Ostensibly, the actions today by NJ Governor Chris Christie to cancel the "Access to Region's Core" (ARC) tunnel project seem like a vicious blow to the future of rail in our country (fatal even, given the recent commentary from conservatives country-wide on opposition to the national high speed rail network projects). I myself am extremely disappointed that our state's fiscal circumstances have led the Governor to make this decision, and I am sincerely empathetic to the construction and operational jobs and potential to improve mobility conditions that this cancellation jeopardizes.
But alas, I am also an optimist. I believe that despite the skip-in-step this may give to rail naysayers, there is no real case here against the importance of improved rail connectivity, neither here in New Jersey nor across the country. I believe that the fundamental objectives and benefits of the ARC project are not lost on the Governor. I believe that the choice made today is entirely about budget prudence (and perhaps a little message about the smell of pay-to-play in New Jersey), and since New Jersey's flailing budget and treacherously-close-to-skyrocketing taxes impact everyone who lives here - not just those who need improved rail transport - the state's bottom line must be prioritized. In other words, the Governor did not unilaterally ax rail, or the prospect of a High Speed Rail nation, or the alternative transportation philosophy, he merely axed a project that was clearly threatening to overrun in the order of billions ($1,000,000,000+) of dollars which must, as I understand it, come from New Jersey taxpayers' pockets*.
So let's all try to ignore the circumstantial spin by auto-centric thinkers still bumbling about federal buildings elated that this action spells r-o-u-t for the stupid choo-choo-train antics of the past two years. Perhaps from a national perspective it has that taint, but locally the focus is squarely on fiscal prudence, and deep down we should all be able to acknowledge that. Anyone who has watched Governor Christie over this year knows that he certainly isn't risking accusation of being soft; we're witnessing an unmitigated, rather severe lesson about staying on budget, keeping pencils sharp, and right-sizing**.
The way forward is not about death to the concept of rail connectivity between New Jersey and New York City, and it's certainly not about death to rail nationwide. I believe the way forward is about - under a more careful budgetary eye - re-thinking the need, and re-thinking the solution. And believe me, there are many alternative solutions that are just as clever - if not more so - than what was under construction. Case in point, highly respected transportation advocate and President of Institute for Rational Urban Mobility (IRUM), George Haikalis, has offered his "Hoboken Alternative" as a more cost effective and practical solution, even testifying about it to the New Jersey Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee earlier this year. That proposal capitalized on an already bustling intermodal facility and existing right-of-way. Certainly this and many other excellent ideas exist for consideration and debate; undoubtedly one is the basis of what can literally fit the bill.
In conclusion, regardless of how the media portray this for headline impact (kibosh/kill/dead), it's not over if we don't want it to be over; and the fact that Governor Christie is meeting with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood tomorrow is a hopeful sign that neither of those two people likely want this to be over. I am optimistic, as ever, that although the ARC project would have been a great boon for transit riders regionally and transit advocates nationally, there is still a feasible and perhaps better future connectivity solution to be found and built. One would think that the Governor yearns for success as much in engineering a better solution to an immensely critical mobility challenge as he does in budgetary prudence. We shall see.
*There is one speculative strategy possibly at play here of which I feel obliged to proffer. Governor Christie, in light of severe project cost overruns handed to him, a severe state budget quagmire taken on by him, a severe approach to all things not fiscally prudent inherent by him, and a severe affection for this project by the USDOT known to him, may be attempting to bluff the Feds into either sharing in or taking on the likely overruns. Secretary LaHood was clearly nonplussed with the Governor's actions today and I submit their meeting tomorrow can go one of three ways: 1. Help us pay for this project you want so much. 2. Let's talk about an entirely different way to get this done without running up another couple of billions 3. We're broke; I'm cutting my losses, Sir. If either of the first two occur, Governor Christie gets two feathers in his cap. If the third occurs, it's a political wash. Win for budget hawk supporters, loss for the millions who are yearning for a better way to get across the Hudson. Personally, I like Option 2!
**Oh, how I LOVE when I get to use three horrid clichés straight in a row; that's win-win-win, baby!