This story is part of a regular series exploring where the candidates stand on major issues and assessing key considerations in this year’s elections. Follow these links for look at the hottest district races; an overview of the legislative landscape; the candidates’ plans to ease New Jersey’s fiscal crisis; why the Democrats favor single-payer healthcare; and the reasons the Republicans are cool on the ACA replacement bill.
New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund is no longer on the verge of going broke thanks to last year’s unpopular gas-tax increase. But one of the big issues that’s emerged during the run-up to this year’s gubernatorial primary is exactly how the state should be deploying its suddenly flush transportation account.
The Democratic candidates and at least one of the Republicans have called for making a bigger investment in New Jersey Transit’s capital infrastructure, something that could resonate with daily commuters in the wake of last year’s fatal rail accident in Hoboken, and a spate of more recent problems involving tracks owned by the federal government.
Giving more money to the agency for its day-to-day operations out of the state’s annual budget has also been a key issue raised by the Democratic candidates heading into the June 6 primary.
On the Republican side, there have also been calls for audits, consolidation, and enhanced transparency as the leading candidates have debated the transportation issue. In fact, whether the 23-cent gas-tax hike that was enacted last year on a bipartisan basis should even remain in place has also been the source of a disagreement among the leading Republicans.
And there have been calls from both a Republican and a Democratic candidate to overhaul a planned change in the way the state will select which road, bridge, and rail projects will receive funding each year from the eight-year, $16 billion renewal of the TTF that was signed into law last year.
Though unpopular with New Jersey motorists, the 23-cent gas-tax hike favored by Democratic legislative leaders went into effect last November after winning Gov. Chris Christie’s signature, and it’s now generating more than $1 billion in annual revenue for New Jersey’s transportation infrastructure. Combined with funds raised from long-term borrowing, the state is now spending $2 billion annually on transportation projects, an increase from the $1.6 billion in annual spending that took place over the past decade. The state’s TTF dollars also leverage matching funds from the federal government, pushing total transportation-infrastructure spending to $4 billion each year.
Kim Guadagno, Christie’s lieutenant governor and the leading Republican candidate in this year’s gubernatorial contest, opposed the gas-tax hike last year, but as a candidate this year Guadagno said she wouldn’t seek to repeal the increase if she were to become governor.
“I think we’re already spending the money … so I don’t think we can go backwards at this point,” Guadagno said during a recent GOP debate that was sponsored by NJTV and NJ Spotlight.
But Guadagno is calling for a full-scale financial audit of TTF spending to determine exactly which projects should get priority — roads, bridges, or mass transit.
“Before we start to throw money at it, let’s audit it,” Guadagno said of the TTF.
As an example, she questioned the $29 million in spending on bus-safety cameras that her own administration just authorized as part of a $400 million supplemental appropriation out of the TTF that was recently enacted by Christie and lawmakers.
“It might prevent an accident, but is that the most important thing? Don’t we have bridges that are falling down, don’t we have trains that are about to run off the tracks, don’t we have roads that need to be fixed? The bottom line is, we don’t know,” Guadagno said.
She has also questioned a new board to be made up of political appointees that will be charged with establishing and ultimately approving a list of the road, bridge, and rail projects that will receive capital funding from the TTF each year.
Repeal the gas-tax hike
But Guadagno’s leading opponent, state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset), voted against the gas-tax increase and says he would repeal it if elected governor. The lost revenue, Ciattarelli said, could be made up by undoing a slight reduction of the sales tax that Christie insisted on passing along with the gas-tax increase last year. Ciattarelli, a certified public accountant, said for most people the sales-tax cut is saving just $17 annually.
Ciattarelli also faulted Guadagno and Christie for not addressing New Jersey’s floundering TTF finances earlier on during their two terms in office, letting the problem grow so big that it required the 23-cent increase coming all at once. He previously supported a plan that would link the tax to inflation so minor increases would occur automatically.
“You could see this iceberg, you could see this four and half years in advance,” Ciattarelli said during the debate. “This administration said there was no crisis.”
