Chris Christie put public at risk

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Call it the Politics of Transportation.

It made New Jersey Governor Chris Christie a player within the Republican establishment, but it should destroy him. Bridgegate (George Washington Bridge Scandal) is merely tawdry schoolyard politics with felonious overtones.

Perhaps it involves law-breaking, political corruption and retribution. Maybe abuse of power. Lengthy commuter delays and migraine headaches for victims and perpetrators alike were certain, but in the range of scandals it’s unconvincingly severe. Just petty and annoying to the thousands of users of the George Washington Bridge (GWB), and great political theatre to politicos. It only endangered the lives of a few.

Gov. Chris Christie
Gov. Chris Christie

We don’t know who is involved or why Bridgegate occurred. We’ve read a few incriminating emails from Christie’s staff, but we haven’t seen any evidence that he was personally involved. Trivial. Chris Hayes quipped, “If there were hundreds of Americans who died from this thing that would be a horrible, morose disaster.”

It was not.

Transportation routes between New Jersey and New York seem to be a dark obsession with Chris Christie. His actions already have disqualified him from holding public office anywhere anytime, not because of Bridgegate or his apparent vengeance against various mayors, including Steven Fulop of Jersey City and Dawn Zimmer of Hoboken.

My inside source close to the case  calls Christie’s actions were treasonous.

Let’s go back to 2009 when Chris Christie singlehandedly canceled construction of the ARC (Access to the Region’s Core) tunnel. You may remember the ARC was designed to replace the PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) tunnels built in 1909. ARC would double the present capacity of the PATH tunnels. Construction had lingered in stalemate for decades, but in 2006, the United States Government kicked construction plans into overdrive and earmarked over 50% of projected $8.7 billion construction costs in Federal dollars to get it built a.s.a.p.

This became the largest Federal monetary commitment for any transportation project, ever. In 2009, the United States’ economy was reeling from the worst recession since the Great Depression.

You might remember a failed terrorist plot in 2006 which threatened to bomb a PATH train under the Hudson River. In 2006, we were flooded nationwide with daily, sometimes false, always hyperbolic terrorism pronouncements. Simultaneously we were drowned in two unwinnable wars.

Still yet another announcement that another terrorist plot had been uncovered was ho hum in the scheme of things. DHS preferred to keep it that way. This was too treacherous expound on. The FBI called it “the real deal.” DHS felt it was in the public’s safety not publicize the alarming peril. The only option was to quickly, quietly and thoroughly fix the fragile subway infrastructure.

PATH train tunnel under the  Hudson. (Wikipedia)
PATH train tunnel under the Hudson. (Wikipedia)

Unlike the Holland and Lincoln car tunnels, the PATH train tunnels are fundamentally different in their respective designs. Car tunnels are energy hogs. They need high capacity pumping and ventilation systems to rejuvenate and refresh air in spacious driving environments.

Train tunnels are much simpler with no aeration needed. They are designed like pistons where lingering air in a tunnel’s cavity is pushed out by the train itself with fresh air sucked in as the train exits. That ventilation method is made more efficient the closer the body of the train is to the side of the tunnel. In the case of the PATH trains, the walls of the trains are often less than a foot from the sides of the hundred year old tunnels.

Old age doesn’t help. It’s nearly impossible to repoint underwater brick tunnels. They should have been replaced fifty years ago. The thin crumbling brick walls are just sealed by buildup of harbor mud and debris. By any measure they are weak. A terrorist bomb doesn’t help.

Engineers looking at the impact of a bomb found that a small device carried or worn onboard a PATH train would easily breach the wall of the train and tunnel simultaneously. That hole would kill all in the tunnel.

Worse, the PATH tunnels link directly to the vast network of Manhattan underground transit tunnels. Given the time these tunnels were built, they were excellent studies in efficiency, so efficient that if a PATH tunnel were ruptured, the Hudson River would flood the entire Manhattan subway system. Estimates average the casualty rate during rush hour at a quarter of a million passengers.

Not a surprise here.

Some news reports spoke of the grave danger, but similar to a magician’s distraction, DHS publically pointed to the silliness of such a supposition that Manhattan’s tunnels could be flooded, claiming the train passages were above sea level. As street flooding from Hurricane Sandy showed, DHS’s claim is false.

