TPM Cafe: Opinion

Desperate Christie Rebrands Himself As Protector of Delayed Commuters

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AP Photo / Winslow Townson

Asked about the numbers on Tuesday, Christie lashed out at the source. “The Monmouth University poll was created just to aggravate me” he told reporters before calling the university’s polling director, Patrick Murray, “a liberal advocate.” “Just look at Patrick Murray and his tweets,” Christie fumed.

(Patrick Murray is perfectly capable of defending himself, but I’ll note for the record here that Monmouth’s polling record is sterling – particularly in New Hampshire.)

Christie also used the moment as an opportunity to take a swipe at the school’s national stature, even though it happens to in the state where he’s governor. “I’ve never paid attention to a Monmouth University poll in New Jersey,” he said. “And by the way, it’s the Monmouth University poll. Anybody really care? You think nationally people are waiting on the edge of their seat waiting for the Monmouth University poll to come out? Stop.”

You can see the video here. It shows a candidate who – in stark contrast to Donald Trump – does not look like he’s enjoying himself on this campaign.

On one hand, it’s understandable. Chris Christie invested more time on the ground in New Hampshire than any other candidate in this cycle, and he’s being bested by Donald Trump. By a mile.

Even before next week’s Fox debate, this means something.

New Hampshire, after all, isn’t Iowa, where Trump hoped to offer free helicopter rides to kids at the state fair (against the rules, apparently) and Christie recently decided, in front of a town hall full of voters, to embark on a five minute long argument about his record on guns with a grossly misinformed member of the audience. In the Republican Party and in Christie’s plan, that kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen in New Hampshire, the adult in the room in the GOP nomination process with supposedly tough-minded and independent tire-kicking voters. If, like Christie, you have spent decades living in the orbit of Manhattan, it is (and should) be unsettling to see Donald J. Trump besting you in a presidential campaign in the Granite State. It’s a challenge to rational thought, something akin to learning the wave-particle duality of light or transubstantiation for the first time. There’s even mind-blowing videotape to go with it.

On the other hand, voters in New Hampshire scrutinizing Christie’s record as governor can find plenty of reasons to be skeptical about his candidacy. In fact, a Monmouth University poll released on Wednesday had even more bad news for the governor: just 55% of New Jersey residents have a positive opinion about the state as a place to live. That’s down from 63% in February and an all-time low since that poll question was first asked in 1980. The results would have been worse if it hadn’t been for New Jersey residents’ affinities for their local communities, a factor averaged into the poll’s final result.

Those numbers confirm what you can sense anecdotally about New Jersey under Christie’s leadership. And they come at a time when many New Jersey commuters are daily suffering under what has become one of Christie’s biggest policy failures – a story Christie is now so eager to bury that he made a stunning reversal last week that slipped under the Beltway’s radar.

On any given day in the last two weeks I’ve gotten a text message from someone – usually a friend far removed from day-to-day talk about politics – asking me to write about seemingly permanent delays on New Jersey transit agency trains that run to and from Penn Station in midtown Manhattan. NJ Transit, as it’s called, leases and shares tracks with Amtrak, which was given the Northeast corridor of track between Washington, D.C. and Boston when it was created in 1971.

Eleven million riders traveled the Northeast Corridor on Amtrak last year. On NJ Transit trains about 87,000 people travel to and from Penn Station in New York on a weekday.

To make a trip from New Jersey to New York, those trains pass through a tunnel – one tunnel. The North River tunnel travels under the Palisades of New Jersey under the Hudson River to Manhattan’s West Side. It has one tube with one track used to carry trains east to New York and beyond, and another going west and on to Washington.

The tunnel is old. It was designed in 1902 and opened in 1910, back when the line was owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad and the signals and wiring were state-of-the art. On the New Jersey approach to the tunnel is a rotating rail bridge that’s even older, prone to getting stuck, and that caught fire a few years ago.

