Christie’s other transit scandal could be the big one

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Christie. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
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When and if Chris Christie runs for president in 2016, he may have to answer not for one, but two transportation-related scandals.

The first, of course, is Bridgegate. The facts of that one, in a best-case scenario for Christie, are simple: He appointed people of exceedingly poor judgment to run one of the country’s most important transportation authorities and they used that authority to tie up traffic on the nation’s busiest bridge in apparent service of a political vendetta. (Worst case would be if evidence turned up that Christie was involved directly.)

The second has to do with an issue that is more complicated and, from a long-term standpoint, far more important: Christie’s unilateral cancellation of a new underwater rail tunnel connecting New Jersey to Midtown Manhattan, a project saddled with an ungainly name—Access to the Region’s Core—and complicated backstory.

In 2009, Chris Christie’s predecessor broke ground on a fully funded, $8.7-billion project that would have created a new tunnel under the Hudson River to connect the commuter-rich suburbs of northern New Jersey with job-rich midtown Manhattan.

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There were strong arguments in favor of the tunnel's necessity. The two existing rail tubes connecting north Jersey to Midtown were nearing capacity—they comprise the most serious bottleneck on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. The corridor provides 260 million trips a year, and that number is growing.

"The importance of the connection to New York City to the state of New Jersey is almost impossible to overstate," said Tom Wright, executive director of the Regional Plan Association. "Literally the most important industry for the state of New Jersey is commuting to New York City."

But Christie, in an early assertion of his intention to redefine the relationship between New Jersey and New York, argued that the project was too risky and cancelled it, and redirected much of its funding to road repairs within his own state.

New York senator Chuck Schumer—who had worked to line up federal funding for the project which the region was now going to lose—called Christie's decision "one of the worst decisions that any governmental leader has made in the 20th century, or the 21st century."

If Amtrak’s century-old tunnels were decrepit and nearing capacity then, they’re in worse shape now.

On Wednesday, Amtrak released a report finding that the salt left behind by Hurricane Sandy’s floodwaters continues to weaken the tunnels’ concrete and corrode its cast iron and steel.

The report recommended the railroad shut down the tubes to rehabilitate them, and to do so soon.

Unfortunately for Amtrak, it can’t. And one of the reasons it can’t is Christie, and his cancellation of ARC.

Right now there are only two train tubes (which comprise one train “tunnel) between North Jersey and Midtown. They are in constant use. Shut down one tube, and you will create what one official called “draconian” service cuts on Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, which both use the tunnel.

Amtrak is pinning its hopes on a still-unfunded project that ostensibly replaces (and improves upon) Access to the Region’s Core. It is called Gateway, and Christie has signaled he supports it. But there is, at the moment, no capital funding for it. 

Amtrak's interim plans don't inspire much faith.

It plans to do remedial work on the tunnel during the few hours it can get in there, with the hopes that Gateway will be complete before the tunnel's innards crumble. Should everything go according to Amtrak’s ideal plans, Gateway would be complete sometime in the middle of the next decade.

But Amtrak’s C.E.O. has also said that the tunnels have fewer than 20 years left in them. The railroad declines to be more precise, probably because it's impossible to say.

“It’s really a race against time,” said Stephen Gardner, an Amtrak vice president, on Wednesday.

If Christie hadn't cancelled ARC, the project could have been completed by 2018 or thereabouts.

Today, roughly 20 New Jersey Transit trains and three Amtrak trains use the cross-Hudson tunnels during peak hours, according to Martin Robins, ARC's former project director. ARC would have increased peak capacity to 48 trains per hour.

More to the point, it would have enabled New Jersey Transit to shift some sizable portion of its operations to the new tunnel, freed up space within the existing tunnel for Amtrak and made it a less horrifying prospect to shut down one of the existing tubes for repairs.

“It would have done wonders for New Jersey Transit,” said Robins.

Emphasis on "would have."

Conditions in the two tunnels continue to degrade. Delays could increase appreciably (even as Christie attempts to make his presidential case to the nation), nudging professional life for many travelers between D.C. and New York—and between New Jersey and Penn Station—ever closer to untenable.

“If it becomes recurrent, it’s something that his critics could certainly seize upon,” said Robins, speaking to me on a train bound for Penn Station. “We don’t know if the incidents will occur and to what extent they will disrupt service. But it’s scary and we shouldn’t have to live with that fear.”