Three days before a deadline set by Gov. Chris Christie to decide whether he will cancel a massive rail tunnel project into Manhattan, one of New Jersey's senators laid out several cost-cutting measures he said could save the project more than $1 billion.
Speaking Tuesday at the site where construction began last year but was suspended by Christie last month, Sen. Robert Menendez and other Democratic leaders accused the governor of spending more time campaigning around the country for fellow Republicans instead of finding solutions to keep the tunnel project alive.
"Those people in Iowa don't have to sit in endless traffic, they don't have to worry about getting a job, they're not in line to get one of the thousands of jobs that would be created locally," Menendez told a cheering crowd of several hundred union workers. "We need someone who is committed to making it happen."
Since suspending the estimated $9 billion project in September, Christie has appeared in several states including California, New Mexico, Ohio and Iowa to support Republican candidates.
The link under the Hudson River, which was expected to be finished in 2018, is projected to double rail capacity into and out of Manhattan; take 22,000 cars off the roads daily; boost property values; and add 6,000 construction jobs in an industry where unemployment is as high as 50 percent in some trades.
"There's nothing else out there now," said Charles Harden, an electrician from Jersey City who said Tuesday that he has been unemployed for a year and passes the tunnel site every day. "There's nothing on the horizon. (Christie) hasn't found a way to create any jobs; he just knows how to cut budgets, which lays people off."
Christie announced Oct. 7 that he was nixing the tunnel project but soon agreed to a two-week review under pressure from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who traveled from Washington to New Jersey to meet with Christie the following day. The two-week deadline is Friday.
Christie said Monday that he would resuscitate the project if additional funding sources are committed toward covering cost overruns that he has said could reach $5 billion; supporters of the project dispute that figure. If no additional funds are identified, Christie said he's comfortable walking away from the project.
The governor's office didn't immediately respond to an e-mail message seeking comment Tuesday.
The federal government and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are each contributing $3 billion, and New Jersey's share is $2.7 billion plus overruns. The federal commitment is the largest in history for a transportation project in the U.S.
On Tuesday, Menendez offered several examples that he said could save as much as $1.5 billion. They include deferring features such as improvements to a rail yard in Kearny, about five miles west of the tunnel entrance; part of an underground extension to New York's Penn Station; selected station extensions; and construction of a loop track near the Secaucus Transfer Station, the last stop for northbound trains in New Jersey before they go underground.
Public-private partnerships also could defray costs, Menendez said, a position Christie has advocated, as well.
"If I can sit down and get regional transportation people to discuss options, I'm sure his transportation commissioner and some of his key people can sit down and figure it out," Menendez said. "It's a question of will and wanting to make it work versus just taking the position of, 'No, you've got to give me more money.'"