Austerity Measurement: Chris Christie And The Coy Construction Obstruction

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!