The federal government wants New Jersey to repay the $271 million given in grants to the state to develop the now-scrapped Hudson River rail tunnel project, an $8.7 billion, 15-year affair that Republican Gov. Chris Christie calls a boondoggle and unaffordable.
But the Federal Transit Administration shouldn't start looking for a refund check any time soon. The executive director of the NJ Transit Authority said Wednesday that his agency is still reviewing the request and assessing its options, two days after receiving a bill.
"We haven't determined that we have to pay it back," James Weinstein said. "We don't believe it is as clear-cut as the FTA would make it appear. There's a difference of opinions."
But Weinstein wouldn't go into detail about what issues his agency disputes.
The Federal Transit Administration on Monday sent the railroad the bill, not including interest and penalties, for the so-called Access to the Region's Core project. It also said it was "deobligating" the remaining $79 million of the $350 million it made available to help get the project started.
The federal government had committed $3 billion to the project, along with another $3 billion from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. New Jersey's share was $2.7 billion plus overruns.
The $8.7 billion project to construct a second rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York was 15 years in the making when Christie pulled the plug on Oct. 27, citing the potential cost overruns. More than $600 million has already been spent on it for engineering, construction and environmental studies, Weinstein said.
Christie's office declined to comment, deferring all questions to the NJ Transit.
State Sen. Paul Sarlo, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, said taxpayers need to know how the Christie administration plans to pay the bill and whether canceling the tunnel "will mean potholes elsewhere will go unfilled."
Assembly Republican Conference Leader Jon Bramnick suggested that the FTA's request for the money back was politically motivated.
"The demand by the federal government for New Jersey to return the $271 million that was spent on the project is a political move to embarrass Gov. Christie," he said.
Asked if he thought the FTA's decision to send the bill so quickly was a political stunt, Weinstein shot down the suggestion immediately.
"They are serious about what they do. This is not about stunts," he said.
Citing a Quinnipiac University poll on Tuesday in which voters gave the reformist governor a 51 percent approval rating, Bramnick said, "Governor Christie is respected both in New Jersey and around the nation because he opposes policies that have created a bloated government that people cannot afford. Such political maneuvers will only further bolster his popularity."
A majority of New Jersey voters agree with Christie's decision to stop construction of the tunnel, according to a poll released Wednesday.
In the Quinnipiac University poll, 53 percent support the governor's decision, compared with 37 percent who disagree. Even commuters were split, with 50 percent backing Christie and 47 percent supporting the tunnel.
Amtrak and NJ Transit currently share a century-old, two-track tunnel under the river that has been at capacity for years. The killed project would have added two more tracks in a new tunnel.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.