Back in 2010, Gov. Christie shocked transportation experts when he canceled construction of a new rail tunnel to Manhattan, one of the nation’s busiest routes. The project would have doubled capacity, relieving the terrible rush-hour delays that force NJ Transit and Amtrak trains to queue up to snake through two century-old, single-track tunnels. But Christie argued that the state couldn’t afford its part of the tab, $3 billion to $5 billion, for relieving the rail congestion.
Price wasn’t an issue earlier this month when South Jersey officials boisterously celebrated the start of another project aimed at reducing congestion. This one will reconstruct the chaotic Camden County interchange where Interstates 295 and 76 converge with Route 42. Fixing this one trouble spot – or, rather, making it more tolerable – will cost U.S. taxpayers just shy of $1 billion.
The different responses to these projects speak volumes about how our policymakers think about congestion. Highway traffic jams are still considered unacceptable. But rail commuters routinely make do with antiquated systems that cause regular delays and breakdowns, like the one that left PATCO riders stranded on the Ben Franklin Bridge for 90 minutes during St. Patrick’s Day weekend.
What makes the I-295 project stand out is its staggering price tag. Officials say it will take at least $900 million to untangle the South Jersey interchange – a sum equal to 75 percent of SEPTA’s entire annual operating budget. Yet it doesn’t appear that New Jersey or federal officials ever stopped to ask, “Is this problem just too expensive to fix?”