Roadwork Ahead: Bill Would Give New Job to Environmental Infrastructure Trust

Tom Johnson | September 28, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Trust has worked wonders for NJ's waterways, can it do the same for its highways?

For years, the state’s Environmental Infrastructure Trust has earned widespread praise for helping local governments clean up New Jersey’s waterways by issuing low-interest loans to upgrade wastewater treatment plants, not to mention creating a huge amount of jobs in the process.

Now, lawmakers are wondering if the trust can deliver the same sort of results for local roadways.

In a bill that came up before the Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee yesterday, the state would allocate up to 10 percent of the federal dollars it receives for transportation purposes to a new bank to be established in the trust.

The idea is to take the federal dollars and leverage them with state money and potential private sector resources to create a new source of revenue to finance transportation projects.

‘’What we’re trying to do is create economic opportunities,’’ Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), a primary sponsor of the bill (A-3177) told the committee. “For us, this is pretty much a no-brainer.’’

The bill comes up at a time when the state’s
transportation trust fund is desperately short of funding, with money raised by New Jersey’s gas taxes funneled to pay off debt of past transportation bond issues.

In the new budget adopted by the Legislature and governor this past summer, the administration took $260 million in New Jersey Turnpike Authority money earmarked to fund transportation capital projects on a pay-as-you-go basis as part of a new transportation trust fund reauthorization and used that money to balance the budget.

While some questioned the idea of allocating scarce federal dollars to a new initiative, labor lobbyists backed the proposal, saying it could expand the pool of money to fund local infrastructure projects, traditionally the last to receive funding for transportation projects.

The Environmental Infrastructure Trust is a national model, according to Evan Piscitelli, government affairs director of the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association.

“It’s one of the best state agencies in getting work out effectively,’’ he told the panel. “And it doesn’t create a new level of bureaucracy.’’

Since its inception more than 25 years ago, , the environmental trust has invested $5.9 billion in upgrading treatment facilities, a record that has created more than 110,000 jobs, according to its advocates. This year alone, the trust is expected to spend more than a half-billion dollars helping towns upgrade treatment facilities.

While the existing transportation trust fund has the authority to leverage funds to expand its pool of cash, Singleton said it does not have a mechanism to combine that with private equity.

“How do we get more money for transportation?’’ asked Assemblyman John Wisnewski (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the panel and a sponsor of the bill. One way to do so is to leverage private dollars with federal money, he said.

The sponsors of the legislation said they would make sure the bill allocates all it money solely to create new construction projects, not to pay for maintenance work, a criticism often leveled at the existing transportation trust fund.

The new trust bank would be modeled largely on the Environmental Infrastructure Trust. Under that process, projects selected for funding are developed by the state Department of Environmental Protection, based on a priority ranking system. In the new trust bank, the state Department of Transportation would develop a list of projects, ultimately subject to legislative review, as are clean water projects.

Not everyone thought the idea of creating a new trust bank within the Environmental Infrastructure Trust made sense.

“What you are trying to do is admirable,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, but added, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’’

He argued that combining transportation projects with clean water projects could end up creating more problems than it would solve. “It would not be a good mix,’’ said Tittel, suggesting a better venue for the new trust would be with the state Economic Development Authority or the DOT.