A year can make a big difference. A bitter political impasse brought state-funded transportation projects to a halt last year, but Gov. Chris Christie and lawmakers are now working together to rush out new spending on road, bridge, and rail projects.
A bipartisan bill approved yesterday by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee proposes $400 million in supplemental spending on state infrastructure projects before the current fiscal year closes at the end of June. Those funds would be added to the $1.6 billion for transportation work that Christie and lawmakers previously authorized for the 2017 fiscal year.
The newly drafted legislation comes just about a week after Christie, a Republican, proposed the additional spending on road, bridge, and mass-transit improvements during his annual budget address before a joint session of the Democratic-controlled Legislature. The governor told lawmakers he wants the $400 million in transportation spending to occur within the next 100 days.
Sponsors of the bill introduced in response to that challenge said yesterday that the spending, backed by the state’s newly replenished Transportation Trust Fund, will provide immediate property tax relief because some of the $400 million will go to fund road and bridge projects at the county and municipal levels. They also said the measure, and the new construction work that it will fund, should provide a boost to the state economy.
Another $140 million for NJ Transit
Under the bill approved by the Senate panel yesterday, the supplemental appropriation would allocate $260 million for road and bridge projects, and $140 million for New Jersey Transit. The additional spending will have no impact on the general state budget for the current fiscal year because the TTF is a separate account that’s supported by dedicated revenues, including funding from the state gas tax and long-term borrowing.
The bill’s advancement also comes as a new grade for the condition of the nation’s infrastructure was released by the American Society of Civil Engineers, with the U.S. in its entirety scoring a D+.
This year’s cooperation between Christie and Democratic legislative leaders on the issue of transportation spending marks a contrast from what occurred this time last year, when the state’s TTF was on the verge of going broke. Christie refused to take the lead on proposing ways to renew the fund, leaving it up to lawmakers to propose a solution — a 23-cent gas-tax increase — that the governor initially opposed.
The political impasse stretched past the June 30 expiration of the prior TTF funding plan. That led to Christie shutting down state-funded transportation projects to preserve remaining funds for emergency repairs. The gridlock lasted through the summer, idling thousands of construction workers during what should have been the busy season for road work.
The governor and lawmakers eventually reached a deal to renew the TTF in October, several days after a fatal New Jersey Transit train crash at Hoboken Terminal. The agreement called for both hiking the gas tax to renew the TTF for another eight years, but also a series of new tax cuts, including a reduction of the sales tax and a phase out of the estate tax, among other changes.
Christie urged lawmakers to rush the extra spending
Christie and lawmakers also agreed to boost annual state spending on transportation from $1.6 billion to $2 billion as part of the TTF deal, a change that will increase the total annual investment to $4 billion, counting federal matching funds. But since the deal was struck after the state fiscal year began in July, only $1.6 billion was appropriated by the Legislature for transportation projects during the current fiscal year. The $400 million in supplemental spending would bring the total back up to the $2 billion goal that was set by lawmakers when they first proposed the 23-cent gas-tax increase, which went into effect on November 1.
This year, it was Christie who decided to take the lead on transportation spending, urging lawmakers during the budget address last week to rush out the $400 million supplemental appropriation so the additional construction work can begin within the next 100 days.
“We will expedite technology enhancements and other infrastructure improvements for New Jersey Transit,” Christie said. “This $400 million will allow the New Jersey Department of Transportation to deliver the largest construction program in state history starting right now.”
“The result will be smoother roads, safer bridges, and a more technologically sound mass-transit system, all great things for New Jersey commuters,” he said.
Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) said lawmakers are now able to approve the extra spending because “the TTF is already in place and revenues are being generated.
‘…put a jolt into the economy’
“This is sort of a message to the Department of Transportation from the Legislature and the executive branch to move some of those funds into the current fiscal year and to put a jolt into the economy,” said Sarlo, who chairs the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.
Sen. Steve Oroho, a cosponsor of the legislation, said the new appropriation would enable the state to get more money to municipal and county governments before the end of the fiscal year, meaning it will help offset spending at the local level that’s primarily supported through property taxes.
“The tax reform plan that we approved last year has made it possible for the state to pay for many critical transportation projects in communities across New Jersey,” said Oroho (R-Sussex). “Our new legislation builds on that effort by having the state augment its share of funding for local road and bridge repairs that would otherwise have been borne by residents through increased property taxes.”
The bill’s advancement, meanwhile, came on the same day that the latest grade for the nation’s overall infrastructure was released by the engineers group, and as President Donald Trump has been talking about spending up to $1 trillion at the federal level to pay for infrastructure upgrades. The D+ grade included in the “2017 Infrastructure Report Card” remained unchanged from the same review conducted four years ago.
The engineers group also releases state-by-state rankings, and New Jersey’s infrastructure was also graded a D+ by the organization when those rankings were released last year.