How would Christie move the nation?

As a potential Republican candidate for president, Governor Christie is on a short leash in terms of energy, transportation and climate policy.

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Chris Christie in the week following Hurricane Sandy, 2012 (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Chris Christie at a press conference after Hurricane Sandy, November 2012 (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty)

Governor Chris Christie has reappeared on the national stage, and is once again regarded as a viable contender for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. Back in New Jersey, investigators continue to dig into the political episode now known by some as  “Bridgegate” — in which his aides punished the mayor of Fort Lee by the calculated closure of lanes to the George Washington Bridge (which happens to be the busiest bridge in the U.S.).

The lane closures, for four days last September, created an enormous traffic jam extending back from the bridge on the New Jersey side, and paralyzed streets in the neighboring town of Fort Lee. By his aides’ own words, the action was retribution for the town’s Democratic mayor failing to endorse Governor Christie’s re-election to a second term.

The inside workings of the Christie administration continue to be parsed by the authorities, the mayor of Hoboken has now also reported being coerced by the governor’s office, and any new bombshells may yet dampen Christie’s presidential hopes.

But as the media scrounged details about the September traffic scandal—first-hand accounts of people who experienced the traffic, photos of children stuck for hours on a school bus, text message and email conversations within the governor’s office—mostly overlooked was a much bigger story regarding politics intervening with transportation. That would be Chris Christie’s shutdown of the Access to the Region’s Core project, known as ARC. As news stories have begun to reveal how the Port Authority has been used as a political tool, what started as a local scandal may end up serving as a case study of how American infrastructure can be distorted by the rules of partisan politics.

ARC was a commuter rail project planned to run under the Hudson River connecting New Jersey and Midtown Manhattan, with the goal of increasing passenger service capacity and reducing commuter times in the region. The project not only would have increased capacity and reduced commuter times, but also, according to a Regional Plan Association study, would have had enormous benefits for New Jersey; raising property values by $18 billion, as well as allowing $50 billion in new wages to come back to the state from New York City. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the ARC Tunnel would have provided the region with economic, environmental, and mobility benefits.

Ren­der­ing of the pro­jected Penn Sta­tion exten­sion of the ARC project; image taken from blog​.nj​.com
Ren­der­ing of the pro­jected Penn Sta­tion exten­sion of the ARC project; image taken from blog​.nj​.com

However, in a surprising move back in 2010, Christie abruptly put the brakes on ARC, claiming it was “unaffordable,” repeatedly citing cost overruns and proposing that the project would entail New Jersey to pay for 70% of the costs. On the contrary, many—including New Jersey’s previous governor, Jon Corzine, and the GAO—understood the project to be completely affordable and within reach. Estimated to cost $8.7 billion (and no greater than $10 billion), the project had plenty of funding from the federal government ($4.45 billion) and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ($3 billion), leaving New Jersey to make up the difference of $1.25 billion – approximately 14.4% of the total cost.

The plan was completed and ready; the money was there; preliminary construction started in 2009. So why scrap a public transportation plan that was in full motion?

As the New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund continued to dry up (and was expected to have completely expended its resources within a year after the ARC shutdown), Christie found an opportunity. Instead of increasing New Jersey’s most cherished low gas tax (third lowest in the country after Alaska and Wyoming, at 10.5 cents a gallon) to help make up for the Fund’s lack of finances, Christie chose the less transparent option of vetoing the ARC Tunnel and taking the $3 billion that previous governors had originally set aside for ARC to instead be used for New Jersey roads and highways. The ARC funds were transferred into the Transportation Trust Fund to avoid triggering a gasoline tax that would have been required to balance the road maintenance accounts.

In these partisan times, funding for roads and highways are typically linked with Republican policies, while Democrats tend to associate more with public transportation. A basic analysis is that Christie knew killing the ARC project and shifting funds into roads and highways would help sustain his support from both the Republican community across the nation and the oil lobbyists within his state.

An unusual twist to the story is that New Jersey is solidly Democrat in national elections, and President Obama carried the state by a 58% to 40% landslide in 2012. As shown in the New York Times coverage, in awareness of that reality, the Christie administration made sure to spread some of the wealth from the Transportation Trust Fund with Democratic mayors around the state.

Stepping back to look at the larger picture, perhaps Governor Christie’s high profile in Republican politics keeps him on a very short leash in terms of the policies and values he’s permitted to hold.

On the national level, any long term planning for New Jersey or the region, even a project as seemingly win-win as ARC, runs secondary to the strategic risk of even a small rise in gasoline tax, whatever New Jersey voters might agree to — because Candidate Christie would have handed his Republican primary opponents a powerful weapon, sure to be used during the debate season.[pullquote align=”right”]Christie’s high profile in national Republican politics keeps him on a short leash[/pullquote]

One doesn’t have to support Christie to have a flicker of sympathy for his dilemma, which is just a glimpse of the strange turns of modern American politics. The implications run far beyond the ARC episode, in that Christie can’t recognize climate change, among a host of realities that confront New Jersey and the nation. Christie’s beloved Jersey shore is among the most vulnerable regions, still recovering from Sandy. But looking back at what happened to Jon Huntsman, the last Republican national candidate to acknowledge climate change, whatever his personal beliefs, Christie would need to be brave, or fool hardy, or extremely patriotic, to break ranks and acknowledge it too.

That’s why the lane closing story is the least of it. The current burst of coverage is really relevant only in the way it portrays grimy (and extremely ill-judged, by any view) political in-fighting in New Jersey. The real story is this: to keep the Jersey shore intact, in the long run (but beginning as soon as possible) we likely need new energy and transportation infrastructure development on a vast scale. Built at speed. And global agreements that meet the same aims. That would be something for a pugnacious governor to get behind. The first person who can successfully restart the Republican conversation on energy and climate will hold a place in history far beyond that of stories of local parochial political skulduggery.