Monday, January 15, 2018

Clown Time Is Over: Christie Leaves Jersey Commuters in the Cold

To start the new work year, I waited 40 minutes in sub-freezing temperatures for a bus, any bus, with an empty seat to take me on my morning trip into the Port Authority building in midtown Manhattan.

But when you get right down to it, Chris Christie left fellow New Jersey commuters in the cold for his entire eight years in office—not only waiting in vain for service that could respond to events in the 21st century, but just to maintain levels already achieved.

In his final weeks on the job, New Jersey’s governor has gone public with his annoyance at successor Phil Murphy for posing with a large cutout photo of Christie in his infamous beach image from this past summer. (“It sends a really terrible message to people about if you say you want to bring people together.”)

Too damn bad, I say. After years of public service, you’d think that Christie would have long since developed a hide thick enough to match his belly—particularly since he has been so adept at pouring on his critics scorn as thick as his holiday turkey gravy.

I hold no brief for Murphy, who, in his year-long media saturation campaign, took a page out of fellow plutocrat Jon Corzine’s electoral playbook.

But give Murphy points for recognizing that the state’s infrastructure is a disaster; for starting his own “Time’s Up” movement by warning low-accomplishment, high-salaried appointees that they should be seeking other work soon; and for pointing to the person who, more than any other in the state’s dismal quarter-century of recent transportation history, is responsible: Christie.

Over a year ago, I identified Christie as a leading member of the “Pig Pen” of conservative GOP officeholders, commentators and operatives who aided the rise of Donald Trump. For that craven attempt to curry favor with the Chaos President, he will bear the full brunt of historians’ judgment.

‘Sad,’ ‘Pathetic’—and a Punchline

But in the meantime, with a 15% approval rating (lower than even his sorry predecessor Corzine), New Jerseyans have already delivered their own judgment of Christie’s (mis)leadership. Increasingly, that judgment can be summed up in words often used in the tweets of the GOP nominee he endorsed sooner than any other governor in the nation: “sad” and “pathetic.”

The cause of his fall was also the reason behind his abysmal transportation record: his headlong, misbegotten campaign for the Presidency, a pursuit that not only was a waste of time but catnip to late-night comics. He went from a colossus in his state—an incumbent who swamped his hapless rival in his 2013 re-election campaign—to a figure of derision. 

By the end of the first week of February 2016, he had made 190 stops in New Hampshire to secure a primary win in that state, more than any other candidate, according to NECN's candidate tracker. While he was away, his energy was distracted as the legislature squabbled over how to adequately fund a nearly broke fund to repair state roads.

Even before rivals such as Trump took a swipe at him as an absentee governor, New Jerseyans had come to the same conclusion. The suspension of his Presidential campaign, in the vain hope that Trump would dangle a significant post in his administration, left him the most broken of lame ducks for nearly two years before he left office.

Nobody had dared cross him while he was riding high. After his campaign crashed, nobody could stop deriding him. (As one example among many, David Letterman: "Governor Christie was asked, 'Do you think this will hurt your chances of being president of the United States?’ And he said, 'Hey, we'll close that bridge when we come to it.'")

The governor is a famous Bruce Springsteen fan. But in his final 24 hours leading the state, he should heed not “Born to Run” but another tune by a Seventies rocker: Elvis Costello’s “Clown Time Is Over.”

Bridgegate Didn’t Start Christie’s Transportation Mess

A post of mine from four years ago on Bridgegate reviewed that rank abuse of power in the light of two other Christie transportation failures: 

*dropping the ARC Tunnel project under the Hudson—not just a project he previously backed in talks with the Obama administration, but one that was already funded, under construction and desperately needed to relieve traffic congestion. However, pathologically tax-averse GOP primary voters needed to be appeased at all costs. (The full consequences of terminating ARC won’t be appreciated until 2020, when Amtrak begins closing the existing tunnels for repairs. Christie had better hope that, with the resulting delays, he doesn’t have a job that calls for him to cross the Hudson—or to pass irate fellow commuters with long memories along the way.)

*defending a New Jersey Transit system that failed to take into account the impact of climate change—and watching as 300 railcars, one quarter of its fleet, were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

But we now know, due to the media that Christie and Donald Trump have scorned as much as they have courted, that these failures were part of a larger, system-wide breakdown facilitated by the outgoing governor and his spineless minions:

*Using funds for a purpose unintended by legislation. Christie leaned hard on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to shift money intended for the ARC Tunnel project to rehabilitate the Pulaski Skyway and two other state roads, all so that he would not enrage GOP Presidential primary voters by raising the state gas tax or state voters by raiding the transportation trust fund. The reasoning behind it was a bald-faced lie: that these roads provided direct “access” to the Lincoln Tunnel. (Take out a map and see if you agree.) The Securities and Exchange Commission saw through the ruse, and last month, after a lengthy investigation, fined the Port Authority $400,000 for the fiscal diversion

*Allowing nationwide models of efficiency to deteriorate. Some of my readers are, like me, old enough to recall when New Jersey Transit had an admirable record of on-time performance. Not anymore. According to a March 2017 Bloomberg News report, the agency’s railroad has the most accidents and safety fines among its peers. 

*Stocking an agency with unqualified cronies. Christie’s aspirations for higher office—not just President, but also Attorney-General, chief of staff and even transition head for Trump—unraveled because of the machinations of one such patronage dump, David Wildstein, a high-level Christie appointee to the Port Authority who concocted the insanely vindictive Bridgegate scheme. But the Port Authority, we now know, was not the only institution that he used to install allies and undermine its mission. Two weeks before Christie was due to leave office, the Bergen Record reported that NJ Transit hired or promoted 10 of the governor’s staffers at a time when it couldn’t retain veteran employees necessary to operate the system safely and reliably. The draining of the latter talent pool gave other states an edge in creating advanced transportation systems that will serve the long-term interests of citizens—even while New Jerseyans must struggle right now with delays and cancellations so severe in the New Jersey Transit system that some frustrated commuters are even floating the idea of refunds. In the early postwar period, GOP anti-labor advocates helped popularize the term featherbedding as a term of opprobrium for union "make-work" sinecures. But, by appropriating the idea for his own purposes, the outgoing Republican governor of the Garden State deserves a similar neologism in his honor: Christie-bedding.
*Putting lipstick on the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) pig. True, long lines at DMV locations were a constant under the direction of prior New Jersey governors of both parties. Christie’s solution? A name change for the institution, to the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC), and a vow to use computers to streamline operations. Those who sensed something amiss were right: the new name was a public-relations move leading to no upgrade in efficiency, a state of affairs that quickly became apparent when that new-fangled technology…failed to work. In the meantime, several state inspection and license/registration offices had closed, forcing motorists to travel miles away to locations with lines even longer than what existed before. By August 2016, Christie was calling these continuing failures “unacceptable” and vowing immediate action—a statement pretty rich, because he already had done so much by himself to worsen their condition.

In an odd way, this perhaps least-noticed aspect of Christie’s mismanagement of the state’s transportation needs ties back to his most famous one. Lost amid the round of accusations cascading around Bridgegate was another by Elizabeth Mayor Christian Bollwage that the Christie administration took an ax to an MVC location in his city—the fourth largest in the state—in 2010 as retribution for opposing such administration initiatives as an annual cap on budget and property tax hikes.

The Christie administration denied the charge four years ago. But the modus operandi of Bridgegate—i.e, using an element of the transportation system as a tool for political vengeance—may have gotten its first tentative, small-scale tryout here.

Untruth and Consequences

Already serious, the consequences of Christie’s malign neglect of state commuters will likely become dire in the not-so-distant future. That Gateway project agreement he trumpeted as a better deal for the state? It’s already unraveling. Christie was too busy jumping on planes carrying him to Iowa and New Hampshire voters to explain to his own constituents how the $13 billion Gateway tunnel would have been a better financial deal than the $8.7 billion one already in place for ARC. 

(Oh, and those potential cost overruns he cited as a reason for killing ARC? He never bothered to say how Gateway--to be started, at best, several years later--would not avoid incurring the same unanticipated add-on costs.)

But now, the Federal Transit Administration has thrown cold water on a recent funding proposal by New York and New Jersey for the first phase of the project that would have the federal government take on half of that portion of the bill. 

Tell me, Faithful Reader: Will the self-proclaimed “Builder President” aid his--ahem, biggest--early supporter by defying a red-state base on Capitol Hill with no interest at all in helping along anything related to the Eastern Seaboard—particularly anything within a paragraph of the words “mass transit” and “taxes”?

For a governor who throughout his two terms rated himself highly for management efficiency, a pro-business attitude and concern for the middle class, Christie failed spectacularly in overseeing the state’s transportation needs because he and his top appointees—who, once can be sure, do not take public transportation from out of state to their jobs-- could not understand the centrality of transportation to business site selection decisions. To start with, millennials are more comfortable in using public transportation than other age groups, and attracting and retaining young talent is a priority for businesses. 

But even for other age cohorts, every half hour that a worker loses in stalled traffic means higher stress that finds its cost in heightened medical expenses and family fractures. That same half hour in traffic for businesses spells lost productivity.

It is debatable whether, as Barack Obama contended, "elections have consequences." But the Christie Administration went a long way toward proving that all forms of untruth do.

The biggest lie was that Christie was a responsible guardian of the public's money. For a while, he got away with pursuing a selfish short-lived run for the Presidency that sacrificed the long-term public interest, and with parking his own loyaltists at the public trough. 

But it all caught up with him in the end, and now it's Christie who can see no future in either Trenton or Washington. Cold comfort on this night to the citizens he misled and abused for two terms.

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