There is a reason that so few miles of new rail have been built in the region in the last 50 years. It's the same reason that tracks proposed to better connect Midtown with New Jersey (Access to the Region's Core), and with Long Island (East Side Access), as well as the proposed Second Avenue Subway, have all been two to six decades in the making. The reason is that these projects are extremely expensive and complicated to engineer and design, and that they require long-term commitments from federal, state, and local partners. In other words, they oblige elected leaders to look beyond short-term political calculations.
And so it is that ARC, a project that was first imagined in 1990, that has been carefully planned and designed since 1994, that is fully approved and funded by state, regional, and national governments, and for which $600 million in construction contracts has already been spent, is on the brink of being abandoned because Gov. Chris Christie, a budget-cutting, shake-up-the-establishment politician, does not have money to fill potholes come next summer when the Transportation Trust Fund runs dry. Suddenly, a project that has been 20 years in the making could be killed after just a 30-day "budget review."
This would be a tragedy. The most important industry in the Garden State is known as "commuting to New York City." About 275,000 New Jerseyans travel every day across the Hudson River. They bring home a disproportionate share of income, pay large income and property taxes, and create more jobs back home. And all of the ways that these commuters come into Manhattan — NJ TRANSIT, PATH and the vehicular tunnels and bridges — are at or near capacity. Building ARC will provide capacity for another 70,000 commuters from New Jersey — specifically, from the communities that have the desire and the infrastructure to grow (Newark, Paterson, New Brunswick, etc.). And grow they will with ARC. New York City is going to continue adding jobs: it has the demand, the zoning, the capital, and is better connected to the global economy than anywhere else in the US. The question is, will New Jersey residents be able to get to them?
Unfortunately, Gov. Christie has inherited an urgent crisis in the state's Transportation Trust Fund. But the governor has already pledged not to raise gas taxes or tolls. Hence, the temptation to raid the "cookie jar" of ARC. The governor has said that it was ARC's potential cost overruns that were of concern to him, but word on the street is that his real motivation is to redirect money away from ARC to the TTF — in other words, from transit to roads.
And yet, both the TTF and ARC are critical to the future of the state, and options exist to see them both through. Gov. Christie could continue to negotiate with the construction unions, which have already indicated a willingness to make concessions on their contracts. The Port Authority, a bi-state agency with long-range planning expertise and a core competency in building infrastructure, could also take over the project and assume any potential cost overruns. A compromise could also be negotiated, whereby Gov. Christie reallocated the revenue from future Turnpike toll increases ($1.25 billion) to the TTF and transit users funded the gap with a new "ARC Surcharge" on their fares. Finally, instead of worrying about potential cost overruns that may or may not materialize — the contract bids that have come in so far are right on budget — we could move forward with the financing plan we have in place now, and worry about budget overruns if and when they materialize.
If Gov. Christie is serious about killing ARC, then he must do his due diligence and determine the price that New Jersey's economy will be paying in terms of more delays and over-crowding on NJ TRANSIT trains, and the effect of poor transit service on individuals and businesses seeking to locate in New Jersey.
Thirty days may be long enough to kill ARC, but it is surely not enough time to devise a successful strategy to fund both the best-planned transit investment in the nation and the necessary maintenance of the state's road system. Before killing ARC, we call on Gov. Christie to extend the review period to 90 days, giving himself and other state leaders a meaningful chance to keep New Jersey competitive and sustainable.