Christie's tunnel vision: Big gamble or big goof?

If Gov. Christie's intent with his stunning decision to derail the new rail tunnel linking New Jersey and Manhattan is to run a high-stakes poker bluff with the federal government over funding the costly project, then, good luck to him.

But if the governor's hold-out position is to scuttle the trans-Hudson River tunnel, then he's apparently intent on making his biggest policy blunder yet.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had a heart-to-heart with Christie. Now there's a chance cooler heads will prevail on the all-important rail tunnel to New York.

The new, multibillion-dollar tunnel will be vitally important to the economic prosperity of the region -- indeed, the entire state. Its impact will be felt in an estimated 45,000 permanent jobs created, the increasing property values from transit-oriented development in communities served by rail, and in cleaner air as thousands of cars are kept off the roads.

With New Jersey Transit trains to Manhattan at capacity already, sharing a century-old tunnel with Amtrak trains, the new tunnel will relieve a mass-transit bottleneck. Making this infrastructure investment is on a par with other great  public-works projects -- undertakings that, no doubt, previous generations struggled to finance.

So it's good news, at least, that Christie on Friday agreed to a two-week review of his stunning decision the day before to back out of the tunnel project.

A quick response from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood -- who journeyed to Trenton for a previously scheduled sit-down over the project's cost -- resulted in Christie's two-week reprieve. On the drawing board are "several options to potentially salvage a trans-Hudson tunnel project," the governor announced.

His original decision to pull the plug on the project, Christie said, was due to likely cost overruns that would cost New Jersey at least $2.5 billion more than its expected one-third share of the $8.7 billion tunnel.

The governor's mantra -- "can't spend what we don't have" -- would be a responsible approach to funding state government's day-to-day operations. But with a major capital project, the expectation is that taxpayers are making an investment, much like a home mortgage, that will be paid for over time.

The underlying problem is the resistance by Christie and other state leaders to raising transit-related taxes to pay for the tunnel, as well as properly fund the state's near-broke highway fund. With a gasoline tax that's among the lowest in the nation, though, there's a ready solution at hand -- if officials have the courage to act in the state's best long-term interests.

With that said, there's every reason to argue that this tunnel project deserves greater support from Washington, given the importance of the New York financial markets. That could come in the form of a federal guarantee to cover cost overruns.

Christie could make the case for such support. By threatening to take his ball and go home, he's grabbed the spotlight. But now it's time to make a reasoned and responsible assessment of this vital rail project, and find a way to get it back on track.

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