With the ARC tunnel counted as the Obama Administration's largest stimulus package, Christie's local decision also has national consequence. 

Boosters of the tunnel say that an increase in the state's relatively low gasoline tax and there’d be more than enough to get the job done they say. But that doesn't address the potential for cost overruns on a project that is more complicated than just a tunnel. Just to be clear, it includes a massive rail yard and several miles of a new rail line through the Meadowlands that has great beauty, but also a legacy of toxic contamination and stratospheric cost overruns already.

Christie is right to be wary of potential swamp surprises. Since the grand plans by the Colonial Dutch to dam the swamp for farming, the Meadowlands have been confounding men and depleting their fortunes.

Consider the hapless back hoe operator working nearby several years back on a Turnpike ramp that was to be tied into the new Secaucus rail station that now bears Senator Frank Lautenberg's name. The heavy equipment operator accidentally up ended a grave and oh, so much more.

Ultimately the remains of 4,572 people were discovered and had to be carefully excavated to make way for an exit on the Turnpike. Decades before, it had been the site of a Hudson County burial ground for the down and out. Nobody from the state saw that coming. Corrupt officials had removed the headstones.

In the Meadowlands, the muck and mire gets so deep, sometimes only federal indictments can bring clarity. Take the recent indictments related to the EnCap caper. That was the so-called landfill reclamation project nearby, that was going to take landfill and transform it into a golf course and upscale housing. All it did was burn through hundreds of millions of local, county, state and federal dollars while producing nothing but a criminal conspiracy. (No golf course, no condos)

And even when the "job" appears to be done, the costs can continue to rise exponentially.

Take the Meadowlands grand public-private partnership that produced Xanadu, a 2 million square foot megaplex that was to include an indoor ski mountain. This ill-fated mall was the progeny of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority and the now-defunct Mills Corporation.

Built on state land, it was originally supposed to cost $1.3 billion dollars and open in 2007. A few years later, it has cost $2 billion and but has never opened. Now, according to a state commission, it may take another $800 million to complete.

No, if you’re going to build anything in the Meadowlands you got to add in the swamp factor.

That's not to say the ARC Tunnel under the Hudson isn't worth doing. But with the feds just kicking in a third of the cost, overruns in the Meadowlands can't be ignored by the local authorities.

There could also be a civil defense argument here that this is squarely a federal obligation. Immediately after 9-11, the regional rail network was critical to carrying on. In the event of the need for a quick evacuation, such redundancy would be vital. The ARC tunnel could be "a project of national significance" and paid for completely by the federal government. Just think of it as "nation building."

We do need to think big to get unstuck, no doubt — but understanding local conditions is critical.