NJ governor shifting focus to state road projects

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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A day after Gov. Chris Christie killed the nation’s largest public works project, an underwater rail tunnel linking New York City to its populous New Jersey suburbs, he said Thursday that it’s time to focus on badly needed improvements to the state’s roads and bridges.

The Republican governor, who burnished a national reputation for cost-cutting by putting his foot down on the $9 billion-plus tunnel, told 200 people at a town hall meeting in Moorestown it’s time to pay for improvements to state infrastructure, sometimes rated among the worst in the country.

“We need to start investing money in that and improving that first,” Christie said. “And if we find partners in the future like the city and state of New York, like Amtrak, like the federal government, who want to partner with us on the tunnel, I’m happy to listen to them. But if it’s to benefit the region, then the region has to pay not just New Jersey.”

It’s the closest Christie has come to validating what some tunnel proponents claim was the Republican’s primary motivation for killing the tunnel. They say he wanted to use the money to replenish the state’s nearly broke transportation fund; the tunnel’s demise frees up least $1.25 billion.

Christie has ruled out raising the gasoline tax to help solve the state’s transportation budget woes. At 14.5 cents per gallon, New Jersey’s gas tax is among the lowest in the country, behind only Alaska, Georgia and Wyoming.

The tunnel was intended to supplement a century-old two-track tunnel under the Hudson River that has been at capacity for years. The new tunnel would have been able to handle an extra 25 NJ Transit commuter trains per hour during peak periods; without it, New Jersey is left a tunnel that can handle 23 Amtrak and NJ Transit trains.

More than 625,000 people trek into Manhattan from New Jersey each work day, about 185,000 by rail, and even a minor delay can translate into long waits.

Construction began last year on the tunnel, which has been in the works for 20 years.

Christie had said Wednesday that he was sticking by a decision more than two weeks ago to kill the project because of runaway costs. He rejected a variety of financial proposals offered by the federal government to salvage the tunnel, saying none fully relieved New Jersey of responsibility for overruns.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was contributing $3 billion; New Jersey’s share was $2.7 billion plus overruns. New Jersey will have to repay the federal government up to $350 million of the money already spent.

“If the federal government would have ever come forward and said, ‘We will take the risk of it going over budget and we’ll cover it,’ I would have had a very different press conference,” Christie said during Millennium Radio’s “Ask the Governor” program Wednesday night.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat who helped secure federal money for the project, disputed Christie’s account of the financing deals.

“The governor has once again put politics over performance,” Lautenberg said.

On Thursday, he said he is launching an investigation into the tunnel cancellation and questioned the role state Transportation Commissioner James Simpson played in the decision and whether Simpson violated state ethics laws by participating in the process at all.

Simpson oversaw work on the tunnel while he was the head of the Federal Transit Administration under President George W. Bush.

State ethics laws say state employees are required to recuse themselves on an official matter if they “had any involvement in that matter, other than on behalf of the state.”

Simpson officially recused himself from the project in an Oct. 5 letter to the State Ethics Commission, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Associated Press through a public record request. That was two days before Gov. Christie first announced that he was canceling the project.

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said the adminstration is confident that Simpson’s actions do not conflict with state ethics laws.

Lautenberg’s announcement came hours after Christie said Lautenberg was “out there just making a fool of himself” for criticizing Christie’s decision.

The Obama administration persuaded Christie to rethink the decision and two weeks later proposed options to keep the tunnel on track. The proposals — all rejected by Christie — included low-interest federal loans; a scaling-back of the project; and the use of public-private partnerships, which other cities have formed for large infrastructure projects.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s final offer came during a meeting Sunday: $358 million in additional federal money. The state and the Port Authority were each expected to put up similar amounts.

LaHood also disputed Christie’s account of the financing deals as others expressed shock that the Republican governor was turning down $3 billion in federal funding. Transportation advocates, train riders, union leaders and some Democrats criticized the decision as shortsighted, and contractors reeled at the loss of work in an industry with staggering unemployment.


Associated Press writer David Porter in Newark contributed to this report.