Hindsight is Always 20/20 … Revisiting the ARC Tunnel, Looking Ahead to the Gateway Project, and the Role Mass Transit Plays in New Jersey

We continue with our mini transportation series this week, now looking at the current status of public transportation in the state – particularly the pending Gateway project aiming to repair and add to the existing Hudson River rail tunnels, as well as a look back on Gov. Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC tunnel project in 2010. New Jerseyans are regretting the project’s termination five years ago, now disagreeing with Christie’s handling of it – a sharp contrast to the majority support they showed for his decision back in October and December 2010. Mass transit is integral to New Jersey life, used almost as frequently as the roadways. And after Hurricane Sandy two years ago and a summer of massive delays, New Jerseyans can sense the urgency that something needs to be done.  But just like in 2010, residents continue to be concerned about cost; many even say the state should prioritize road and bridge projects before anything to do with mass transit. It is within these questions where we see New Jerseyans divided into two basic camps – those for whom mass transit is vital to their personal and professional lives, versus those unaffected by trains and buses who most likely stick to driving around Jersey roads.

We once again see that context plays an important role here. While cost concerns were widely cited as the reason for the ARC tunnel’s cancellation, much of the current news about the Gateway project has been framed as a dire need for repairs within the next two decades before the tunnels are forced closed … meaning utter chaos for the mass transit system in the state, running at half its capacity. We look at how these different pieces of information affect residents’ reflections on the ARC tunnel; long story short, context matters, and it is exactly the type of urgency frame currently being used to advocate for the Gateway project that seems to make residents more inclined to support something like it.

The full text of the release is below. Click here for a PDF of the release with text, questions, and tables.

ARC PROJECT CANCELLATION BY CHRISTIE RAISES CONCERNS ABOUT FUTURE OF TRANS-HUDSON RAIL TUNNELS FOR NEW JERSEYANS

 Most say tunnels are important but want adequate funding before new building begins

 NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – As transit and transportation industry leaders and federal and state officials take early steps to make the Hudson River “Gateway” program a reality, New Jersey residents are troubled by the state of the existing rail tunnels and are second-guessing Gov. Chris Christie’s 2010 termination of the ARC tunnel project, according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton Poll.

Just over half of New Jersey residents express at least some concern over the current state of the trans-Hudson tunnels. Likewise, 51 percent say Christie should have gone through with the ARC tunnel five years ago, while 27 percent believe he did the right thing by quashing the project. Another 22 percent are unsure.

Reflections on the ARC project’s cancellation vary according to the context provided. When told Christie’s decision was due to concerns about New Jersey’s inability to absorb cost overruns, state residents are split, more likely to side with the governor than before: 41 percent support his decision in this case, versus 42 percent who say he should have gone through with it. Disagreement with Christie’s decision jumps to 60 percent when residents learn about the tunnels’ age and their limited remaining lifespan; just 26 percent take his side when given this information.

“This is a definite departure from 2010, when over half of New Jerseyans supported Gov. Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC tunnel because he foresaw cost overruns,” said Ashley Koning, assistant director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University. “Five years, one Superstorm, and numerous transit delays later, it has become clear to New Jerseyans just how critical functioning tunnels are to the state.”

Despite sensing the urgency of replacing the tunnels, two of every three New Jerseyans want to secure revenue for the Gateway project before starting planning and construction. About one in four wants to start as soon as possible and worry about funding later.

Virtually all believe the rail tunnels are important to New Jersey’s economic development and quality of life: about half take public transportation to get into New York City, and just over half use some part of the state’s mass transit system. The same number rate public transportation in New Jersey as excellent or good, but about four in ten say the state underfunds it.

Results are from a statewide poll of 935 adults contacted by live callers on both landlines and cell phones from October 3 to 10, 2015. The sample has a margin of error of +/-3.6 percentage points. Interviews were done in English and, when requested, Spanish.

Context of ARC decision causes partisan differences

The poll randomly divided respondents into three groups to ask about the cancelled ARC tunnel. One group was asked for their views on Christie’s 2010 decision with no further context, another was given additional information about Christie’s original concern that New Jersey would be responsible for cost overruns if the project proceeded, and the third was told the current tunnels’ age (105 years old) and expected lifespan before being forced to close (up to 20 years).

Differences must be interpreted with caution due to small group sizes, but divisions by party lines are evident both within and across the different versions. A solid majority of Republicans support their governor’s decision when given no additional context or when told about potential extra costs, but are more split when told about the current tunnels’ condition.

Independents are more mixed than others when given no additional information – 28 percent say Christie was right, 46 percent disagree. When told about the extra cost burden, independents side more with the governor, 47 percent to 38 percent. Information about the tunnels’ current status provokes the most negativity among independents: 61 percent believe Christie made the wrong choice.

