By David Cruz
“Welcome to Pennsylvania Station,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka as he addressed this morning’s press conference. He was one of several elected officials on hand today for a somewhat truncated press conference led by, and limited to questions directed to, Sen. Cory Booker, who ran interference for Gov. Chris Christie. Reporters wanted to know about the governor’s heavily criticized handling of NJ Transit, the transportation agency for which he’s responsible.
“I know you said it’s for Gov. Christie but I’m going to answer that question really quickly because it’s my press conference,” Booker said. “I outrank the governor, even though he runs the State Police.”
The question was about the governor canceling the ARC Tunnel project in 2010. Had he not, it could’ve been opening about now.
“That’s done,” admonished Booker. “That’s history and I hate that I have to revisit that all the time. I’ve been the senator now for three years and we came together and we put together a plan and it was a multi-party negotiation, two different states, multiple layers of government and actually everybody leaned in.”
The result of that meeting of the minds was an agreement for New York and New Jersey to split, along with the federal government, funding for the new Gateway Tunnel. But that federal funding is now in doubt as the president sends signals that he might not keep up his end of the bargain. Christie — who boasts about his 15-year friendship with the president — is being counted on to advocate for not only the Gateway Tunnel funding but for more investment in the Northeast Corridor mass transit infrastructure.
“I’ve already spoken to the president about this,” said Christie, “so the president’s well aware of my point of view on this project, and I absolutely will continue to speak my mind on this both publicly and privately.”
For starters, the senator and the others here say they want to get Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to come visit and inspect, as her predecessor did, the pivotal infrastructure of the Northeast Corridor, a system that includes not only Amtrak, but also New Jersey Transit and by extension PATH. The idea is to impress upon her the economic importance of bringing the system into the 21st century.
“We need our mass transit infrastructure improved and we need the federal funding because it is vital,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz, who represents Essex County. “When trains derail at Penn Station in New York or get stuck in the tunnels under the Hudson, it is not only a real safety concern, but it creates overcrowding in all of our facilities — Hoboken, Newark and throughout New Jersey’s transportation hubs. Newark Penn Station is the busiest in New Jersey. Nearly 30,000 people travel here on New Jersey Transit every single day.”
Although it was only mentioned tangentially, New Jersey Transit has been the target of much public ire over the past year, with frequent, often record-breaking delays, fare hikes, service cuts and scattershot funding that has forced the agency to cannibalize its capital budget to fund its operating expenses, all under Christie’s watch. Demonstrators were on hand to make that point, although police put them in their place.
“He is now trying to rebuild his legacy after millions and millions of dollars that he’s given away, that he’s wasted away,” said Analilia Majia, executive director of New Jersey Working Families Alliance. “These derailments, these ridiculous things that are happening in our state are all due to his lack of concern to infrastructure, to spending, actually helping our state. He’s trying to recover himself but we are not going to allow him to lie and to make up history.”
The senator and the governor beat a hasty retreat after only three questions, although Christie told us that the budget for NJ Transit has gone up more than 50 percent over his tenure. As for getting the transportation secretary here, the governor and the senator say they’re on the same page and will work together to make that happen. It could be the first real test of whether the governor’s support for the president will finally bear some fruit for New Jersey.