Stucknation: Tunneling Through Muck and Mire

Sunday, October 10, 2010 - 11:02 PM

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.


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Comments [11]

Melissa from Hoboken

Give me a break. Less than two months ago, Christie was belly-aching about how important it is for the state to invest precious tax dollars in Xanadu & Atlantic City, which have virtually no public benefits to the rest of the state's tax base. (seriously, let xanadu sink into the swamp now) Whereas midtown-direct rail service has driven such clear economic ripple effects to every town in NJ that has it. Think of how many people moved from Manhattan & Brooklyn to NJ because of it. Think of how many more people could afford to live in NJ if more towns had direct rail service, and how many cars would be taken off the roads during rush hour. Bigger tax base, less traffic, less pollution, and guaranteed federal investment! This is such a short-sighted decision, even if the project needs to be fixed to connect properly with mass transit in Manhattan. I can't imagine what's wrong with that man. And the idiots who voted for him because he's so "mavericky."

Oct. 11 2010 05:58 PM
Terry R Driller from Ridgewood. NJ

Christie's expects the Republicans to elevate him to national importance, and it depends on his NOT co-operating with the Feds while Obama is in office. By noo means should suffering be helped if the help could be credited to Democrats!

To build that tunnel would remove thousands from among the unemployed. The tunnel would enhance the security of millions in our homeland, the tunnel would save trillions of gallons of OPEC petroleum by simplifying the NY-NJ public transit commute.

Christie's economics is nuts. He screwed up on getting NJ the education aid offered. He's declared public education to be an inferior institution not worth tax money and fires teachers leaving kids in crowded classrooms in decaying schools.

He wastes the money already spent on the tunnel and rejects future federal aid-because NJ commuters are really fine with sitting hours at every Hudson tunnel twice daily.

Oct. 11 2010 05:56 PM
Colin from Williamsburg, Brooklyn

The first two callers who first responded were as stupid and as shortsghted as their Gov.. That is why he won. The ARC tunnel benefits mainly NJ taxpayers and tax coffers Giving them access to white collar jobs that are located in Manhattan. That is why past NJ Govs. both Rep. and Dem, supported NJ Transit. with modern maintaince facilities, new track, new routes that did not exist before under the private railroads, new rolling stock(locomotives and cars). NJ Transit enables NJ residents to take advantage of jobs in New York State and go home and pay income and property taxes in NJ and to further support the NJ economy.

Way to go Gov. Christie!!

Oct. 11 2010 11:21 AM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

To hear Bob Engel tell it - I hear him on his Friday, NJ101.5 segment - Christie's issue is with the terminus - rather than the tunnel itself. Why build an entirely new station that ends at Macy's when connecting to Penn Station will do? I'm no expert and don't know enough to contradict him.

I think canceling the tunnel is bad economics for the short-term AND the long-term. It is also bad for national security. Imagine the impact if Al Q were to close or wreck the existing tunnel. I have little doubt that it will be back on 'track' before Christie's term is over. I

Oct. 11 2010 10:45 AM
jawbone from Parsippany

Gee, it's really too bad the Christies of this world, what are referred to as Austerians when economists (meaning they believe only auterity, cutting services and lowering debt, is the correct path forward) or small government Republicans when politicians (or DINO's when Dems fall into this trap) weren't around and in power during the Great Depression.

Why, we wouldn't have any of those park structures still in use by millions, we wouldn't have the Blue Ridge Parkway, used by millions annually to, well, not produce anything except enjoyment of our natural wonders (Ayn Rand would have a cow knowing how many think it's important to their quality of life!), we wouldn't have those photos of people in the 1930's , the ones taken by master photographers that we pore over nowadays.

And we surely would not have that inexcusable government program, Social Security!

Who needs those things if they require temporary debt?

Yeah, that's the ticket. Let's do continuous high unemployment and people falling out of the middle class and into poverty. Go, Uberwealthy and wealth going only to the already wealthy (with a few who make it big elsewhere, but, in today's America, England is more likely to have people move up into a higher economic class during their lives).

Yeah, way to go, Gov. Chris "We Dare Not Raise Taxes on the Rich, But We Sure Can Increase Them On All Those Little People" Christie.

Oh, and I think he's doing his own little Newt Gingrich move, but instead of shutting down the government he just wants to shut down transportation improvements unless they contribute more to global warming. Go, automobiles!

This nation needed an FDR, but got a Hoover instead. Who thinks Republicans had the most good ideas from 1992 or 1993 through 2008. Such a deal for a nation experiencing the worst unemployment since since WWII.

Oct. 11 2010 10:30 AM
Christine from New york

In fact the only portion of congestion pricing that was implemented is for the new jersey tolls. port Authority increased peak hour fares from $6 to $8 A 30% .

Oct. 11 2010 10:30 AM
rj from brooklyn

Here's a more direct link:
for a regional transit plan that includes the NJ Transit tunnel

Oct. 11 2010 10:30 AM
Martin from Brooklyn

I agree with Bob's comments that this is not a NJ issue. I think Federal DOT should have had the lead on this project all along.
In addition, New York City Metro region needs a comprehensive transportation overhaul. Commuter trains should not terminate at Penn Station, they should run through. This will expand track capacity and make it possible for NJ riders to easily access Long Island and vice versa. Three commuter rails are not efficient. Using some of those redundancies would also free up rail yard capacity.

Oct. 11 2010 10:29 AM
RJ from brooklyn

There's an in-between option to overpriced tunnel and auto/pollution-friendly projects, and that's a more effectively designed and managed tunnel: see the proposal suggested on by the Institute for Regional Urban Mobility.

Oct. 11 2010 10:26 AM
Janet from Westchester County, NY

Christie is being incredibly short sided. What if FDR had said that the TVA was too expensive or the Hoover Day was too big, or Eisenhower had said that the interstate system was unnecessary?

Decisions like this are the beginning of the downward slide of the USA. Would the Chinese make such a choice?

Oct. 11 2010 10:20 AM
Notdeadyet from Gillette, NJ

NJ needs the jobs, but Christie's got a point. No way any construction project in the Meadowlands comes in as budgeted. The swamp rats will scurry off with as much as they can and claim, as you say, that only a few more cents a day from each taxpayer will make it all better. Again.

Oct. 11 2010 07:18 AM

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