by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
October 24, 2010
SWISS BUILD TUNNELS; AMERICANS MAKE EXCUSES
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- There was a big celebration in Switzerland last week as 20 years of drilling ended on what will ultimately become the world's longest rail tunnel.
When the $12-billion, 37.4-mile Gotthard Base Tunnel is fully completed in 2017, it will play a key role in the creation of a high-speed passenger and freight rail network that will connect all of Europe. It will also cut down on air pollution in the Alps from trailer trucks hauling millions of tons of goods.
How does a country of eight million people pull off an engineering feat like this? By making the commitment to do it. Even though the cost will be about $1,300 per Swiss taxpayer, the series of referenda taken nearly 20 years ago to authorize the project passed overwhelmingly.
The United States used to routinely do things like this. But now we live in a nation filled with anti-government ideologues appealing to the selfishness of their supporters rather than embark on projects that benefit the common good.
The latest example of this came earlier this month in New Jersey, when Republican Gov. Chris Christie pulled the plug on the construction of a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River between New Jersey and Penn Station in New York City.
Right now, in the busiest commuter and freight rail corridor in the United States, all freight and passenger traffic runs through one double-tracked tunnel that's more than a century old. It has been a significant bottleneck for years, and that's why 20 years worth of planning has gone into the new tunnel.
The federal government has kicked in $4 billion. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey kicked in another $3 billion. Federal stimulus money added another $130 million to the project. All that was left was to get the state of New Jersey to provide $1.25 billion, which was to be paid for with increased tolls on New Jersey's highways.
So why did Christie kill the rail tunnel? Because he wants to grab the money that the state has set aside for the project to bail out his state's debt-ridden Transportation Trust Fund without resorting to raising the state's gasoline tax.
At 14.5 cents per gallon, New Jersey has one of the lowest gas taxes in the nation. By comparison, it's 44.5 cents in New York, 41.9 cents in Connecticut and 32.3 cents in Pennsylvania. In theory, New Jersey could double its gas tax and still be lower than its neighbors while providing more funds for road repairs and bridge projects. But Christie has presidential ambitions, and raising taxes is taboo if you are a Republican.
So, Christie is willing to risk the long-term economic and ecological health of his state for short-term political gain. No wonder the rest of the world is laughing at us.
At a time when interest rates are at historic lows, more than 1.5 million construction workers are jobless and the list of needed improvements to our national infrastructure grows longer by the day, too many of our politicians believe that no tax increase can ever be justified, even it funds projects that will lift our nation out of economic stagnation at a minimal cost.
There is a slight chance that the Hudson River tunnel project might get revived, but only if someone else is willing to pick up the tab. Christie wants the feds to take responsibility for all cost overruns. Considering how much the feds are already kicking in, that doesn't look likely.
So, a tunnel that would have reduced traffic and congestion in one of the nation's most heavily traveled transportation corridors and provided jobs for more than 6,000 construction workers and thousands of ancillary jobs looks to be dead. And all because one Republican governor thinks he has a shot at being president.
A nation that built big things - like the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad and the interstate highway system - lacks the vision to build a single rail tunnel that's a fraction of the length of what the Swiss are building through the Alps.
Americans should be embarrassed by what we have become as a nation. When we need vision and resolve, too many are willing to settle for cynical appeals to our self-interest.
The nation that used to amaze the world with tremendous feats of engineering is willing to watch itself crumble into rubble because too few of our leaders are willing to make the case for investing in necessary projects that benefit us all.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.