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NJ’s Corporate Leaders Worry About State's Transportation Network

Annual survey of business professionals shows they have a lot more on their minds than taxes -- starting with roads, bridges, and mass transit

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It’s no surprise that New Jersey’s corporate leaders cited taxes as their top concern, since they do so every year when canvassed by the state Chamber of Commerce survey. What’s more interesting is that respondents to this year’s economic outlook survey also pointed to New Jersey’s deteriorating roads, bridges, and mass-transit infrastructure.

In fact, among the 100 executives who were polled by the chamber, concern about transportation infrastructure came up more than worries about the economy, government-red tape, and the minimum wage.

Actually, most of those surveyed expressed general optimism on the economy, with 77 percent saying they expect company revenues to stay the same or climb over the next 12 months, and more than 80 percent saying they expect to maintain or even increase staffing.

Tom Bracken, the chamber’s president and chief executive officer, said in an interview yesterday that he wasn’t surprised to see so many business leaders identify the state’s infrastructure as a major problem right now.

“It’s the lifeblood of New Jersey. It’s the foundation of our economy,” said Bracken, who is also the chairman of Forward New Jersey, a coalition of 75 organizations, including labor, business groups, and local-government advocates, that has been pressing leaders in Trenton to do more to address the state’s crumbling transportation network.

Survey results were released the same day that U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx indicated that the lack of movement on plans for a third tunnel between New Jersey and New York is a failure of leadership of both states.

“I can only do what the region is willing to do,” he said. “If the states don’t jump in and deal with this now, it will be hard for us to do something.”

Foxx made the statement before business and nonprofit leaders at a New York Times conference in New York City. Foxx called the proposed Amtrak Gateway project the most important transportation undertaking in the nation “that wasn’t happening,” adding he was willing to do anything possible to get plans off the ground before the Obama administration leaves office.

The lack of interest in meeting with the federal government to develop plans, he said, is “almost criminal.”

“But I can’t push rope,” Foxx said, claiming that officials from the two states have thus far been unwilling to meet to discuss the massive infrastructure project.

Jon Whiten, the deputy director of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank based in Trenton, raised some concerns about putting too much stock in a survey of only 100 business leaders. But he said he’s also not surprised to see “so many of these folks put fixing New Jersey's transportation-funding crisis at the top of their wish list.”

“Businesses need a safe, efficient and robust transportation network of roads, bridges, mass transit and ports to fully take advantage of New Jersey's top economic asset: It's location,” said Whiten, who is also a cochair of New Jersey For Transit, an 18-member coalition that advocates for fair and adequate funding of public transportation.

“Failing to adequately invest in maintaining and modernizing that network puts the Garden State's economic future at risk," he said.

But so far this year, Gov. Chris Christie, a second-term Republican, and Democrats who control the state Legislature have largely tabled the issue of transportation funding even though the current spending plan will expire in less than a year. And that stalling is expected to continue since Christie has now joined the 2016 GOP presidential primary and as lawmakers have begun to focus more on this fall’s legislative elections, which will see all 80 seats in the state Assembly up for grabs.

Still, there seems to be little debate over whether the condition of the state’s transportation infrastructure needs to be addressed.

Figures released earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Transportation indicated that 66 percent of the state’s roadways are in poor or mediocre condition, costing motorists on average $601 for repairs. The condition of the state’s bridges, meanwhile, was rated sixth-worst in the country late last year by the Federal Highway Administration.

New Jersey Transit commuters are also facing a 9 percent fare increase and service cuts come October 1, thanks to state budget funding that has not kept up with agency costs. And those changes come even as light-rail expansion projects in both North Jersey and South Jersey have been deferred.

But while most recognize those problems, there has been a lack of consensus on how the state should come up with the money to address them.

New Jersey has spent more than $3 billion annually on infrastructure repairs and improvements for roughly the past decade, with those costs shared equally among the state and federal governments.

The primary source of state transportation funding has been highway tolls and revenue raised by New Jersey’s 14.5-cent gas tax, but those funding sources are now only generating enough money to basically cover payments tied to the state Transportation Trust Fund’s roughly $18 billion in debt. And the Christie administration is planning to borrow another $627 million this fall.

Without a gas-tax increase or some other new source of revenue, the state has only enough money earmarked to cover its transportation-infrastructure needs through June 30, 2016.

While lawmakers and other officials have openly pointed to hiking the gas tax -- including a 4-cent portion that is levied only on wholesalers -- as a likely solution, Christie has yet to say what his preference is. And his office did not respond yesterday when asked when he may come forward with the state’s next comprehensive transportation-spending plan.

Bracken, the chamber leader, said the survey results released this week should demonstrate the urgency with which New Jersey businesses are viewing the issue. They want to see a long-term fix as they consider their own long-term investments, he said.

“This is an absolute imperative to get this done right now,” Bracken said. “It can be rectified. It needs to be rectified.”

Editor in Chief Lee Keough contributed to this report.

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