Light at the End of the NY/NJ Rail Tunnel — a Faint Glimmer

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will take at least the weekend to decide whether to continue the biggest public works project under way in America: a new rail tunnel connecting New Jersey and New York City.

The governor received recommendations from key federal and state transportation officials Friday and will consider them through the weekend, Christie communications director Maria Comella said. Christie may also consult with others before making a decision.

"We'll make the decision when the decision needs to be made in the best interests of the people and the taxpayers of the state and with no other interests at stake," Christie said after a campaign appearance with Republican congressional candidate Jon Runyan in Mount Laurel.

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. It also would provide 6,000 construction jobs immediately and up to 40,000 jobs after its completion in 2018, officials estimate. Construction began last year.

Christie halted work on the project six weeks ago while transportation officials reviewed its costs, and earlier this month he scrapped the project, saying New Jersey is broke and can't afford the cost overruns. But, he agreed to give it a two-week reprieve after meeting with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Oct. 8. The two weeks ended  Friday.

LaHood said earlier this week that he would present options for keeping the tunnel project on track to Christie on Friday. No meetings between Christie and LaHood have been scheduled.

Three government officials have told The Associated Press the estimated cost of the tunnel is $9.77 billion, or $4 billion less than the worst-case estimate Christie cited when he killed the project. The officials have direct knowledge of the tunnel but are not authorized to speak publicly about it.

Christie said the project was running $2 billion to $5 billion over budget, but the first cost estimate provided by the officials is only about $1 billion over budget.

The project is on target financially so far.

But on Friday, LaHood said in a statement that the $9.77 billion figure was the "low-range cost of the project" and added that the "mid-range estimate is $10.99 billion and the high-end range is $12.708 billion."

"For complex projects, we do a range of estimates in the interests of accuracy," LaHood said. "However, DOT is committed to working together through the life of the project to keep costs down to the lowest estimate."

The Christie administration said that LaHood's comments confirmed what they already knew.

"The ARC Tunnel project is over budget and puts New Jersey taxpayers at risk of being saddled with billions of dollars in added costs," said Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak in a statement. "The hurdle remains unchanged.  Governor Christie continues to recognize the need and advantages of expanding rail capacity between New Jersey and New York.  But as Governor Christie has repeatedly stated, he is not willing to saddle New Jersey taxpayers with a public works project with such a large, indeterminate cost overrun projection with no way to fund it."

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 overruns.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who helped secure the federal funding, appeared Friday at Newark's rail station to criticize Christie for the latest delay.

"I think the governor maybe is saying, 'Look, I don't want the project but maybe if I act recalcitrant enough, if I'm stubborn enough, if I'm tough enough, maybe we can just get them to throw in more money,'" Lautenberg said at Penn Station. "The problem is they won't throw it in, they'll throw it away. There are lots of other states just waiting to get their hands on that money."

Commuters seem to lean in favor of the project.

Motorist Tony Soscia of Holmdel said "More people use the trains, who can use the trains--that would make my life easier."

And Steve Russo of Bridgewater might switch to the trains to avoid his hour and a half drive into Midtown.

"Definitely," he said, assuming better train service would mean a shorter commute.

Governor Christie, while known for his independent personality, is getting plenty of pressure from the feds to keep going with what is described as the biggest public works project in the nation.

And tunnel advocate Senator Frank Lautenberg added "We have an important project here, the most important transit project ever financed by the federal government."

But not all are convinced.

"If we have all the money in the world I think we should do it," said Metuchen commuter Albert Marotte who then added "But obviously that's not the world we live in."

Follow Brian Thompson on Twitter @brian4NY

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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