8 Oct 2010 7:00 am   //   Filed under: In the news, Transit

The war on trains

Yesterday the Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, ordered a halt to the most important passenger rail project in the United States. That’s bad, and it gets worse. This is not an isolated local decision. This is part of a nationwide war on trains, of which Christie is the leader.

The project that Christie killed yesterday is a second rail tunnel under the Hudson River. It would add capacity to the badly overcrowded and economically vital Northeast Corridor. I ride this route often and I’m surely not the only one tired of sitting in Secaucus going nowhere while we wait for a train ahead to clear the only existing tunnel—built in 1910. Construction began on the new tunnel earlier this year, with funding by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Port Authority, and the state of New Jersey. Yet Christie determined he had the power to shut it down. “The ARC project will be terminated and staff will immediately begin an expeditious and orderly shutdown of the project,” the governor declared.

What else has the governor been up to?

Here’s Gov. Christie earlier this week at a campaign event in Wisconsin. (This picture is from a video.) On the right is Scott Walker, Republican candidate for governor of Wisconsin. Walker’s campaign runs a web site at www.notrain.com, in which he protests an $810 million federal project to fund a passenger rail project in his state. Walker wants none of it. His campaign commercial calls the unbuilt rail project a “boondoggle.” “We’ll stop this train,” Walker says.

Next, here’s Christie campaigning last month with John Kasich, the Republican candidate for governor of Ohio. In August, Kasich was asked his opinion about a rail system in Ohio that’s being funded with $400 million in federal money. He said, “It’s not going to happen when I become governor, OK?… If you want that train, I hope you can get over that and vote for me anyway, but you’re not going to get that train.”

And here’s a picture of Christie with Meg Whitman, candidate for governor of California, on September 22, from Whitman’s web site. Whitman also opposes a major passenger rail project in her state that’s been decades in the making. Her campaign position was highlighted in a New York Times article this week about state-level politicians opposing federal rail projects.

What the hell is going on? Opposition to trains is not some kind of Tea Party platform. You aren’t hearing anybody talk about it on Fox News or AM radio. There’s little if any populist rage against trains. Rail improvements have bipartisan support at the federal level. Trains make sense and have a proven record of helping boost local economies; they’re pork projects in the best sense of the word. Christie, especially, serves a constituency in New Jersey that depends on trains to get around every day. Additionally, in my experience, state politicians are deeply reluctant to kill projects that divert federal funds to local construction companies. And even if trains aren’t your favorite thing, and even if you think they require too much taxpayer money, they’re certainly cheaper than highways.

Could it be these candidates oppose trains simply because the Obama administration likes them? Could it be to make Democrats look like uncool weenies by forcing them to talk about how great trains are? That seems like a risky strategy. It’s rare to reject cash out of simple political spite.

I wonder if, instead, we’re seeing a replay of the Great American Streetcar Scandal scenario, in which automotive interests conspired to kill our streetcar systems. This time it might not be Detroit, exactly, since the big U.S. auto companies are in too politically sensitive of a situation right now (especially with G.M. basically controlled by the government). But oil companies wield political influence. So do car dealerships and their associations. Are there people who actually think trains could be so successful they reduce the number of cars on the road and the amount of gasoline consumed?

Whatever the case, Christie is the thread that connects the anti-train candidates, and he’s spreading his franchise nationwide.