On October 2nd, Amtrak reported that four of its century-old underwater rail tunnels in and out of New York City are in need of extensive repairs and that service will be "badly curtailed" -- terrible news for both daily commuters and passengers who take 260 million trips a year along the vital Northeast Corridor. While some may see this as a local issue, this transportation crisis could cripple a region that produces 20 percent of our GDP. More importantly, how elected leaders respond will say a lot about whether we have the will to fix highways and bridges, provide transit service, build runways and modernize seaports in communities across the country.
So far we have a mixed bag. Four years ago, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cancelled the already-funded and underway Access to the Region's Core (ARC) program, which would have built an additional rail tunnel under the Hudson River. At the time, the case for this transportation lifeline was clear: capacity of the existing tunnels was near 100 percent and delays were already rampant. With the new tunnel, train service would have doubled, generating 32,500 new trips daily. And given that the existing tunnels were built 100 years ago -- things do have a tendency to break down and fixing tunnels that are underwater while they are being used is, well, a little tricky.
Then Superstorm Sandy came and flooded both tubes under the Hudson and two of the four tubes under the East River. Repairs can be made to the East River tunnel, with terrible delays, by shutting down one tube at a time. Under the Hudson, where the tunnel that Governor Christie killed would have been, that option is simply not available.
This week, Governor Christie doubled-down on his initial action -- or, rather, inaction -- and said that "there is not a moment I have any second thoughts" about cancelling ARC and that critics are simply "liberals who want bigger spending programs."
The replacement and upgrade of this infrastructure that dates to another century is about much more than liberals and conservatives or political ideology, and it's even about more than the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. When Wall Street bankers are stuck in Weehawken for hours on their way to work because the tunnels are shut down, they're going to wish there had been some good old-fashioned "liberal" spending programs.
We're not completely up a creek: there is a tunnel modernization plan, called Gateway, that Amtrak is advancing in response to Governor Christie's ill-advised decision to cancel ARC. When built, it will expand capacity and then shift traffic away from the damaged tunnels so that essential repairs can be done. And as an added bonus, thousands of middle class jobs will be created -- unlike the ARC cancellation, which cost the New York metro area 51,000 jobs.
But it's going to take real money, not fairy dust, to get Gateway built.
We have reached a crucial moment in the history of our nation's physical infrastructure. In the transportation sector, the situation is dire. We have more than 65,000 structurally-deficient bridges and too many highways are falling apart. Our public transit systems are absorbing growth in ridership but due to austerity budgets and Washington inaction, they're being forced to cut service and jobs. Our air traffic control system still relies on 50-year-old technology as our skies become increasingly congested. Too many ports are being left behind because they don't have the infrastructure to receive the mega-vessels coming on line. And Amtrak continues to use decades-old equipment that travels on and through what are fast becoming dangerously eroded bridges and tunnels.
But some politicians apparently believe that if we direct public resources to tackle these problems we will just be letting big liberal spenders have their way. Nonsense. "Liberals" like Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Newt Gingrich forged bipartisan deals to ensure America's infrastructure can remain safe and competitive with the rest of the world. I suspect -- and hope -- that today's crowd can manage to take a brief timeout from the demagoguery to fund Gateway and many other crucial transportation projects.
The sort of rhetoric that Governor Christie and others are relying on has no place in this debate. America's economic strength has always rested on its grand and modern infrastructure. When tunnels become too old to travel through, America replaces them.
Everyone needs safe tunnels, not just big-spending liberals.