Christie mum on his decision on NJ-NY rail tunnel

October 25, 2010 5:38:41 PM PDT
New Jersey's governor is waiting at least another day before announcing if the nation's largest public works project gets back on track or crashes to a halt.

Gov. Chris Christie is considering whether to restart a Hudson River rail tunnel project that he brought to a standstill because of escalating costs. The nation's transportation secretary pressed Christie to reconsider, however, and the governor gave transportation experts two weeks to come up with a more attractive financial deal for New Jersey.

The two-week reprieve ended Friday and Christie has been mum.

He has objected to the state being on the hook for potential cost overruns and wants someone else to help pick up the tab.

The federal government and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are each contributing $3 billion. New Jersey's share is $2.7 billion plus the overruns.

The tunnel is designed to supplement a century-old two-track tunnel and would double train capacity between New York and its populous New Jersey suburbs. Officials estimate it would provide 6,000 construction jobs immediately and up to 40,000 jobs after its completion in 2018. Construction began last year.

The reticence from Christie's office on Monday came the same day that Amtrak and NJ Transit riders faced delays in and out of New York City because of a train derailment that reduced the number of tracks. Passengers were told to expect 15- to 30-minute delays on Amtrak and delays of up to an hour on NJ Transit's Northeast Corridor and Jersey Coast lines for the evening rush-hour.

Federal and state officials would not say on Monday what options Christie has been given.

Christie has said he won't continue a project that could put New Jersey residents on the hook for $2 billion to $5 billion or more beyond budgeted costs.

There's also $775 million for a rail bridge that hasn't been calculated into the tunnel's costs.

About $600 million has been spent already.

Three government officials told The Associated Press that the tunnel's cost estimate is now $9.77 billion, about $1 billion higher than the estimate the NJ Transit, the state agency running the project, has been using. However, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood later put out a statement saying the $9.77 billion represents the low end of a range, with project costs rising significantly if things go wrong along the way.

Martin Robins, head of the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, called the higher-range estimates - which range from $11 billion to $12.7 billion - "disaster scenarios" that may never happen.

Robins, who was director of the tunnel project in its early stages from 1994 to 1998 and remains an ardent supporter of the project, said NJ Transit engineers built unanticipated costs and inflation into their cost estimate. He said project bids have been coming in at or below estimates so far.

If Christie kills the project, he could use some of the money to replenish the state's nearly broke Transportation Trust Fund.

Some proponents say Christie is motivated, in part, by wanting to divert the money to state projects. The governor has said the tunnel and state transportation needs are separate issues.

Christie has refused to raise the gas tax, among the lowest in the nation at 10.5 cents per gallon, to beef up the state fund.