After starting the fiscal year last summer without any money for road, bridge, and mass-transit improvements, New Jersey is now on the verge of spending a record $2 billion.
Lawmakers gave final approval late last week to a $400 million supplemental appropriation for spending on transportation projects, a sum that, once it receives Gov. Chris Christie’s expected endorsement, will be added to the $1.6 billion that’s already been allocated for infrastructure investment during the 2017 fiscal year.
The additional funding for transportation projects became available after Christie, a Republican, worked with Democratic legislative leaders last year to hike the state gas tax to help renew the Transportation Trust Fund with an eight-year, $16 billion finance plan. And it was Christie who first said during his budget address before lawmakers last month that he wanted to see more spending from the TTF occur before the current fiscal year closes at the end of June.
Divvying up the appropriation
The $400 million supplemental appropriation calls for $260 million to fund immediate repairs of roads and bridges, spending that will come just as potholes have once again become a menace for motorists across the state due to warming temperatures. Another $140 million will go to New Jersey Transit for safety improvements, which could help ongoing efforts to install positive train control (PTC) equipment that matches train speed to track conditions and can override an engineer to automatically slow or stop a train before it crashes.
Bill sponsors say the increased spending will also provide a boost to the construction industry and overall state economy. But the support wasn’t unanimous, as some lawmakers faulted the sponsors for not including a detailed list of projects that will receive funding as the measure advanced over the past month.
The recent cooperation between Christie and Democratic legislative leaders on transportation spending marks a big change from last year. With the TTF on the verge of going broke, Christie refused to take the lead last spring, leaving it up to a bipartisan group of lawmakers to propose a solution, which was a 23-cent gas-tax increase. The governor initially opposed the gas-tax hike, starting a political impasse that stretched past the June 30 expiration of the TTF’s prior, five-year funding plan.
When the 2017 fiscal year began last July, Christie shut 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.
Getting to ‘yes’
But the governor and lawmakers eventually reached a deal to renew the TTF last fall, several days after a fatal NJ Transit train crash at Hoboken Terminal. Christie and lawmakers also agreed to boost annual state spending on transportation from $1.6 billion to a record $2 billion as part of the TTF deal, but since the deal was struck after the new fiscal year began, only $1.6 billion was originally appropriated by the Legislature for transportation projects.
During last month’s budget address, Christie called on lawmakers to pass the $400 million in supplemental spending to ensure that the full $2 billion infrastructure investment that was originally envisioned for the 2017 fiscal year could still be made. The gas-tax increase went into effect on November 1, and the state has also already floated new TTF bonds, meaning the supplemental appropriation will have no impact on the general state budget.
“This $400 million will allow the New Jersey Department of Transportation to deliver the largest construction program in state history starting right now,” Christie said during the February 28 budget speech.
“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.
The supplemental appropriation bill passed the Senate on March 13, and though it wasn’t on the Assembly’s original voting agenda last Thursday, the measure was added at the last minute and easily won final approval. Christie is expected to sign the bill within days, possibly as early as today.
Specific projects unknown
But it’s still unclear exactly which projects will be funded as a result of the supplemental appropriation because the bill did not include a detailed breakdown or list. Instead, the language only calls for $260 million to go toward “immediate bridge and road repair,” and the remaining $140 million to go to NJ Transit for “technology improvements and system safety,” which officials said could include PTC.
Sponsors of the spending bill pointed to the impact the supplemental appropriation could have on the state economy as warming temperatures will now allow construction crews that were stalled last summer to resume full activities through the end of June.
“This is all about jobs, invigorating our economy and public safety,” said Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson). “We’re going to see wide-ranging job and economic benefits for years to come from our new infrastructure improvement plan, but with this bill we’ll be getting an even earlier start than expected.”
“This will get the TTF fully funded faster and get more projects done,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester). “We are acting quickly and decisively to improve our transportation system and the state’s economy.”
But Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) said legislative leaders should have spelled out exactly how the $400 million will be spent before asking lawmakers to send the bill to the governor.
“Nothing’s been (provided) to the Legislature in terms of a list,” said Wisniewski, who was one of only four lawmakers in the 120-member Legislature to vote against the supplemental appropriation.
“We shouldn’t be voting on that kind of an appropriation without a very specific breakdown of how the money gets used,” Wisniewski said.