While Gov. Chris Christie’s Bridgegate gambit rightfully helped kneecap his presidential run, it was his cancellation, in 2010, of a trans-Hudson rail tunnel that will have generational consequences not just for New Jersey but for the entire Northeast Corridor. And yet, even as he pulled the plug on the essential second Hudson tunnel, Christie was doubling down on trying to provide public support to complete a 2 million-square-foot mall in the Hackensack Meadowlands that had already lost over $1 billion in public pension funds and been pursued by three of his Democratic predecessors.
For years now, a two-million square-foot mall has been sitting in the Meadowlands and never opened, a kind of white-collar crime scene visible from space, but invisible to the locals at ground-level, because it has become just a part of the New Jersey Turnpike landscape. How it came to be built on state land is testimony to a culture of self-dealing and corruption that reaches all the way to Washington and back to the halcyon Clinton years. It involves names of prominent partisans on both sides of the aisle. Consider, it’s probably the only résumé item that Republican strategist Charlie Black, of Manafort & Stone fame, and the late Democratic governor of Texas, Ann Richards, have in common.
It is hard to imagine but the New York/New Jersey metro region hasn’t always been so dysfunctional when it came to infrastructure. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the region completed no less than four bridges linking New Jersey and New York – the Goethals, the Outerbridge Crossing, the Bayonne Bridge and the George Washington Bridge – all ahead of schedule and well below budget. Of course, that was thanks to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which more recently has suffered so badly under Christie’s authoritarian reign.
In the 21st century, it seems we can’t get out of our own way, culminating in the last seven years of misrule under Christie. The physical deterioration of vital links, like the trans-Hudson rail tunnel between the two states, now haunts the public every day with chronic delays and a certain amount of personal risk every time they use the existing century-old Hudson rail tunnel.
Why do some projects get built, while others – perhaps more essential to our security and well-being – get sidelined and languish? Our political economy is all about choices – who makes them and why. Some construction is about the public interest. Other undertakings are driven by market forces. There are projects that are a combination of both. Sorting this out is critical when we talk about setting the ground rules for “public-private partnerships,” the au courant Trump-plan approach to funding municipal infrastructure in an age of political anxiety over incurring additional public debt.
For decades, engineers have said that the region desperately needed a second trans-Hudson passenger-rail tunnel but it just couldn’t get off the ground. Meanwhile, just a couple of miles away in the Meadowlands, the state of New Jersey under Christie’s leadership continues to press ahead with a mega-mall public-private project on state land. The project has already failed twice, cost public pensions from several states nearly a billion dollars, and is expected to cost more than $5 billion.
Even now, the backers of the project have completed yet another round of bond issues worth more than $1 billion on behalf of the third private developer at the site, which they are marketing through the Public Finance Authority, based in Wisconsin. Neither the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, upon whose land the project was sited, nor the local municipality where it is located, want to assume any financial liability for the performance of the “non-recourse” bonds being floated in their name to complete the project that was supposed to be open to the public a decade ago.