In the first of what could be a nationwide spate of austerity-prompted spending cuts, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday canceled an over-budget $9-billion-plus commuter train tunnel between his state and Manhattan — shrugging off the Obama administration's efforts to save it.
Mr. Christie said his state "simply no longer can afford" ballooning costs for the Trans-Hudson Express Tunnel, and the Republican governor said canceling the project is the type of decision he promised voters he would make when he was elected a year ago.
The move ends the nation's largest public works project, and adds fuel to the debate over the limits of government spending and the depths of debt.
House Republicans have promised to take aim at stimulus projects if they win control of the chamber in Tuesday's elections, promising in their "Pledge to America" to "cancel unspent 'stimulus' funds."
"The American people shouldn't consider any spending program to be totally off the table. Whether it's grants to individuals, infrastructure and spending on government employees themselves, nothing is off the table," said Brian Riedl, a budget analyst at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, which is advocating for billions of dollars in spending cuts.
But Democrats warn there's not much room left to cut from the stimulus, and say halting projects will cost jobs at a time when the unemployment rate is already nearly in double digits.
Rep. James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said that 85 percent of the $64.1 billion the Recovery Act included for transportation and infrastructure projects has been obligated to specific projects.
"States would have to rescind contracts with private companies, which would result in thousands of infrastructure projects grinding to a halt all over the country and cause countless layoffs," Mr. Oberstar said.
Republicans have said they wouldn't halt ongoing projects but are earnest in seeking places to cut federal spending, which reached $3.456 trillion in fiscal 2010.
The House Republicans' pledge calls for spending cuts to levels of fiscal 2008, before the financial collapse, which they said would save "at least $100 billion in the first year alone."
They are running an online survey called YouCut, which asks Americans to choose a federal program to slash.
Past vote winners include cutting federal employees' pay raises, stopping some Amtrak subsidies, and no longer paying for road signs that advertise which projects are being paid for with stimulus funds.
With Congress under Democrats' control, Republicans had little chance to push through those cuts. But Republican leaders have said if they win House control, they'll insist on weekly votes to cut spending.
To succeed, though, they'll have to best President Obama, who last month proposed more spending on infrastructure and has held out road spending as an area where he expects bipartisan cooperation in the next Congress.
Mr. Obama argues that spending is needed to sustain the country's infrastructure and to boost jobs. But taxpayer advocates argue that splashing more red ink across the budget now could doom the country to years of deep deficits, and will only delay success in solving the national debt, which stood at $13.674 trillion as of Tuesday.
That decision-making mirrors the debate in New Jersey over the train tunnel, known as Access to the Region's Core (ARC).
"If you want one of the examples of what I meant back in the campaign about a hard decision to eliminate a project that has some worth to it, but that, because of the fiscal conduct of Republicans and Democrats that came before me, that we now simply no longer can afford, here's an example," Mr. Christie said.
Mr. Christie last year ousted a Democrat in the first sign of an anti-spending wave that has since swept the electorate.
The governor first announced the project's cancellation earlier in October, but issued a reprieve after the Obama administration begged to try to work out the financing.
On Wednesday, Mr. Christie said the final result of the talks was that New Jersey would still be on the hook for part of the overruns that, his department said, could reach $3 billion.
Mr. Christie said the federal government, whose contribution would be capped at $3.378 billion, was in essence looking for a blank check from state taxpayers.
The tunnel was intended to double commuter train capacity between New Jersey and New York, and was scheduled to be completed by 2018.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman, said Mr. Christie's move was "a devastating blow to thousands of workers, millions of commuters and the state's economic future."
"The governor's decision to stop work on this project means commuters — who would have saved 45 minutes each day thanks to the ARC tunnel — will instead see no end to traffic congestion and ever-longer wait times on train platforms," Mr. LaHood said.
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Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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