Blocking Environmental Progress

Chris Christie Prevents a New Train Tunnel to Make a Political Point
When New Jersey governor Chris Christie first planted his foot in the way of a proposed train tunnel project designed to relieve traffic congestion along the Hudson River, much of the nation’s attention was focused on the platform of government austerity championed by the Tea Party and other right-wing ideologues. Christie, towing the line for his party, attempted to make his defiance of the project into a political statement against out-of-control spending by the Obama administration and other Democrats. New Jersey wasn’t going to offer “a blank check” to infrastructure projects, he said in October 2010. But by April 2011 a demand by the federal government that New Jersey return almost $300 million already spent on the Trans-Hudson Passenger Rail Tunnel (ARC) made it clear that Christie’s goals of saving his state money had backfired. More recently, a study conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that Christie had grossly exaggerated the cost of the project to his state. His reasons for cancelling the project, it turns out, were purely political.

The GAO report mentions something else of significance: Besides improving traffic flow and commercial activity, ARC would also have improved air quality through less vehicle use. Part of the funds Christie was so reluctant to contribute had already paid for an extensive environmental assessment; blueprints were drawn with minimizing runoff, noise and air pollution in mind. Newer infrastructure projects built in highly developed areas, especially those designed to facilitate public transportation instead of car traffic, often come with these environmental benefits.

Transportation infrastructure has historically been a major source of carbon emissions and ecological destruction around the world. No matter how “eco-friendly” a transportation project, it always comes with a high carbon and resource cost, as a result of both construction and the traffic it enables. ARC would have been no different. In parts of the country where aging roads and railways already shoulder high traffic burdens, however, and where those original projects never had any sort of environmental impact reduction in mind when they were built, it can actually be environmentally beneficial in the long-term to construct a smarter transportation grid. The area of the Hudson between Newark and Manhattan is such a place. If a responsible environmental assessment and impact mitigation initiatives were undertaken during its construction, an infrastructure project that incentivizes public transportation in this urban setting could be a great asset to reducing carbon emissions over time.

An emphasis on government austerity when it comes to these sorts of initiatives not only condemns the outdated infrastructure of the U.S. to disrepair, it also dooms any chance of implementing newer, more efficient ways for people to get around and reaping the environmental benefits. Because of the phenomenon of socioeconomic distancing between development and its negative environmental or health impacts, private industries often do not have a financial incentive to invest in cleaner technologies. And the market, left on its own, cannot build major bridges and tunnels within public property lines. The money to reduce transportation’s environmental consequences must come from the government—in ARC’s case, mostly from the federal government—and Chris Christie should not be standing in its way just to make a political point.