Monday, September 20, 2010

N.J. Senators defend imperiled tunnel project

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The debate is heating up over suspension of any new work on New Jersey Transit’s planned new trans-Hudson commuter rail tunnels, a project for which ground was broken last year but whose $8.7 billion estimated cost has led to second thoughts in a financially strapped state.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican and a fiscal conservative, last week put the project on a 30-day hold, asserting, “If I can't pay for it, we'll have to consider other options.” He said work already started will continue on the New Jersey side of the river pending a final decision.

New Jersey’s two U.S. senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, on Friday joined other Democratic leaders at the work site to defend the project, which is designed to significantly increase commuter rail capacity across the Hudson.

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“Don't throw away $6 billion; don't throw away thousands of jobs,” Lautenberg (pictured at left) urged. Advocates claim the project would generate around 6,000 jobs.

The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey has pledged $3 billion toward the cost of the project, and the Federal Transit Administration has agreed to match that.

Raymond J. Lesniak. the Democratic chairman of the Economic Growth Committee of the State Senate, acknowledged that “there's going to be a couple of billion dollars shortfall,” but he said the state should be looking for ways to close the funding gap rather than abandon the project.

An FTA spokesman said Thursday, following a meeting of Governor Christie with U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood: “Given that this project represents the single largest transit investment ever made by the Federal Transit Administration, the secretary and governor agreed to have staff work together to further refine estimated cost of the entire project.”

A hearing on the project was scheduled Monday in Trenton, the state capital, by the Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee.