On Tuesday, the residents of New Jersey saw the future - in China. On the same day that Governor Chris Christie killed funding for the badly needed second Hudson River rail tunnel, Beijing rolled out its fastest bullet train yet. As it turns out, Christie's budget ax is just the latest symptom of a growing epidemic. Across the country, the United States is walking away from its crumbling infrastructure even as America's competitors commit the resources to win in the 21st century global economy.
To be sure, China is making those investments. America's largest creditor not only dominates the U.S. in launching cleaner coal-fired power plants, but by January leapfrogged the West to become the world's largest producer of wind turbines and solar panels. Just last week, an Australian study found that the China, the globe's biggest polluter, is now the clear leader in clean energy efforts.
And the Chinese make really fast trains, too. As the Wall Street Journal announced today:
Yesterday marked the launch of the latest link in China's high-speed rail network: A service between Shanghai and Hangzhou with sustained speeds of more than 245 miles per hour. The slick new train, which set a speed record during a trial run last month, covers the 200 kilometers between the two southern cities in 45 minutes -- twice as fast as the older rail service.
Meanwhile in the Garden State, Republican poster child Chris Christie guaranteed that by standing still, Americans will fall further behind.
Two weeks after first declaring he would end New Jersey's $2.7 billion contribution to what Paul Krugman deemed "America's most important current public works project," Governor Christie announced the final nail in the coffin of the long-planned and much-needed second rail tunnel under the Hudson River. Despite appeals from Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, Christie pulled the plug on a new link to Manhattan over 20 years in the making. As AP reported:
Christie, a rising star in the Republican Party for his fearless budget-slashing, has argued that his cash-strapped state can't afford to pay for any overruns on the $9 billion-plus rail tunnel under the Hudson River. The state is on the hook for $2.7 billion plus overruns.
"In the end, my decision does not change," Christie said. "I cannot place upon the citizens of New Jersey an open-ended letter of credit, and that's what this project represents."
The federal government and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are each contributing $3 billion.
By refusing to complete an effort that would double the capacity now provided by a century-old tunnel into New York, Christie isn't merely turning his back on his state's 185,000 daily rail commuters. Even as the economy struggles to recover from the deepest recession in three generations, he's also walking away from badly needed jobs:
Officials estimated it would provide 6,000 construction jobs immediately and as many as 40,000 jobs after its completion in 2018.
As Krugman explained earlier this month, "Canceling the tunnel was also a blow to national hopes of recovery, part of a pattern of penny-pinching that has played a large role in our continuing economic stagnation." The combination of the economic downturn and Republican anti-government orthodoxy is toxic for the nation's dilapidated infrastructure:
New Jersey's governor wants to kill a $9 billion-plus train tunnel to New York City because of runaway costs. Six thousand miles away, Hawaii's outgoing governor is having second thoughts about a proposed $5.5 billion rail line in Honolulu.
In many of the 48 states in between, infrastructure projects are languishing on the drawing board, awaiting the right mix of creative financing, political arm-twisting and timing to move forward. And a struggling economy and a surge of political candidates opposed to big spending could make it a long wait.
For its part, the AP lamented:
Has the nation that built the Hoover Dam, brought electricity to the rural South and engineered the interstate highway system lost its appetite for big public works projects? At a time when other countries are pouring money into steel and concrete, is the U.S. unwilling to think long-term?
Undoubtedly, the answer is yes. In the UK, a $45 billion high-speed rail link between London and the West Midlands is in the works. By 2020, Japan will complete a $70 billion freeway between Osaka and Tokyo. And while Australia is pouring $38 billion into relieving traffic congestion in Melbourne, even Algeria is committing over $11 billion to create an east-west highway.
Back in Trenton, Assembly Transportation committee chairman John Wisniewski called Christie's decision a "monumental failure of leadership." Meanwhile in Washington, Republicans haven't budged in their all-out opposition to President Obama's proposal for $50 billion in infrastructure investments nationwide. Again, Paul Krugman:
When people ask why the Obama stimulus didn't accomplish more, one good response is to ask, what stimulus? Leaving aside the cost of financial rescues and safety-net programs like unemployment insurance, federal spending has risen only modestly -- and this rise has been largely offset by cutbacks at the state and local level. Many of these cuts were forced by Congress, which has refused to approve adequate aid to the states. But as Mr. Christie is demonstrating, local politicians are also doing their part.
As for the good people of New Jersey in particular and the United States overall, the GOP message about the future is clear: Go west, young man...and don't stop until you get to China.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)