Chris Christie’s presidential hopes have never entirely recovered from the damage he suffered as a result of the bizarre “Bridgegate” kerfuffle. But, though even some political observers have already forgotten it, Christie helped established his credentials as a conservative two years before the infamous traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge on an issue that also concerned the Hudson River crossings. In October 2010, the New Jersey governor delighted conservatives and enraged liberals when he canceled plans for constructing a third tunnel under the Hudson that was needed to ease commuter train traffic problems. He argued that his state simply couldn’t afford it. In doing so, he hoped to make it clear that there ought to be a limit on how much debt any state, especially one in difficult circumstances, should incur even if it was to be spent on something the voters needed. But as Bloomberg reported last week, the ongoing commuter train crisis that has revived talk about that tunnel project now puts the GOP presidential candidate in the awkward position of simultaneously asking the federal government for more money while at the same time decrying its profligate spending and the need for entitlement reform. While Christie’s stand on the issue is still defensible, the controversy points out the difficulties of running for president while trying to run a state that is as dependent on federal largesse as New Jersey.
As Bloomberg noted, there’s something slightly absurd about Christie trying to lobby the GOP-controlled Congress to spend more money on railway infrastructure at the same time that he’s campaigning as a fiscal conservative in New Hampshire and Iowa. But the tunnel won’t be built unless the federal government comes up with an extra several billion for it.
Christie’s popularity in New Jersey has been declining ever since the Bridgegate problem that followed his landslide re-election win in November 2013. The Democratic-controlled legislature that played ball with the governor during the first half of his first term now seeks to obstruct his every move. Economic and fiscal problems abound. But the ongoing problems encountered by New Jersey Transit rail commuters is the sort of thing that can destroy the reputation of any politician that can be blamed for the mess.
Putting the onus on Christie for solving the delays encountered by the huge number of New Jersey residents who commute into New York every day is more than a bit unfair. Christie didn’t create this problem and even if he had approved the start of the tunnel project back in 2010, that wouldn’t have eliminated the current delays or make the system less vulnerable to being brought to a standstill by routine weather or equipment delays.
Most Republican conservatives have thought of Christie as something of a RINO ever since he hugged President Obama in October 2012 (after Hurricane Sandy, but just before the presidential election). But it should be recalled that his stand against the tunnel was exactly the sort of thing that Tea Partiers have been demanding that Republicans do in Washington. Faced with all the inertial forces that would have forced a weaker-willed politician to simply go along with a tunnel plan that was a fiscal fiasco in the making, he had the guts to say “no.” The burden New Jersey was being asked to assume by the federal government was neither reasonable nor something that any of his successors could have fixed. Going ahead with the existing plan would have meant that, sooner or later, New Jersey would have to drastically increase taxes either on property or on gasoline sales. Either way, ordinary citizens would have suffered, and the state would have still sunk deeper into debt.
But though Christie was right, it was clear even then that the tunnel was going to have to be built. The two existing tubes underneath the Hudson that are used for commuter rail traffic are already inadequate to the purpose. But since they are 100 years old, they are also in terrible shape and suffered serious damage during Hurricane Sandy. Both are estimated to have 20 years of service left in them and have to be shut down for yearlong maintenance work at some point. Without another tunnel, the already terrible commuting experience will become a nightmare that will destroy more political careers.
But it’s difficult to imagine Congress putting up more than the $4 billion they’ve already offered to pay for the estimated $16 billion new tunnel. Considering that even conservative estimates of the tunnel’s cost are likely to underestimate the eventual price tag, that means New Jersey is going to have to come up with the extra money somehow. If Christie doesn’t agree to it, his successor almost certainly will, and the delays in building the tunnel will always be blamed on the current governor even if that won’t be fair.
Christie is right to argue that the tunnels are part of a national infrastructure crisis that is the responsibility of the federal government to address. That’s what any Northeast governor would have to say, and they wouldn’t be wrong.
But that’s also why it’s especially hard for any Northeast governor to run for the Republican presidential nomination.
For all of his shortcomings as a candidate, Christie has spent more time than any of his rivals talking about the need for entitlement reform and the need to curb the plague of government spending that causes fiscal problems. Moreover, as his tunnel stand proves, on this crucial question for any would-be president, Christie has not only talked the talk but also walked the walk. But all of that Tea Party-friendly rhetoric and fiscal sanity gets drowned out by the equally pressing needs of any Northeast governor to both make nice with an incumbent president and to have their hands out to Congress. The imperatives of being such a governor and also a GOP presidential candidate are always going to be at odds with each other.
Christie’s presidential ambitions were, like those of Rudy Giuliani, always tainted with a lack of realism about the Southern and Western base of the Republican Party these days. Right now he’s an extreme long shot who faces possible relegation into the second tier at the next debate. Whatever one’s opinion about Christie’s virtues, the tunnel problem simply points out that even if Bridgegate had never happened; he was always going to have a hard time reconciling these conflicting interests.