Ciattarelli’s plan to address transportation also involves reprioritizing TTF money to mass transit, ending regular raids of capital funds to pay for NJT’s day-to-day operations, and fully consolidating agencies like NJ Transit and the state Department of Transportation with the Motor Vehicle Commission to improve their finances and transparency. He would also seek to raise more funding for mass transit by creating a reciprocal income-tax agreement with New York that would be modeled off of a similar agreement New Jersey has maintained for decades with Pennsylvania. And even though some of the recent problems experienced by rail commuters who travel into New York every day have involved tracks that are owned by Amtrak, Ciattarelli said New Jersey could spend its own money to fix those tracks immediately to ease the problems.
“This has to be our No. 1 mass-transit infrastructure priority right now. It has to be. Even if it means us doing the repairs on the Amtrak tracks and getting reimbursed later,” Ciattarelli said.
“The other thing we have to do is better manage the place,” he said.
Phil Murphy, the leading Democrat in this year’s gubernatorial contest, is also calling for better management at NJ Transit, including the hiring of an “emergency manager” to work directly with Amtrak officials on ongoing infrastructure problems at New York’s Penn Station, which is owned by the federal government but used daily by NJ Transit.
Murphy, who recently won the endorsement of a key state mass-transit union, is also calling for an audit of NJ Transit, its personnel, and capital spending. He also has said he would force the agency to make a major effort to improve its communication with customers to provide the best information possible about delayed trains. Murphy is also calling for increased support for the agency’s day-to-day operations out of the annual state budget, and has floated the idea of creating a dedicated source of revenue for NJ Transit.
“At the end of the day, it needs professional management and it needs the state to start putting money back into it,” Murphy said about NJ Transit.
State Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) also points to the need for both funding and management improvements at NJ Transit, and his own transportation plan calls for a restructuring of TTF spending priorities to emphasize investment in mass transit. Wisniewski, the longtime chair of the Assembly’s transportation committee, said he would also get rid of political appointees at NJ Transit, and would work to make overall transportation investment more strategic, with an emphasis on ensuring that areas with affordable housing are better linked to employment centers.
“What New Jersey Transit needs to have is a top-to-bottom remake,” Wisniewski said during a recent |Democratic debate that was also sponsored by NJTV and NJ Spotlight.
“Our Transportation Trust Fund, for example, has a bias toward roads, not to rails and buses, and that’s a big problem,” he said.
Democrat Jim Johnson, a former U.S. Treasury official from Montclair, said the transportation issue is a personal one, since he has a 15-year history of commuting to New York, and his wife just missed the Hoboken crash last year by about 45 minutes.
Johnson is calling for more funding for NJ Transit, and he wants to emphasize Positive Train Control (PTC) equipment, which matches train speed to track conditions and can override an engineer to automatically slow or stop a train before it crashes. He’s also calling for more data analysis to help predict maintenance concerns before they become a full-blown crisis. In addition, Johnson’s transportation plan calls for more investment in South Jersey, and an overall focus on transit-oriented developments that take advantage of private capital.
“It’s not just management, and it’s not just money, it’s also vision,” Johnson said. “For me, this issue is very, very personal, as it is for hundreds of thousands of commuters in this state,” he said. “The next governor needs to make transit a top priority, from northern New Jersey to southern New Jersey.”
Longtime state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) is also calling for more investment in mass-transit infrastructure as the eight-year TTF reauthorization plays out, but like Guadagno, he’s raised concerns about the new commission of political appointees that would be assembled to decide which projects get funded.
Once seated, the commission would replace the current practice, which involves lawmakers getting a list of projects to consider from the Department of Transportation just before the deadline for a new state budget comes in late June.
“We have a $16 billion Transportation Trust Fund, and the priority should be investing that Transportation Trust Fund into making (New Jersey’s) mass transit a world-class mass-transit system,” Lesniak said. “But instead they have this pork panel.”
Lesniak, meanwhile, is also highlighting legislation he sponsors that would create two new positions for regular commuters on NJ Transit’s board of trustees.
“Put two commuters, real commuters, on the board, with a vote and a second that cannot be tabled, and you watch and see how management can be improved,” he said.