Reuters

The New Jersey governor became a conservative icon after shutting down a major tunnel project. Now, his reputation hangs in the balance.

Long before anyone outside of New Jersey cared about a traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, Governor Chris Christie was making headlines because of another Hudson River crossing.

In fall 2010, less than a year into his first term as governor, Christie single-handedly derailed a multibillion-dollar public transportation project called the ARC tunnel (the ARC stood for Access to the Region’s Core). ARC would have provided another rail connection between New Jersey and New York, relieving strain on the Amtrak tunnel under the Hudson River while doubling capacity and creating a faster route for commuter trains.

Christie said he feared his state could end up on the hook for cost overruns on the project, and he killed it dead. "I'm executing my responsibility in the way that I believe is best for the people of the State of New Jersey and our long-term fiscal health," Christie said at the time, selling the move as a principled stance on fiscal toughness. It won him a lot of fans in the national Republican Party. You could say, and many did, that it put him on the map as a presidential contender for 2016.

Today, Christie is facing the political fallout from what appears to be a petty grudge match that got out of control. His status as a 2016 candidate may be in the balance. Emails between some of his closest aides and allies, published by The New York Times, indicate that they ordered the rush-hour closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge with the intention of clogging up traffic in Fort Lee, whose Democratic mayor had sullied Christie's bipartisan credibility by failing to endorse the governor in his 2013 bid for re-election. "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," wrote Christie's aide Bridget Anne Kelly in an email to the governor's longtime buddy in the Port Authority, David Wildstein. Wildstein resigned his post in December as the scandal began to surface.

The George Washington Bridge toll booths are pictured in Fort Lee, New Jersey. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Wednesday said he was misled by his staff after fresh revelations that a top aide played a key role in closing some lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, one of the world's busiest bridges, in what critics say was a political vendetta. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

In a press conference today, Christie reiterated his assertion that he had no knowledge of the lane closings. He announced that he had fired Kelly, saying that he was "blindsided" by the emails when they appeared in the media yesterday, and "stunned by the abject stupidity" of the actions involved. He also said that he had told his two-time campaign manager, Bill Stepien, who sent some of the emails in question, to withdraw his name from consideration for leader of the New Jersey Republican Party.

It’s a hell of a dust-up, though its long-term political implications remain to be seen. In today's press conference, Christie presented himself as a victim who had been betrayed and lied to by trusted staff. He said he was taking responsibility and would be going to Fort Lee to personally apologize to the mayor and citizens.

Still, there's a remarkable resonance to the scandal. Getting across the Hudson to Manhattan is one of the most grueling tasks facing many citizens of New Jersey. What seems to be a deliberate amplification of that perennial traffic jam is hurting Christie in a particularly Jersey way.

A staggering 400,000 people make the trip from New Jersey to New York each day by car, train, bus, and ferry, the most that commute between any two states. That exhausting journey gets messed up any time a choke point gets blocked (say, by a power problem in the Amtrak tunnel, or, in this case, the closing of several toll lanes in Fort Lee). For the typical Jersey commuter, it’s a rare week that passes without a glitch.

The ARC tunnel had been designed to relieve some of the enormous pressure on the few bridge and tunnel crossings between New York and New Jersey, where demand is expected to rise nearly 40 percent by 2030. The tunnel had bipartisan support from state lawmakers, and former Governor Jon Corzine, a Democrat, broke ground on the project in 2009 to much fanfare. Construction was already well underway on ARC, the biggest public works endeavor in the nation’s history, when Christie pulled the plug.

The federal government had committed to pay for 51 percent of the project, which had estimated costs in the neighborhood of $10 billion. Then-Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Ray LaHood, made a personal trip to New Jersey to plead with Christie to reconsider his stance.

But Christie stood firm, winning kudos from Republicans across the nation as a tough-minded conservative who was willing to make difficult choices about reining in government spending. It was his breakout appearance on the national scene, and a lot of people liked what they saw.

Two years after Christie killed ARC, a report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office came out that suggested what he had said about the cost of the tunnel was wrong. Among other things, the report found that he had dramatically overstated the share that New Jersey would have had to pay. Christie had claimed that the state would be responsible for 70 percent of the ARC costs, while the GAO found that number would have been 14.4 percent. The state ended up having to repay $95 million to the federal government in a negotiated settlement.

Meanwhile, Christie had taken $4 billion that would have gone to ARC and put it into the state’s transportation trust fund, which had been running on empty. That move was widely read as a tactic to avoid raising the state’s gasoline tax, which is the third-lowest in the nation and hasn’t been raised in more than 20 years.

Three years after Christie killed the ARC tunnel, there’s no serious plan to increase capacity for the state’s beleaguered commuters. New Jersey’s roads and bridges are still in terrible shape. The state's transportation fund is again dangerously low, and the political will on the governor’s part to raise the gas tax is no more in evidence now that he’s got his sights on the White House. The only thing that seems to have changed, maybe, is the prognosis for Chris Christie’s political future.

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