When Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey canceled a long-planned train tunnel under the Hudson River, he established himself as a hero of the conservative movement — a politician capable of saying “no” to a big spending project. Never mind that the tunnel was a significant piece of infrastructure, with implications for the entire Eastern seaboard — for Bostonians hoping for easier rail links to Washington, and for an aviation system hampered by air-traffic clogs around New York. Christie said he was putting New Jersey first.
For a while, his effort to avoid a Big Dig-like burden on New Jersey seemed, at least, justified in light of the experiences of Massachusetts. But now, as Christie’s name appears prominently on lists of possible running mates for Mitt Romney, it’s become clear that he exaggerated the facts when making the showcase gesture that put him on the political map.
A Government Accountability Office report earlier this month sharply contradicted Christie on two key contentions: that cost estimates on the tunnel were rising, and that New Jersey was already on the hook for 70 percent of the costs. According to the GAO, the state’s own estimates had held firm for two years, at a maximum cost of $10 billion, notably less than the $11 to $14 billion proclaimed by Christie. Moreover, New Jersey’s share would amount to only 14.4 percent. Christie claimed he was counting extra costs to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is run by both states, plus the share of federal highway funds normally assigned to New Jersey, when tallying up the burden on his state. At best, he was being a little fast and loose with the numbers; at worst, he knowingly mischaracterized the state’s obligation.
The larger issue is not Christie’s credibility, but the failure to build the tunnel itself. Aging infrastructure running in and out of New York City is a national disgrace. The ripple effect is visible in Boston: more road and rail congestion heading south; higher travel prices; more business hours wasted in transit. The new tunnel would have carried commuter rail traffic from New Jersey to Manhattan, freeing up space in the existing tunnel for Amtrak trips.
The federal government’s willingness to cover so much of the cost of the tunnel appropriately reflected its national importance. But the disproportionate benefit to New Jersey and New York commuters also justified having those states pay a share, too. All in all, the deal outlined by the GAO seemed quite fair in balancing costs and benefits to New Jersey, New York, and the rest of the nation.
Christie has a right to think otherwise, and some New Jersey voters — those who don’t go into New York or travel to Boston — are probably grateful that he saved some tax dollars. But national voters should be under no illusions about Christie’s decision. It was short-sighted, ran counter to the economic interests of his state, and hampered transportation through the entire Northeast. Before Romney decides whether to make Christie his running mate, he should review the deal carefully — and perhaps look elsewhere for a suitable VP.