Civil Engineers contracted by the Port Authority recommended prompt and immediate replacement of the PATH tunnels. The PATH tunnels were too old, flimsy and dangerous to be fixed. A new tunnel would need to be able to withstand a moderately sized bomb, but most importantly, it could not be connected to the rest of the subway system. The feeling was if a bomb successfully burst the walls of the ARC tunnel, that bombing would only kill the people in the tunnel, but not everyone in the Manhattan subway system. So the terminus for the new ARC was put in Macy’s basement rather than the World Trade Center.

Critics publically lambasted the ARC tunnel. They didn’t know the reasoning for breaking the connection, but complained vociferously how terrible it was to design a replacement not linked to the rest of the network. DHS couldn’t publically fight the critics. They couldn’t reveal how perilous the present situation is.

The Federal Government, New York and New Jersey started setting money aside for immediate construction of the ARC. The cost was estimated to be $8.7 billion dollars. The ARC was the Federal Government’s highest anti-terrorism priority. They scrambled to set aside $6 billion dollars with the Port Authority coming up with the additional $2.7 billion, evenly split between New York and New Jersey.

Like warring siblings tangling over an inheritance, the even split between states caused some resentment in New Jersey as the Port Authority had already earmarked a princely sum to reconstruct Ground Zero in Manhattan, not New Jersey. Some in New Jersey believed the ARC’s cost should be born more by New York to make up the difference from Ground Zero. This way, both states would get an equal share of the Port Authority’s largess.

In addition, the billions set aside by New Jersey’s side of the Port Authority for the ARC was tempting for Christie to pull from. New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund, which provided most of the money to highway projects, faced bankruptcy. The New Jersey gas tax is the lowest in the nation, and Christie, a conservative Republican, wanted to prove he wouldn’t raise taxes ever. If he could prove he was tough on taxes and increased government spending, his national profile within the conservative media would be greatly augmented, and he was correct.

Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Ray LaHood also made a personal trip to New Jersey in September of 2010 to make a final plea with Christie to reconsider his stance. My source told me that then- Department of Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, joined Ray LaHood on that journey to New Jersey.

Chris Christie was warned of the danger. He was advised of the risk and impact and the imperative to build the ARC a.s.a.p. Chris Christie had to choose between public safety or his prime standing as a GOP Presidential contender. DHS offered an additional fig leaf: they promised an additional $380 million dollars in federal funds, reducing the already nominal amount New Jersey had to contribute to about a billion dollars.

Christie chose the latter.

His concern wasn’t infrastructure nor safety, but his career. He rejected the generous federal offer. Again, the feds couldn’t publically say why Christie’s decision was so terrible and risky for subway riders. All they could do was bill New Jersey $96 million dollars for construction costs already borne.

Barge from Google Maps.
Barge from Google Maps.

DHS hired engineers to scramble for an alternative solution to replacement of the PATH tunnels. They came up with a plan to use a barge laden with massive amounts of material to crush the PATH tunnel if it is bombed. I don’t know which barge it is, but with Google Maps I scanned the shoreline up and down the Hudson on both the New York and New Jersey sides. The only barge massive enough was docked near the Central Railroad of New Jersey terminal. My source doesn’t believe the barge solution would work, nor has it been tested, but the barge solution is the only option left short of replacing the PATH tunnels.

Two weeks ago, I spoke with a senior executive at Delloite, who had offices in the World Trade Center in 1993. (It was the same space as Cantor Fitzgerald took.) After the 1993 bombing, Delloite moved, because they believed al Qaeda saw the Twin Towers as a target and would strike again. They were right.

Now we are faced with a worse dilemma. Assem Hammoud, al Qaeda mastermind of the Hudson River bomb plot, is living free in Beirut. There is no indication that he has given up. The United States solution to Christie’s singlehanded demolition of the ARC tunnel construction is to implement an untried technique to crush the tunnel and pray a bomb is never set off.

Prayer isn’t enough. Nobody thinks the barge scheme will work. It’s just there for officials to claim, if disaster strikes, that they tried something.

Al Qaeda will not give up. We have to act immediately. The situation is too dangerous to ignore. Either we have to close the PATH tunnels or we need to screen all passengers that ride on those trains. Both are horrible solutions that will cause massive backups, but the death of hundreds of thousands of people is incomparably worse.

Ironically, Chris Christie bragged to a school girl that the Lincoln Tunnel is emptied whenever he passes through it. Hypocritically he has demonstrated no concern for the safety of subway riders. Chris Christie endangered the public safety, and he is unfit to hold public office.

The PATH tunnels need to be closed and replaced immediately.