Austerity Measurement: Chris Christie And The Coy Construction Obstruction

Austerity Measurement: Chris Christie And The Coy Construction Obstruction

—by , October 20, 2010

Chris Christie loves the attention.

And while I’m loathe to give it to him, the man just begs for it.

After years of a fuddy-duddy bearded banker whose main function in the news cycle was occasionally holding a press conference on schools and children’s healthcare who everyone threw out because he raised the Parkway tolls, New Jersey has a governor as firmly lodged into the media as the unfortunate housewife and beach bum shows that share its name.

Stringing along talking heads, bloggers and contractors for weeks with his decision regarding an almost $9 billion rail megaproject across the Hudson Tunnel (the Access to the Region’s Core Tunnel, or ARC) over the possibility of cost overruns, Christie has reached a strange moment in his boisterous slash and burn administration’s history. He has the opportunity to derail the largest construction expenditure of the Obama administration, which was in progress until Christie halted it for a review. To stop the project altogether would be Tea Party feather and it would be somewhat ideologically in line with Christie’s lean and mean approach to governing.

But it would be the second time that Christie managed to lose federal government funding for large projects in just two months, largely as a result of his unwillingness to negotiate. While the dustup over New Jersey’s failure to obtain almost half a billion dollars in education funding several months ago resulted in the firing of Christie’s school czar, the fact that Christie did not have the teacher’s union onboard was really what sunk his chances of receiving the funding, not the clerical error the media focused on.

The ARC Tunnel is far more money in government subsidy, almost $3 billion, with the remaining cost being split between New York and New Jersey. And in the short term, it means more jobs.

We all love to complain about construction, whether it needs to be done or whether it’s actually going on. I pass no fewer than three major construction sites in a relatively short commute to work, and I listen to some large metal device bang and resonate just under once a second pretty often. It’s been doing that for months.

Plenty to complain about.

And whenever dollar amounts reach the millions and billions, particularly in the context of government, you can be sure that a gasp-inducing sliver of it is tangled up in backroom deals. Construction projects are the worst offenders, and if Boston’s Big Dig is any indication, the ARC Tunnel project probably will go over budget. Almost all large construction projects do.

But probably not as over budget as Christie’s advisors say. Sure, the Big Dig’s budget ballooned to three times its size, but it was under budgeted to begin with, as it also included building a tunnel in addition to the main “dig” itself, a bridge, and converting the existing I-93 into a greenway. There was, interestingly, also a train tunnel in the project that was scrapped.

What’s more irritating about Christie getting government “in order” is his cutting taxes along with services. New Jersey may have some of the highest state income taxes, pension payments and property taxes, but Christie’s decision to reduce taxes for millionaires while preventing thousands of construction workers from almost a decade of tunnel work doesn’t play well.

It’s impossible to reduce budgets by cutting incomes and costs. You have to raise incomes and cut costs. Fine, say it’s too expensive, but don’t cut into your revenue stream at the same time.

And for the commuter crowd? You know, the Tea Partying middle-class self-identifiers who feel taxed out and support Christie’s evisceration of public funding? Estimates for the increased capacity of the ARC Tunnel show the saved commuting time would be anywhere from three to six days every year, depending on the line.

You know how people always say, “Boy, if there was only more time in the day?” Well, in this case, there actually would be. What’s that worth?

After Christie’s initial cancellation of the project, which has already racked up $600 million in costs (And who’s going to pay for that if New Jersey backs out? I doubt the federal government will.), U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood took a drive (or maybe a train) up to Trenton and suggested that Christie reconsider. He probably offered to sweeten the deal a bit. Senator Lautenberg also has been on the offensive in making the project happen; the namesake of Secaucus Junction’s got a thing for trains. But Christie’s behavior is that of a spoiled kid who, when handed a present, figures he can get a better one if he cries or refuses to play with it.

If that’s the political game he has to deal in, fine. Nothing in New Jersey’s worth doing unless it’s worth doing painfully. But to permanently walk away from the negotiating table will only serve New Jersey so long, as Christie’s passing the problem of updating the trans-Hudson infrastructure to a later administration. It’ll have to be done eventually, and instead of receiving federal funding, New Jersey and New York will bear larger costs in creating one in the future.

Christie has been spending the last few weeks campaigning for Republicans after being dubbed a darling of the new Right by the conservative media. If he truly is, then gains on the right in the upcoming election cycle are certain to create more of these uncomfortable situations. And just think, several years ago, you couldn’t keep them from spending money if you tried!

    reader responses
  1. Mea culpa. An additional $3 billion is/was slated to be supplied by the Port Authority of NY/NJ, not New York State.

    Patrick Slevin on 10/25/2010 at 10:39 AM 

  2. You’re also missing the fact that any cost overruns are paid by New Jersey alone, not split by NYC and NJ.

    John from Jersey on 10/24/2010 at 02:42 PM 

  3. I typically like to see differing opinions in the reader responses, but I feel too strongly about this to not abstain from supporting Kurtis’ comments on this. $9 billion dollars represents money that shouldn’t be spent in the first place. We DO NOT HAVE $9 billion to spend, plain and simple. It’s almost laughable that with that mindset that I’m labeled as a fiscal conservative because I always perceived it as common sense. Our federal debt and contributing deficit are incomprehensible. The State level has an even larger problem because they don’t have the privilege of printing money. Speak to academics from Wall Street to Main Street……we can either voluntarily address this enormous and longstanding sense of entitlement from our fellow taxpayers (ie government) or we can wait until the multitude of fiscal issues reach a culmination that result in another meltdown which, as I alluded to, will first occur at the state or municipal levels.

    The focus has been, will be, and should be “jobs” for the foreseeable future. But the notion that billions of tax dollars to directly finance projects is going lead to sustainable re-employment is mislead ignorance. And comparing the short term benefit with the long term debt burden easily proves what a horrid return-on-investment it provides. For too long we’ve indulged in instant gratification via publicly funded projects. It’s come time that we finally practice a little fiscal asceticism and austerity and DEFER THE BENEFITS so we can ensure that we can actually MEET THE OBLIGATIONS for our future generations.

    Michael on 10/21/2010 at 05:35 PM 

  4. The best thing the government can do is save money. Eliminating this joke of a project is a very good way to do that. $9 billion is a huge amount to pay for saving a little commuter time. Before it was finished it would no doubt cost much more than that, after cost overruns, bribes and kickbacks are included. Chris Christie is to be patted on the back for this one.

    Kurtis Bottke on 10/21/2010 at 08:32 AM 

  5. Check your facts. Neither New York State nor NYC are contributing anything to ARC.

    George from Princeton on 10/20/2010 at 01:34 PM 

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