NJ Power Politics: the ARC Tunnel, the Rut-Row Merger, and the Need for Substantive Scrutiny

Much is still being made of the Christie v. Lautenberg / North Jersey Democrats v. Norcross feud that has monopolized the imaginations of New Jersey political pundits in recent weeks.

Rightly so (at least to some extent), Save Jerseyans.

New Jersey government used to be run through a fractious, balkanized network of party boss fiefdoms. We’ve recently experienced a significant realignment that began back in late 2008 when Chris Christie left the U.S. Attorney’s office. Now, over three years later, there are only two “major houses” (to borrow the Game of Thrones framework) that really matter in state politics: House Christie and House Norcross.

And since House Norcross is still clearly interested in Senator Lautenberg’s seat, and Governor Christie’s Administration needs South Jersey legislative votes in the wake of a redistricting disaster, it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of cross-fire going on right now…

Lautenberg snipes at Christie and his surrogates at every available opportunity. Governor Christie and the South Jersey Machine have, in turn, accused Senator Lautenberg of playing political games by resurrecting the long-dead ARC tunnel issue and contesting the very-much-alive Rutgers Camden/Rowan merger proposal.

And guess what? Governor Christie isn’t wrong; no one can deny that Lautenberg is motivated, at least in part, by trying to save his skin upon realizing that the state’s two most powerful politicians (Christie and Norcross) can agree on their desire to politically dispatch the third most powerful (himself). It’s a dangerous position in which to find oneself!

I totally, 100% get it. Still, it seems as if an important point is being lost in all of this back-and-forth, Save Jerseyans. Sure, the “process” is interesting for me and other political science nerds. The bottom line? Both plans substantively stink, and they stink for most of the same reasons.

ARC first. As you may recall, under the original ARC tunnel plan, New Jersey would’ve contributed approximately $2.7 billion toward the projected $8.7 billion “total” cost of the tunnel to NYC. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey would kick in $3 billion, and a federal transit program would provide another $3 billion.

But not so fast, Save Jerseyans.

On the eve of Governor Christie’s ace decision to kill the tunnel in October 2010, federal officials later revised their initial totals, stating that the ARC tunnel would cost somewhere between $9.8 billion and $12.4 billion, not $8.7 billion as originally presented. And since NJ Transit would’ve been the “lead agency” for this project, the U.S. Department of Transportation confirms that the Garden State would’ve been on the hook for anywhere between $1.1 and $3.7 billion MORE than our initial multi-billion dollar contribution.

Governor Christie reponded by doing exactly what an elected official is supposed to do: recognize a bad deal for the taxpayers who elected him and kill said deal in its tracks. Bravo!

Is public transportation important? Of course! Would such a tunnel make sense? Absolutely! In one form or another. What doesn’t make sense… investing in a recession-era public works project with an open-ended budget that benefits free riders as much or more than the ones footing the bill!

I’m sure you fully recognize my Rut-Row merger tie-in at this point, Save Jerseyans. Like the ARC tunnel, we’re being told how important this massive higher education restructuring project would/can/should be for the state and the South Jersey region. But at least with the ARC tunnel, we had SOME idea of a final price tag (even though the deal still stunk). With this Rut-Row plan, we haven’t seen a single projection, estimate, best guess or wild conjecture. No one seems to know. Or care?

And why? With an imposed deadline of July 1st quickly looming? Because any benefits to the public are secondary. Senator Crypt Keeper is, frankly (pun intended), right about the merger insofar as it’s moving too quickly without sufficient public scrutiny. Powerful political interests are at work. One interest is trying to secure votes necessary to keep its larger pro-taxpayer agenda alive in a Democrat-dominated state house. The other is more organic and is primarily interested in expanding its vast influence and affluence.

Lautenberg, interest #3, is incidentally with the taxpayers on the Rut-Row merger (and against them on the ARC tunnel) for, again, largely political reasons… which I guess includes staying in his seat until age 100?

This is power politics, folks! New Jersey-style. It’s a part of life no matter where you live, and it’s been that way since the beginning of time (or at least as long as humans have organized themselves into governed units).

And I’m not suggesting you should IGNORE the process/politics behind these proposals. Procedure is hugely important. My only point? Let’s not neglect the substance because it’s a less-sexy storyline.


6 thoughts on “NJ Power Politics: the ARC Tunnel, the Rut-Row Merger, and the Need for Substantive Scrutiny

  1. Why do you think this project makes sense? I think it is as stupid as projects such as the Atlantic City Railroad, the River Line and the aptly named Frank Lautenburg Transfer Station.

    Let's look at the Atlantic City Railroad. That costs more than $20 million per year just to pay the operating costs for a railroad that serves possibly 1.5 million passenger trips. We are paying more than $13 each time a passenger gets on the train. If a commuter takes 40 trips per month, that amounts to more than $500 per month. That could cover a car, insurance costs and gas.

    Let's look at the Frank Lautenburg Transfer Station. I guess transfer station means another way to transfer money out of your pocket. This boondoggle costs $609 million. The station serves 17,000 commuters daily. That amounts to more than $35,000 per daily commuter and this doesn't even cover the costs of the trains, fuel and operating costs.

    The River Line. Another $200 million dollars to serve a rail line that has maybe 4,000 passengers a day.

    My view is that the ARC Tunnel will be as stupid as these projects. How many people are really going to take the rail tunnel? The PATH is a very efficient way to get to NYC. It would still be much more efficient to downtown NYC on the PATH than on the ARC. So how many people would really benefit fromm the ARC. And, why should we be paying huge amounts for a project that serves very inefficient and highly subsidized rail lines?

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