Many New Jersey commuters are experiencing a “summer of hell” marked by cancelled and delayed train service due to the deteriorating rail link to New York City. They might want to know why the state has not been able to get its act together to build a badly needed new train tunnel, even while it has been pushing relentlessly to build a mall in the Meadowlands.

“The Must-Build Swamp Mall, the Canceled Tunnel and Christie’s Era of Misrule,” by Bob Hennelly, published July 8 on the Insider New Jersey political news site, sheds light on the back story of the American Dream Mall, once known as Xanadu, the ugly color block building rising in the Meadowlands alongside the Hackensack River, which now has a targeted opening of fall 2018 after its on-and-off again construction resumed earlier this year.

Hennelly describes the government’s long-running support for the mall–which he characterizes as “the swamp-mall ponzi-scheme,” through the bankruptcy of the original developer, a tab that has ballooned by the billions and a series of blown deadlines, among other setbacks. He recalls Christie’s promise in 2011, when he steered $200 million in state aid to the project, that it would be ready by the 2014 Super Bowl.

And he contrasts that unwavering support for the mall with the failure to construct new rail tunnels under the Hudson River to Manhattan even though it was long known that they were needed for capacity purposes alone.

Then Hurricane Sandy hit, and upped the ante. The storm surge flooded the two existing tunnels, leaving behind residues that continue to eat away at their structural integrity.

Hennelly writes that the tunnels are “actively deteriorating from the inside” and that “the part of the structure that was most seriously damaged was the part passengers and crew would most rely on to escape from the tunnel in the event of an emergency.”

The residues, which infiltrated cracks, duct work and porous concrete, cannot just be cleaned up or removed. They will continue to corrode, causing serious problems until one and then both of the tunnels are rendered unusable. And thus far, any hope of replacing them is almost ten years off.

It did not have to be this way. A project known as Access to the Region’s Core, or ARC, which would have built two new tunnels along with a new station in Manhattan and a rail yard in New Jersey, had been on the drawing board for twenty years when Governor Chris Christie pulled the plug on it in October 2010. The federal government was to pay a bit more than half the original projected $8.7 billion cost.

More than $600 million had already been spent at the time of the cancellation, mostly on studies and design and the purchase of land in Manhattan. Not only was the federal funding lost, but the state incurred over $800,000 in legal fees fighting U.S. efforts to recoup spent monies and wound up repaying $95 million after reaching a deal that waived $2.7 million in penalties and interest.

Christie cited ARC’s rising cost and concern that state taxpayers would have to foot the bill for the overruns as reasons for walking away from the project.

ARC has been replaced by the Gateway program, which would extend and renovate the North East Corridor rail line linking Newark Penn Station and New York Penn Station and has an estimated cost of $20 billion. It is slated for completion in 2026.

Meanwhile, the cost for the two-million-square foot American Dream mall continues to mount, with an expected final tab of $5 billion. That does not include the environmental cost of building on state owned wetlands, which had to be filled in. Nor does it factor in the $41 billion in losses to several state pension funds that invested in it, including. $121 million from a 2006 investment made by the New York State Common Retirement Fund

As Hennelly’s headline indicates, Christie deserves much of the blame for the situation. But there is plenty to go around, and not just for Republicans. Hennelly names plenty of Democrats who backed the mall project without a similar commitment to tunnels. They include Christie predecessors James McGreevey, Dick Codey and Jon Corzine, former President Bill Clinton, former Vice-President Al Gore and Bradley Campbell, who later led the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Read Hennelly’s fascinating saga here.

Photo at top by Brad Miller Millertime83, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

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