With cash for state transportation projects getting scarcer by the hour thanks to political gridlock in Trenton, Gov. Chris Christie’s administration yesterday released two lists of dozens of road and rail upgrades that are slated to be put on hold later this week.
The forced shutdown of the infrastructure work by late Friday night will affect all 21 counties in New Jersey, including many small-scale projects on local and county roads. Mass-transit improvements and preliminary design and planning will also be stopped under the administration’s effort to marshal remaining transportation-funding resources for projects that maintain overall “health, safety and welfare.”
The work stoppage comes after the Republican governor and Democrats who control the state Legislature could not reach an agreement last week on a way to renew the state’s Transportation Trust Fund before the fiscal year came to an end on June 30.
Unionized construction workers who stand to be put off the job if the stalemate drags on this summer gathered outside the offices of legislative leaders yesterday to put a human face on the political deadlock, and to call for a speedy resolution. But with Christie spending time on vacation in Italy this week and lawmakers still at odds with one another on the best path forward, an end to the impasse doesn’t seem close.
In a normal year New Jersey spends more than $3 billion through the TTF on road, bridge, and rail-network improvements, with $1.6 billion in state funds drawing a federal match. But the last five-year finance plan expired on June 30 without Christie and lawmakers agreeing on a renewal plan.
Christie administration officials had previously said there would be about $85 million left in the fund, which they estimated could be stretched through the month of July. The governor, however, announced late last week that he was ordering transportation officials to come up with a list of state-funded projects that could be halted to ensure there would be sufficient funds available for those that are “absolutely essential.”
Work that’s paid for with federal funds and toll revenues will not be impacted.
Still, more than 40 pages of road projects were released yesterday, ranging from a $24 million road improvement in Atlantic County to a $43,000 bus-shelter relocation in Mercer County. More than $2.7 billion in New Jersey Transit projects affecting both bus and train operations could also be subject to the ordered work stoppage under another list compiled by that agency.
In addition to distributing the lists of projects yesterday, the governor’s office also sent reporters comments Christie made in an executive order released last Thursday that triggered the planning for the shutdown.
“As Governor, I am entrusted with the responsibility to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of this State, as well as the responsibility to aid in the prevention of damage, loss, or destruction of property in the event of emergencies affecting the State,” Christie wrote.
The main sticking point on the transportation-funding issue in Trenton is a set of tax cuts that have been proposed by lawmakers to help grease an increase to the state’s gas tax that should generate more money for the trust fund. Right now, the TTF is deep in debt and only has enough money coming in from the current, 14.5-cent per-gallon gas tax to cover annual debt-service payments.
Lawmakers in the Assembly have passed legislation supported by Christie that would cut a penny off the state sales tax while also increasing the gas tax by nearly a quarter to 37.5 cents. But in the Senate, there are concerns among many Republicans, including Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), about the size of the proposed gas-tax hike. Though it hasn’t been put up for a vote, there is also significant support in the Senate for a bipartisan TTF renewal plan that’s built around a phase out of the estate tax and several other tax cuts along with the 23-cent gas-tax increase.
The Senate plan would cost the state budget an estimated $870 million in lost revenue once fully phased in because even though the proposed gas-tax increase would raise more than $1 billion in new revenue, it would all go into the off-budget transportation fund. But the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services has estimated that the Assembly bill would hit the general fund even harder, costing at least $1.6 billion and likely more over the next several years.
The larger number is linked to the sales-tax option that has helped Christie sell the plan to other Republicans and conservative groups who will only sign off on a tax increase if it’s linked with a broad-based reduction that delivers a net “win” for taxpayers. But it’s also why Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said he decided not to post the Assembly bill for a vote in his house last week. Sweeney reiterated that concern in comments to reporters yesterday that were forwarded to NJ Spotlight by his office following an event in Edison.
“We can’t afford it, but we want to find a solution,” Sweeney said. “The money is running out. We know that.”
“Our hope is to focus on working with the administration to a solution,” he went on to say.
But while Sweeney was in Edison yesterday, members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America gathered outside his office in Salem to press for an end to the impasse. Another group stood for hours outside Kean Jr.’s office in Westfield to call attention to the need to end the stalemate.
“It is important for our elected leaders to meet the men and women who will be hurt, who — without state action — may face difficult choices moving forward on things like food and housing, healthcare and education,” said Ray Pocino, the union’s vice president and eastern region manager.
Kean Jr. was working at his legislative office yesterday and said he had a “good and direct conversation” with the laborers gathered outside.
“I always enjoy engaging with people on all sides of an issue,” he said.
But he had no new information about any progress being made in the Senate on reaching an agreement on a TTF renewal plan.
“I don’t have any insight as to where things stand on resolving the disagreement,” Kean Jr. said.
Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto, reacting to Christie’s announcement later in the day, pointed to his own house’s action last week on a bill to replenish the trust fund.
“This is an unfortunate situation that re-emphasizes the need for a transportation funding solution as soon as possible,” Prieto said in a statement. “We cannot allow this to continue. Public safety and livelihoods are at risk.”