Port raider: Christie claims bi-state money for Jersey roads, Albany watches

Chris Christie (http://www.state.nj.us)
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The story goes like this: When Chris Christie, the United States attorney for New Jersey, charged the Essex County executive with corruption in 2002, he made sure the Republican official, who was seized by armed federal agents, spent more than six hours in leg shackles and handcuffs while awaiting arraignment—to the amazement of the state’s legal community.

Why? People involved in the case say the official, James Treffinger, had been secretly recorded calling Christie a fat fuck, and this was payback.

Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey who is best known these days for his YouTube appearances in which he browbeats those with whom he disagrees, now has something to say about manners. He lashed out this week at Senator Charles Schumer, who criticized him in a speech Tuesday for requesting $1.8 billion from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for four highway projects in the northeastern part of the state, including the crumbling Pulaski Skyway linking Newark and Jersey City. Schumer also said Christie’s decision to scrap the Trans-Hudson Passenger Rail Tunnel, known as ARC (for Access to the Region’s Core), and turn down $6 billion from the agency and the federal government to help pay for it, was “terrible, terrible, terrible.”

Christie, who saw a camera-ready moment if there ever was one, could barely contain himself as he responded that perhaps Schumer, a Democrat, had the $5 billion to complete the project, “since he’s such an important guy in the United States Senate.”

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“Until then,” Christie said of the New York Democrat, “he should mind his manners on the other side of the Hudson River." And with that he took a swig of water from the bottle he was holding.

Christie, a favorite of conservative commentators and a name sometimes mentioned in conversations about possible presidential tickets, first set teeth gnashing in November when he announced that he was backing out of an agreement to build a $9.8 billion, nine-mile commuter rail tunnel between Secaucus and West 34th Street.

Despite the objections of labor unions, as well as Democratic and even many Republicans officials, Christie argued that New Jersey, with a $10.5 billion budget deficit, could ill-afford to be held responsible for billions more in possible cost overruns. Never mind that people like Martin Robins, founding director and senior fellow at the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, and Richard Leone, president of the Century Foundation and a former board chairman of the Port Authority, dispute his math, and say that even the overstated risk of overruns doesn't measure up to the risk of doing nothing.

Christie’s decision to fold the project led the federal government to dun New Jersey $271 million for work already done on the tunnel. The budget-conscious Christie countered by accusing the Federal Transit Administration, headed by a Republican from Illinois, of resorting to “bureaucratic power plays to wring even more money from New Jerseyans,” and had NJ Transit retain the Washington law firm Patton Boggs to fight back, at the rate of $485 an hour.

So far the state has been granted three one-week reprieves, the last of which runs out next Tuesday.

All of this makes for amusing political theater both sides of the Hudson. But the financial cost of Christie’s audacious proposal, which must receive the approval of the Port Authority board and the blessing Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat with whom he shares control of the agency, could haunt taxpayers in New Jersey and New York for years to come. To say the least, Christie’s claim on the money in lieu of the agency’s $3 billion may make sense as a parochial political play and as a stop-gap budget stunt, but it sets an awfully complicating precedent for the longer term.

One obvious effect of removing money from the Port Authority to pay for road projects in New Jersey is that it could eventually necessitate an increase in tolls and fares. And given the unignorable fact that this money is ostensibly available only because of the money not being spent on ARC, it amounts to a transfer of funding from a mass-transportation project deemed necessary by experts, and which the state will never be able to complete on its own, to roads that would normally be paid for by the state.

To Christie, there is no issue.

The tunnel “didn’t happen, and the money is there to be utilized,” he said when he unveiled his proposal earlier this month. “It should be utilized for transportation projects to improve this state.”

The sharp criticism his plan has already drawn from transportation experts and former Port Authority officials is something Christie in all likelihood expected and in fact relished as a way to further burnish his credentials as a deficit hawk.

Nevertheless, their level of alarm is very real.

Robins, the leading transportation expert in New Jersey, is horrified by what he what he considers a benighted idea and sees potential trouble ahead.