NEW YORK — An issue that affects millions of people in the tri-state region daily got one U.S. senator uncharacteristically fired up, and it led to calls for the governor of New Jersey to step down.
Sen. Cory Booker led a news conference to highlight New Jersey leaders' efforts to get the federal government to invest more heavily in rail projects in the New York City metro area.
Specifically, the bipartisan effort seeks to ensure that the Trump Administration provides funding for The Gateway Project, a $24 billion twin tunnel system under the Hudson River that would relieve the two currently-used tunnels, which are nearly 110 years old.
A very similar project was under construction and more than 85 percent funded by the federal government and the Port Authority in 2010. It was killed, however, when Gov. Chris Christie withdrew New Jersey's financial commitment to the project. Now, he's essentially endorsing the very thing he'd been so prominently against.
"This is my news conference," Sen. Booker said during the event at Newark Penn Station. "Governor Christie isn't answering questions."
Eventually, Christie was invited by Booker to comment. The governor kept his remarks uncharacteristically brief.
"I will speak my mind publicly and privately" with President Trump, the governor said about transportation policy.
What neither he nor Sen. Booker would talk about at the news conference were the handful of protesters who'd shown up at the event, carrying signs that called Christie a hypocrite on public transportation policy.
"The governor is trying to rewrite history," said Analilia Mejia, the director of NJ Working Families, activist organization. "He's trying to get us to forget," she said, that his actions doomed a project that caused "congestion in public transportation in this state."
Booker would not discuss the protesters or any criticism of Gov. Christie during the news conference. However, after it ended, PIX11 News asked him about them.
"Let the ax-grinders grind their axes," he said, emphatically, "but I was elected to deal with problems."
"I'm tired of politics," he continued, adding that "people are hurting" because of frequent signal problems, derailments and other delays. "They want me fixing it."
One of the hurting commuters is Theresa Gillis, a doctor for Montclair who commutes daily to Manhattan for work. "We've waited too long" for a new tunnel, she said, as she waited for a train at Newark Penn Station. "If he'd built [the new tunnels], they'd probably be done by now."
"Thank goodness [Christie] wants to do it now," Gillis added. "All these commuters, we have so much stress."
Bill Butler was also waiting for a train. He said that he endorsed what Senator Booker is trying to do. If we did what we're supposed to do," Butler told PIX11 News, "we wouldn't have the problems that we've had."
As for the senator whose efforts Butler and other commuters endorse, he said the focus needs to be on those efforts, rather than on past cancellations of similar attempts to improve the region's rail transportation.
"It is not constructive," said Sen. Booker, "to talk about what happened in the Corzine era, in the Obama era, friggin' even the Reagan era," he said expressively. "I've got to talk about having President Trump do what President Obama did -- make us the number one transportation priority."
Booker and Christie, as well as the other local members of Congress and Newark's mayor, are trying to get Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to come and see the problems for herself as the next step in the process of getting the Gateway Project approved.
Its estimated cost is $24 billion. The project that Christie ended seven years ago was estimated to cost up to $14 billion.