Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman made a statement at a Regional Plan Association conference last week that's generating some consternation. Im being told we got something less than 20 years before we have to shut one or two down, said Amtrak C.E.O. Joseph Boardman at the Regional Plan Associations conference last week at the Waldorf Astoria. Something less than 20. I dont know if that something less than 20 is seven, or some other number. But to build two new ones, youre talking seven to nine years to deliver, if we all decided today that we could do it." Tom Wright, the Regional Plan Associations executive director, described Boardmans remarks as a big shock. Ive been hearing abstractly people at Amtrak and other people at New Jersey Transit say for years the tunnels are over 100 years old and we have to be worried about them, he said. To actually have Joe put something concrete on the table, less than 20 years Within my office, there was a level of, Wow, this is really serious.' The aging tunnels under the Hudson River were built by the Pennsylvania Railroad; it was a tough job back then with a number of lives lost in the process. (There's a great PBS American Experience episode, the Rise and Fall of Penn Station, which documents it.) The tunnels are a vital rail link, and are heavily used. Superstorm Sandy caused damage to them, and there's real concern over how much longer they can be kept in operation safely. Having additional rail tunnels to allow them to be taken out of service for repairs and rebuilding would be extremely useful - and those new tunnels were going to be built. Guess who killed that project? New Jersey governor Chris Christie spiked plans to build two new rail tunnels under the Hudson, likely leaving the metropolitan region for the next quarter century with all of two rail tunnels to carry New Jersey commuters into Midtown Manhattan. Those two tunnels are more than a century old and carry more more than 160,000 passengers a day. Hurricane Sandy flooded them and caused a lot of damage. They are also a dangerously narrow chokepoint on the one of the busiest rail corridors in the world. The state and federally financed project called Access to the Regions Core would have doubled the number of cross-Hudson tubes and relieved that bottleneck. Construction had already begun when Christie pulled the plug, a putative cost-saving measure that was also meant to demonstrate his state's political independence, and rededicated some of its funding to repairing the Pulaski Skyway. Senator Chuck Schumer last year called Christies decision "one of the worst decisions that any governmental leader has made in the 20th century, or the 21st century. At the time, Christie 'justified' the decision by claiming that - although most of the money would be coming from the Feds - it would ultimately be too expensive for New Jersey. Scott Raab over at Esquire has the goods on what was really going down. ... Early in his first term, Christie "borrowed" $2 billion by killing a crucial tunnel project jointly funded by New Jersey, New York, and the federal government, and he used that dough for New Jersey road work that the New Jersey budget couldn't cover without raising the state's gas tax -- second-lowest in the U.S. -- a solution Christie refused to consider. That tunnel project, billed at $9 billion, would've been a godsend to New Jersey rail commuters -- not to mention the thousands of jobs committed to its construction. Chris Christie not only killed the tunnel, but lied about doing so to save the state from paying for imaginary cost overruns, even after the U.S Department of Transportation, trying to save the tunnel, said it would cover New Jersey's share of any such costs. That was late 2010; Christie's men -- including David Wildstein and Bill Baroni, both of whom resigned in the wake of the Great Ft. Lee Clusterfk -- were beginning to take over the PA. That process accelerated when David Samson, another Christie crony, became Chairman of the Port Authority Board of Commissioners early in 2011. There was plenty of justification for new rail tunnels even before the existing tunnels were damaged by Superstorm Sandy. Christie canceled them for a number of reasons, none of them good. First, of course, is the Republican knee-jerk opposition to any spending on infrastructure, especially if the Federal Government is involved. (This is why we can't have nice things.) The decision let Christie cloak himself in false fiscal prudence. Never mind that the economy desperately needs that kind of investment and real job creation. Never mind that it's something the region really needs. It was a chance to take a cheap shot at Washington (and Obama). Second, by robbing Peter to pay Paul - diverting money to expressway repairs, Christie avoided raising taxes - again a GOP No-No, and got a lot more control over the money - always a grifter priority and Christie is nothing if not a grifter. The power to sign contracts, bestow patronage jobs on allies, etc. etc. It's all good. (Just look at the questions being asked about how Christie has used the Sandy recovery funds) In the normal course of events, a looter like Christie would have been long gone from the scene by the time problems with the tunnels became too serious to ignore. It is beyond ironic that a political party with a fetish for Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged is now seeing one of its once-brightest stars facing real trouble over neglecting a vital rail link on his watch, funds diverted away to reward fellow looters, and a railway tunnel or two in danger of collapse in a worst case scenario. Let's hope the light at the end of the tunnel for Chris Christie is an oncoming Amtrak Train.
UPDATE: For more on the importance of the Hudson River Tunnels and the proposed Gateway plan to address the needs of the Northeast Corridor as well as NJ-NYC, the NARP Blog has a post about Living on Borrowed Time with some more details. ,,,Continued inaction will have vast consequences for the nations transportation network. Its no longer a question of inaction delaying the prospect of improved service, or of potentially halting improvements to existing infrastructure. Rather, continued inaction will mean a quite literal collapse of a major portion of the nations rail network. Unless steps are taken immediately to design, fund, and build a replacement for the Hudson River Tunnels, there is no alternative to their closure within the next two decades. Closure of the tunnels means the effective immobilization of the Northeast Corridor and billions of dollars in lost economic activity: an unacceptable possibility for a nation still recovering from the Great Recession.