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Hudson River tunnel’s fate rests with New Jersey governor

Every two minutes during rush hour, a commuter train bound for Manhattan squeezes through a 100-year-old tunnel under the Hudson River. The trains are almost always packed as they head into Penn Station, the busiest hub in America.


FOR THE RECORD:
Hudson River tunnel: In the Oct. 17 Section A, a map accompanying an article about a proposed tunnel connecting New Jersey and New York, and efforts by New Jersey’s governor to kill the project, mislabeled 6th, 7th and 8th avenues in Manhattan as streets. —


Construction began more than a year ago on a new rail tunnel with almost nine miles of track designed to double the passenger train capacity between New Jersey and New York, and redirect tens of thousands of commuters to a new terminal under Macy’s on 34th Street.

But the multibillion-dollar project may never be completed.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a first-term Republican, has decided his state can’t afford it. He suspended construction in September, and then canceled it earlier this month. Now, under pressure from Washington, he has agreed to reconsider and decide by Thursday whether it should be permanently derailed.

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The federal government has already set aside $3 billion for the project, officially known as the “Access to the Region’s Core,” or ARC. If New Jersey doesn’t want the money, plenty of others do.

“They are like hungry wolves searching for quarry,” Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said last week, referring to state and municipal leaders elsewhere who’ve made it clear they’ll fight for every federal dollar Christie decides to forego.

Politicians, environmentalists and bureaucrats from around the region and Washington are scrambling to get Christie to change his mind — and keep the funds headed for the Hudson.

But the governor says that although he is pro-transit, he must also be fiscally responsible. The headline on his official website announcing his decision to terminate the project read: “Christie administration enforces budget discipline and protects New Jersey taxpayer dollars.”

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Many say that this is a political ploy by a governor with national aspirations who doesn’t want to raise the state’s gasoline tax, which at 14 cents per gallon is the third-lowest in the nation, to pay New Jersey’s share of the tunnel costs. ( California’s gasoline tax is 18 cents; New York’s is 31.9.) Christie has spent the last month campaigning for Republicans across the country.

About this time last year, the former prosecutor was in his first run for governor. His platform included support for the new Hudson rail tunnel, which had broken ground in the spring of 2009 and had been in the planning stages for almost two decades. Like most leaders in the region, Christie touted its benefits: It would create 6,000 construction jobs, take an estimated 22,000 cars off the road and reduce delays at the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel.

In recent years, the project had also developed the rarest of new features: bipartisan support.

Over time, however, its price tag had grown to $8.7 billion from $5 billion. After Christie settled into his new job in the statehouse in Trenton, he decided New Jersey could no longer afford its $2.7-billion share, plus cost overruns. Washington estimated those overruns would cost New Jersey an additional $1 billion, but Christie’s aides projected the state’s extra costs at $2 billion to $5 billion.

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“I will not allow taxpayers to fund projects that run over budget with no clear way of how these costs will be paid for,” he said in the statement that canceled the project and stunned his bureaucratic partners. “Considering the unprecedented fiscal and economic climate our state is facing, it is completely unthinkable to borrow more money and leave taxpayers responsible for billions in cost overruns.”

The next day, the Obama administration’s transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, was on a plane for Trenton, where he spent several hours huddled privately with Christie and his staff “to discuss a path forward on the ARC tunnel project,” according to a statement.

After the meeting, Christie agreed to postpone his final decision for two weeks. Local media reported that he was hoping the federal government would ante up more money.

If Christie kills the project, New Jersey first has to pay a sort of cancellation fee — about $300 million — but then gets back its $2.7-billion share. Christie has said he would use it on road and bridge work and to replenish New Jersey’s anemic transportation fund.

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Discussing Christie’s about-face, Thomas K. Wright, executive director of Regional Plan Assn., a think tank that studies the area, could barely contain his fury. “The governor doesn’t really seem to be interested in addressing cost overruns,” Wright said. “It seems he’s more interested in getting the money back that he’s dedicated to this project and using it to fix bridges and fill potholes. Or this is a fantastic brinksmanship.”

geraldine.baum@latimes.com


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