NEWARK — A month ago, after the White House said it wanted to eliminate a key infrastructure funding program that was expected to pay for much of the new Gateway tunnel to New York, Gov. Chris Christie shrugged off the development and said he wasn’t particularly concerned about the future of the $20 billion project.
“I’m a bottom-line guy; if they pay for 50 percent of the tunnel, I don’t care where they get the money from,” Christie said at the time, adding that he wasn’t planning “to go jumping off the cliff quite yet.”
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On Wednesday, the Republican governor moved closer to the edge, joining Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey at a press conference in which they called on the secretary of transportation to come see the existing, century-old infrastructure that’s causing more and more headaches for the region’s commuters.
For a governor who still maintains a close relationship with President Donald Trump, talking to him several times a week and recently spending most of two days in the Oval Office, it was an odd look to be publicly raising concern about the administration’s commitment to the transportation program.
Christie wasn’t nearly as blunt as Booker, who warned of an impending “traffic Armageddon” should the existing tunnels fail. But the governor seemed to suggest there were limits to his influence over the president and cited a need to work through appropriate channels.
“Fact of the matter is that this stuff has to be done in an orderly fashion,” Christie said, speaking inside the main hall of Penn Station in Newark. “I’ve already spoken to the president about this. The president is well aware of my point of view on this project and I absolutely will continue to speak my mind on this, both publicly and privately.”
Spokespeople for transportation Secretary Elaine Chao did not respond to inquiries about whether she would accept the invitation to visit Penn Station in New York and ride through the two tubes that now carry Amtrak and NJ Transit trains under the Hudson River.
The existing tunnels, already nearing the end of their useful lives, were severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy and continue to deteriorate from the mineral deposits left behind by the storm’s brackish flood waters. At least one of the tubes may need to be taken out of service within a decade for extensive repairs, a situation that would reduce the capacity of the tunnel by 75 percent.
The three other senators from New York and New Jersey also joined Booker in calling on Chao to visit the tunnels and Penn Station, saying in a letter Wednesday that she should “see firsthand the critical need for robust investment in our region’s rail and transit infrastructure.”
They warned that the Trump administration’s proposed budget — which cuts DOT discretionary programs by $2.4 billion, with major reductions to Amtrak, TIGER grants and New Starts — “threatens to terminate work on critical components to the Gateway Program.”
New Starts was expected to make up most or all of the federal government’s share of the project, which also includes work on other important component of the Northeast Corridor.
“I’m beyond the point of frustration,” Booker said at the press conference, standing beside the governor as some protesters quietly held anti-Christie signs in a small free speech area nearby. “The new administration has to come to the table with a commitment to what is not just a New Jersey problem, not just a regional problem, but really an American problem.”
Wednesday’s press conference comes weeks after two trains derailed under New York Penn Station in two separate incidents that created major delays on the Northeast Corridor. Christie lampooned Amtrak, which owns and operates the Penn Station, for those incidents and continued to attack the railroad this week after an NJ Transit train was stuck in a tunnel for nearly three hours on Friday.
That last episode turned out to be the result of a problem with the train operated by NJ Transit, an agency that Christie has routinely underfunded and is already facing scrutiny after a deadly train crash in Hoboken last year.
The governor faced numerous questions on Wednesday about his own decision to a kill another tunnel project, called Access to the Region’s Core, or ARC, during his first year in office. At the time, Christie cited concerns about cost overruns, but now maintains it was just a bad project, terminating in the basement of Macy’s and not linking up to the Northeast Corridor.
But that tunnel may have been nearing completion at this point and would have alleviated some of the worry about the existing infrastructure. The governor pre-emptively made that point as he talked about Gateway, saying the new program is “a significant improvement over projects that have been proposed in the past.”
Christie did little of the talking, though, as reporters peppered the men with questions about ARC and his legacy. In a surreal turn for the governor, who’s usually the one leading the conversation at events in New Jersey, Booker said he didn’t want the governor to answer and instead talked for him.
“I know you said for Governor Christie, but I’m going to answer that question really quickly, because it’s my press conference,” Booker said. “I outrank the governor even though he runs the State Police and I’m hoping they won’t pull me over later today.”
He called ARC “history” and said he hates “that I have to revisit that all the time.”
Christie stood by and smiled as Booker spoke for him — twice.
“Sir, I’m going to say it one more time then I’ll be done,” the senator told a reporter who brought up ARC a few minutes later. “Thousands of New Jersey residents are dealing with this. This is one of the top reasons why people are calling my office. And they are not looking for me to point fingers of blame at everybody. They’re looking for us to fix the problem.”
He added that there was no need for “demonizing people.”
Not 90 minutes later, Christie’s office sent out a press release that pointed blame, calling out Amtrak again for what it said was the railroad’s “failure to adequately maintain and repair infrastructure caused two train derailments and a train to be stuck in a tunnel at New York’s Penn Station.”
–-additional reporting by Conor Skelding