Of all the major challenges facing the state’s next governor, New Jersey’s aging and often unreliable transportation system may be the most urgent and difficult one to deal with.
But a new report released by the Fund for New Jersey — with the endorsement of a former governor — offers a series of detailed transportation-policy recommendations for Gov. Chris Christie’s successor, while also making the argument that nothing less than the health of the state economy is at stake if New Jersey can’t figure out a way to maintain first-class infrastructure.
“I would argue it is the key to economic prosperity in New Jersey, and economic prosperity is the key to everything else in New Jersey,” said former Gov. Jim Florio, a member of the Fund for New Jersey’s board of trustees, during a news conference in Trenton yesterday.
Among the tough-medicine recommendations made in the report is a call for carving out of revenue from state driver’s license and registration fees to better support transportation investment, as well as possibly increasing those fees to help the state wean itself off ongoing fund diversions from capital accounts and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.
The report also recommends consolidating state highway agencies within the Department of Transportation to make them more efficient and to reduce overall cost. And it also revisits the notion of letting a private company operate state toll roads in exchange for upfront cash, an idea that was famously unpopular with New Jersey residents when floated by former Gov. Jon Corzine a decade ago.
The report is the fourth in a Crossroads NJ series that the nonpartisan Fund for New Jersey has been rolling out during the 2017 election year, which will see both the governor’s office and all 120 state legislative seats up for grabs in November. Officials from the fund, a philanthropic organization that encourages informed policymaking (and is a funder of NJ Spotlight), say their goal is to inject into this year’s public debate a set of serious proposals, though they acknowledge their ideas aren’t the only options that should be on the table.
‘Being honest with the people’
“It’s time now for leaders to start being honest with the people,” said Florio, who served as New Jersey’s governor from 1990 to 1994.
“No alternative that you offer is particularly pleasant (and) all of the alternatives are problematic,” Florio said. “But leadership entails being able to offer people options, alternatives, and then make decisions on the basis of what is least offensive or the most advantageous.”
The report on the transportation issue comes out at a particularly critical time, with ongoing questions being raised about the financing of the state’s most significant transportation project, a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel. New Jersey Transit has also been the subject of ongoing legislative hearings in the wake of a fatal crash in Hoboken last year, with the most recent hearing delving into concerns about management, finances, and patronage that were leveled by a former agency compliance officer, accusations that were strongly disputed by NJ Transit in a subsequent lawsuit.
Not up to blue-ribbon standards
And despite recent NJ Transit fare increases and a politically unpopular 23-cent gas-tax hike that was imposed on motorists just last year as part of a reauthorization of the New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund, the state’s annual investment in transportation is still falling nearly $1 billion short of the amount identified in a blue-ribbon commission report on transportation infrastructure that was drafted more than a decade ago.
“The political dimensions of this subject are really important – and they’re difficult,” said Martin Robins, director emeritus of Rutgers University’s Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center, as he presented the report along with Florio yesterday.
At the top of the report’s priority list is likely the toughest transportation issue facing the state: where funding for the nearly $30 billion Gateway infrastructure project that includes the new trans-Hudson rail tunnel will come from. Christie, a Republican, canceled a prior tunnel project during his first-term in office, and now it’s unclear whether President Donald Trump’s administration will honor a cost-sharing plan for Gateway that was drafted during the tenure of former President Barack Obama. That plan called for the federal government to pick up half the cost of Gateway, which includes several other infrastructure improvements in addition to a new tunnel, with the balance to be covered by New Jersey, New York, and the Port Authority.
The century-old rail tunnel that’s currently used by NJ Transit was seriously damaged by Superstorm Sandy, and both its inbound and outbound tubes are in need of repair. If just one of the tunnel’s tubes were to go out of service before a new tunnel is up and running, the number of hourly trips into New York would be reduced from 24 to six, the report warns.
“There is an urgency of incomparable nature that this project proceeds,” Robins said.
PA bus terminal inching along
The report makes a similar call for urgency to support the state’s bus commuters as the Port Authority continues to move slowly on a project to replace its flagship bus terminal in midtown Manhattan. The agency’s latest long-term capital plan included only partial funding for a new bus terminal even as ridership is expected to increase by as much as 50 percent by 2040. And while not every resident of the state commutes into New York or even uses the mass-transit system, both Robins and Florio argued that all residents have a stake in maintaining the infrastructure because those jobs support the local economies in communities across the state.
“The real-estate market, which is a vital part of New Jersey’s suburban economy, is tremendously undergirded by the quality of public transportation and the accessibility of those municipalities to New York City,” Robins said.
The report, meanwhile, also devotes a lot of attention to New Jersey’s major highways and rail network. Among other things, it cites concerns about the roughly $200 million in annual revenue that is being diverted from the toll-dependent New Jersey Turnpike Authority to help sustain NJ Transit. That agency’s annual subsidy in recent years has been held flat or even reduced. The report also highlights an ongoing diversion of NJ Transit capital funds for operating expenses that has occurred for decades under governors from both parties.
“Restoring this money to its intended use would strengthen a NJ Transit capital budget that remains fragile and insufficient even after the 2016 (TTF reauthorization),” the report says.
The report also suggests earmarking excess revenue from the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, which every year sends millions of dollars into the state’s general fund after covering its own expenses.
Charging tolls on interstate highways in New Jersey and generating new tax revenue from real-estate transactions or businesses, which is something the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority has been doing, was also put up for consideration.
Some of the recommendations echo policies that have been proposed by the gubernatorial candidates. For example, Democrat Phil Murphy has called for the creation of a dedicated source of revenue for NJ Transit, and both Murphy and Republican Kim Guadagno are emphasizing the Gateway initiative and the bus-terminal project as part of their transportation platforms.
But officials from the Fund for New Jersey said their report and its recommendations are not intended to favor one candidate or another. And they also hope the conversation on transportation policy will go beyond this year’s election season.
“The day after the election, these issues don’t stop being issues,” said Kiki Jamieson, the fund’s president.