After Chris Christie gravely wounded the ARC Tunnel, there was no shortage of critical commentary. But most of it (Freemark, Renn, Herbert, Sollohub) focused on how Christie had "thrown money away" by giving up federal grants and the possibility of a significant infrastructure improvement for the short-term payoff of not having to raise gas taxes or tolls. And that's a legitimate point, but it's not the real story.
Paul Krugman is generally good at looking beyond the flimflam to find out what politicians are actually doing. In August, he ripped away the "deficit reduction" disguise from Paul Ryan's plan to cut taxes for the rich and benefits for the middle class. And Krugman, who lives in Princeton and regularly takes New Jersey Transit, will be directly affected by Christie's actions. It's disappointing, therefore, that Krugman's conclusion simply echoed those of the other commentators.
In order to get behind this particular flimflam, we need to go to Steven Higashide of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. Just as Krugman used the Tax Policy Center's analysis to show that Ryan's plan was not about deficit reduction, Higashide noted that the New Jersey Turnpike Authority is borrowing two billion dollars to widen the Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway (at a total cost of $3.6 billion). Christie's decision is not about fiscal responsibility.
Higashide and his colleagues at Tri-State, simply, have been paying attention to what Christie is doing. They've written extensively on the double standard that Christie maintains for transit and driving - as seen in Christie's 11% cut in the NJ Transit budget, which resulted in a 25% fare hike for Transit riders, while the gas tax stays the same. In April, Tri-State's Zoe Baldwin pulled this gem out of an interview with the Star-Ledger:
Editorial board member: What’s the difference between a gas tax hike and a fare hike, besides who it lands on?
Christie: That’s the difference.
What's the difference between cutting the ARC Tunnel and cutting the Turnpike widening, besides who has a shorter commute?
I have to be honest here: if I were governor of New Jersey, I would do the same kinds of things Christie has done, but in the opposite direction. I don't care how many studies they've done, or how much digging or construction, I would stop a massive highway project dead. I would raise tolls and the gas tax, and try to hold train and bus fares down. I'm guessing that most of the folks at Tri-State would too.
There are two important differences, though. One is that I wouldn't lie about it like Christie has, cry about the attacking budget goblins, and slather it in fiscal-responsibility flim-flam sauce.
The other difference is that I would be promoting transit because it's used by New Jersey's poorest residents. I would be promoting transit and cutting roads in order to get people out of their cars, which would decrease pollution, increase efficiency, reduce carnage, combat obesity and strengthen the downtown cores of New Jersey's many beautiful towns and cities.
As far as I can tell, Christie doesn't care about pollution, energy dependency, carnage, obesity or downtown businesses. He's cutting transit and promoting driving because "we" (he and the people who voted for him) drive, and "they" take the train. He's perfectly happy to pay for infrastructure and state services, but only for "us."
The Christian Science Monitor recently contrasted the ARC Tunnel cancellation with the breakthrough in the construction of the Gotthard Base Tunnel under Switzerland. Like the commentators I listed in the second paragraph, they get it exactly wrong: "The difference between the Swiss and New Jersey examples is this: One shows vision and a commitment to invest in the future, while the other shows shortsightedness." No, the difference between the Swiss and New Jersey examples (as well as the other examples they give in California and Pennsylvania) is that in Switzerland, "we" ride the train, but for Christie, for Meg Whitman in California, and for the Pennsylvania legislature, trains are for "them." We're still building lots of nice things for drivers.
Just as with Paul Ryan's tax cuts for "us" and sacrifices for "them," these budget goblins are a phantom menace, aimed at distracting us from the real issue: the upper classes want more services and don't want to pay for them, and they don't think the lower classes deserve what they're getting. That's what this is about, and you can see it if you don't have transportation myopia.