In short, this is absurdly outdated and undersized infrastructure for the country’s busiest section of rails in one of its densest regions. And that’s been causing ever-escalating problems that seem to be getting more frequent. When a train gets stuck in one of the North River tunnel tubes delays can begin to pile up on the entire corridor.

Last Monday, a NJ Transit train was stranded in one of the tubes after wiring sagged in the heat; rush hour trains were delayed by at least an hour. Then last Tuesday morning a circuit breaker tripped west of the tunnel, cutting off power to train signal equipment and reducing the tunnel’s capacity to just one train per tube at a time. Again, delays of an hour followed. The next day, delays topped 90 minutes after another set of electrical problems in the tunnel and a rail yard in Queens. There were even more delays again on Friday, due again to electrical issues.

All of this happened just days after NJ Transit’s board approved a 9% fare hike. And where was Chris Christie? New Hampshire. Then Iowa.

From Iowa, Christie blasted Amtrak for failing to maintain the region’s rail infrastructure, never noting that Congress had recently voted to cut $1 billion from the agency’s budget or that when Hurricane Sandy flooded the North River tunnels for the first time in their history, the salt and chlorides left behind had begun corroding steel and degrading the century-old concrete so badly that the tunnel will likely have to be abandoned within the next twenty years.

But the piece de resistance in Christie’s response came when he said that if he is elected president, he will see to it that a new tunnel is built under the Hudson. “Here's the way we fix it,” he said when calling in to conservative Larry Kudlow’s radio show, “if I am president of the United States, I call a meeting between the president, my secretary of transportation, the governor of New York, and the governor of New Jersey.”

Christie’s position, if we can call it anything that formal, is one of those stunning reversals that can only happen in the context of an ailing presidential campaign. That’s because one of the main reasons Chris Christie was able to set his sights on the presidency to begin with was because he became famous early in 2010, during the first months of his first term, for vocally and publicly pulling the plug on a plan to replace the North River tunnel with a larger cooperatively funded project called the ARC (Access to the Region’s Core) Tunnel.

Christie didn’t just back New Jersey out of the project that had been the labor of his Democratic predecessor, Jon Corzine, and New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg. He used his opposition to the tunnel to take on the notion of federally-funded public infrastructure and the Obama administration’s stimulus program in a high-profile speech in New York to the George W. Bush Institute. He and his supporters derided the project, which would have doubled the trans-Hudson rail capacity of the Northeast Corridor, as little more than a “train to Macy’s basement” – a phrase Christie was still using in 2014. Even as federal officials scrambled to salvage the project and then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood tried to sway Christie in the project’s favor, Christie relied on a disingenuous memo, prepared by NJ Transit executives with the support of now-indicted Port Authority officials, that wildly overstated the projected cost overruns that would fall on New Jersey.

A 2012 federal Government Accountability Office report later spelled out just how dishonest Christie’s men had been. And we now know that Christie intended to kill the tunnel project from the start by using David Wildstein and Bill Baroni, his two top appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, to steer Port Authority funds that had been earmarked for the ARC tunnel toward other New Jersey-based projects in order to spare Christie from having to raise taxes as he contemplated a presidential bid.

By my calculation, one of every five dollars spent on state transportation projects in New Jersey came from the Port Authority – some $4.5 billion – much of it money that would have otherwise been spent on the new tunnel had Christie not intervened. Some of the projects that received that money are now the subject of a joint investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.

“Bridgegate” has never really just been about four days of lane closures on the George Washington Bridge in September 2013. Rather, it’s a saga about the use and abuse of power and the misuse of a transportation agency in the service of political ambition.

For New Jerseyans – and really, for anyone who rides a train between Boston and Washington – the traffic jam never ended. It’s going on even now as I’m finishing this story. And the lesson to learn is that no matter what he’s saying today, Chris Christie should never be allowed near a transportation budget ever again.

Brian Murphy is a TPM contributing editor and Baruch College history professor who writes about the intersection of money and politics. He is the author of Building the Empire State: Political Economy in Early America. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com and you can follow him on Twitter @Burrite.