Almost three-quarters of Democrats say Christie should have gone through with ARC – both without additional context and when told about the tunnels’ condition – and are only less likely to disagree (at 55 percent) when told about cost concerns.

Residents most familiar with, in need of tunnels most likely to regret ARC

No matter the context, those who have heard at least some news about the aging tunnels are more likely to say Christie should have gone through with the ARC project (about six in ten) than those who have heard little or nothing at all; a plurality of the latter group (48 percent) side with Christie when given the additional information about cost concerns.

Residents at least somewhat concerned about the tunnels’ condition are consistently more negative about Christie’s choice than those who have little or no concern, particularly when reminded of the tunnels’ age and lifespan (70 percent disagree with Christie). Those unconcerned are more split, reaching a bare majority in support of the cancellation when told of costs.

Views on the overall condition of public transportation in the state have a similar effect: those who say mass transit is in fair or poor shape are slightly more likely than those who say excellent or good to disagree with Christie’s ARC decision.

Other groups who are more negative than positive about the governor’s decision, and who are less likely to change their views even when told about cost, include: those who say the tunnels are very important to New Jersey’s economy and overall quality of life, compared to those who say they are somewhat important; those who say not enough is spent on mass transit, compared to those who say spending is just right; those who take public transportation into New York City instead of driving; and those who say the tunnels should be built as soon as possible instead of waiting for funding.

“It is no surprise that we see these divides, especially based on what information residents are given,” said Koning. “Context matters when discussing these issues – and hindsight is always 20/20. Moreover, whatever the question, the answer is colored by personal circumstances. Those who rely on the trans-Hudson tunnels view the ARC cancellation as a big mistake.”

Funding mass transit projects most important to those most impacted

There is widespread caution when it comes to paying for the new Gateway program. While Govs. Christie and Cuomo want to act first and figure out finances later, New Jerseyans want just the opposite. Even Republicans are solidly against the governor’s decision to spend money the state does not yet have (at 76 percent). The opposition to immediate spending is also especially strong among: middle and higher income residents, those who rarely or never use mass transit (69 percent), those who have heard little or nothing about the condition of the current rail tunnels (70 percent), those who say roads and bridges should be a higher funding priority (72 percent), those with no one in the household working in New York City (67 percent), as well as those living in exurban (76 percent), shore (73 percent), and southern counties near Philadelphia (68 percent).

“Residents know something needs to be done, but as in 2010, they are concerned about cost,” noted Koning. “Those not as directly affected by the tunnels want to pay first and build later – something that may prove difficult given the reality of the multi-decade project ahead.”

A plurality of New Jerseyans (43 percent) think the state needs to spend more on public transportation in general; another 33 percent think New Jersey spends just the right amount. The feeling that spending is lacking reaches a majority among those groups most informed and affected: those more concerned about the existing tunnels (51 percent), those who have heard more about the tunnels’ condition (58 percent), those who say the system is in only fair or poor shape (66 percent), those who most often use trains as their mode of transport (52 percent), and those with someone in the household working in New York City (56 percent).

Nonetheless, New Jerseyans rank roads and bridges as a more important concern than mass transit if they had to choose where transportation spending would be used: 65 percent say the former should be prioritized, while 20 percent say the latter, and another 11 percent say both.

Tunnels a big part of Garden State life

Residents recognize the strong impact the rail tunnels have in New Jersey. Fifty-two percent say they are very important and another 34 percent say somewhat important to economic development in the state; just 7 percent say they are not important at all. New Jerseyans feel similarly about the tunnels’ importance to quality of life: 41 percent say very important, 43 percent say somewhat important, and just 9 percent say not important at all.

Eighteen percent are very concerned about the current state of the trans-Hudson rail tunnels, while another 32 percent say they are somewhat concerned; 23 percent are not very concerned, and 20 percent are not concerned at all. Concern is generally greatest among residents whose lives are most impacted by public transportation, those who know more about the tunnels’ current condition, and those who place a higher importance on the tunnels in everyday life.

Eight percent rate public transportation in New Jersey as excellent, another 41 percent say good. Twenty-nine percent say it is in fair condition, 10 percent say poor; 12 percent are unsure.

While not as common as driving in the state, about a quarter of New Jerseyans frequently use the state’s mass transit system, and almost one in five either work in New York City or have someone in their household who does. When going to New York City for any reason, New Jerseyans prefer taking mass transit to driving, 47 percent to 33 percent; 12 percent do some combination of the two.

Fifty-four percent of mass transit users take the train most often, while 33 percent take the bus. Among those who regularly use public transportation, about six in ten say they spend less than an hour on public transportation on any given weekday.

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