Strategy Gives Governor Political Cover in Debate Over Possible Hike in Gas Tax

Carl Golden | February 2, 2015 | Opinion
Commissioner Jamie Fox runs interference in effort to sway public on need to replenish Transportation Trust Fund

Carl Golden
Gov. Chris Christie absorbed a fair amount of grief for omitting any mention of the soon-to-be-insolvent Transportation Trust Fund from his State of the State address, prompting considerable speculation about the governor’s motives in ignoring what is arguably one of the top two or three issues facing his administration and the Legislature.

One theory that has gained some currency has it that Christie has exhausted all other funding options (true enough).

But at a time when he’s keeping himself in the mix as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, he can’t afford even a hint that he’s ready to endorse an increase in the gasoline tax for fear of alienating the national party’s right (also true).

His five years’ worth of anti-tax rhetoric, which brought him national attention, has now ensnared him, his critics say, crippling his ability to move decisively to replenish the 30-year-old transportation fund before its resources are depleted.

The more plausible explanation, though, is that failing to make any reference to the fund in his annual address is part of an overall strategy devised months ago and set in motion with the appointment last September of longtime Democratic apparatchik Jamie Fox to serve as commissioner of the Department of Transportation.

Fox was not brought in to make the trains run on time. Rather, he was selected as the point man to develop a legislative package to rescue the trust fund, assure its solvency over the long term, and do so in a way that can achieve bipartisan support and — more importantly — protect the governor from any partisan backlash over an increase in the motor-fuels tax.

Fox is not in this for the long haul and, in all probability, will take his leave and return to the private sector once the Transportation Trust Fund issue is resolved.

Maintaining a decent distance between Christie and a tax increase recommendation is Fox’s primary task and, through a series of public statements and actions, he’s made significant headway toward accomplishing it.

It has been Fox, not Christie, whose public pronouncements on the perilous state of the transportation fund and the critical need for an infusion of money have framed the debate.

Fox has withheld state aid to local governments for road repairs and reconstruction because of the uncertainty surrounding the state’s ability to fulfill its funding obligations.

Fox has closed bridges out of concern that their deteriorating condition posed a danger to motorists while raising the prospect that additional closings and related traffic disruptions are likely. He may not have used the word “collapse,” but his message couldn’t be clearer.

He’s been helped by studies issued by a number of groups showing that the state’s transportation infrastructure has fallen into such disrepair that stopgap measures are no longer effective or acceptable.

Those studies warn that conditions have reached a point at which many of New Jersey’s roads and bridges are disasters waiting to happen.

Lost productivity, added fuel costs brought about by increasing traffic congestion, and the expense involved in repairs to vehicles damaged by driving on substandard roads have all been cited as crucial factors in support of continuing the Transportation Trust Fund.

According to some studies, a road and bridge network increasingly susceptible to closures and detours undercuts economic development efforts as well. The ability to bring goods and services to market and to move employees smoothly to the workplace weighs heavily on decision makers considering where to locate or expand operations.

Despite its proximity to major metropolitan regions, New Jersey’s competitive edge will be dulled by an inability to access those regions via a modern transportation system. It is a significant cost of doing business, one which could be the deciding factor in whether a company settles on New Jersey or elsewhere.

It is Fox, not Christie, who is driving these arguments. He’s become the public face — as well as the private negotiator — of the effort to renew the Trust Fund.

Christie need only to comment in nonspecific, general terms — i.e. “everything is on the table” — about the importance of the fund while avoiding any potentially risky debate over an increase in the gasoline tax. Fox has utilized his political skills to orchestrate and provide political cover for the governor.

Despite polls showing that nearly 7 in 10 New Jerseyans oppose a gas-tax increase even if it’s dedicated to road and bridge repair and rehabilitation, it’s likely that some form of it will reach Christie’s desk.

There is growing speculation that a gas-tax increase would be a part of a more comprehensive legislative package, one that would include either a reduction or removal of an existing tax to blunt any “tax-and-spend” criticism. Elimination of the estate tax is mentioned with increasing frequency as the most likely trade-off.

The strategy implemented by the Christie administration is a concession to the reality that if it desires a healthy Transportation Trust Fund, its choices have been narrowed substantially.

With eight credit ratings downgrades, any borrowing program would be prohibitively expensive and the outlook for voter approval of a bond issue is exceedingly bleak.

Moreover, with revenues falling short of expectations, with pressure growing to fund ongoing priorities and with a multi-billion-dollar shortfall in the public pension system, a pay-as-you-go program of road and bridge repairs is out of the question.

Failing to mention the Transportation Trust Fund in his speech should not be construed as Christie’s attempt to minimize the problem. He understands the severity of it.

In fact, he devised a strategy to deal with it five months ago. And there’s a better-than-even chance it will succeed.