Lawmakers Want $166M for Rail, Roads, Bridges on Top of $2B Already Budgeted

John Reitmeyer | February 13, 2018 | Transportation
Gas-tax increase in 2016 was supposed to solve underfunding of infrastructure projects in New Jersey but legislators want supplemental funding — again

Road work
Increasing the gas tax by 23 cents a gallon was supposed to resolve the continued lack of funding for state infrastructure projects, raising $2 billion a year over eight years. But for the second time since lawmakers renewed the state Transportation Trust Fund, they are going to the well again, asking for a supplemental appropriation.

The Assembly Budget Committee has approved a total of $166 million in supplemental TTF funding that would be added to the $2 billion that’s already been budgeted for road, bridge, and rail improvements during the 2018 fiscal year, which runs through the end of June.

The additional spending would be covered by the Transportation Trust Fund’s capital-reserve account, and it would fund dozens of proposed projects throughout the state, according to a project list that’s included in legislation that was approved by the committee yesterday. In all, the bill appropriates $100.5 million for road and bridge projects, and another $65.5 million for NJ Transit improvements.

$400M supplement last year

Around this time last year, legislative leaders worked with former Gov. Chris Christie to pass a $400 million supplemental bill that brought total transportation spending for the 2017 fiscal year up to $2 billion. The $400 million increase was enacted to ensure the state spent a full $2 billion during the first year of an overall eight-year, $16 billion TTF spending plan that was launched in the wake of the 2016 gas-tax increase.

By pushing total spending in the 2018 fiscal year above the $2 billion mark, the new supplemental bill could cause the eight-year TTF plan to eventually come up short or bring on a need for additional borrowing. That concern was among several that Republican lawmakers raised during yesterday’s Assembly committee meeting. However, the legislation was praised by groups representing laborers and construction contractors, and it cleared the panel unanimously.

The bill is now scheduled to go before the full Assembly on Thursday, the same day a Senate version backed by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) is scheduled to get an initial committee review in the upper house.

Christie, a Republican, and the Democrats who control the state Legislature were deadlocked on the issue of transportation funding in 2016 and were unable to reach a deal in time to renew a five-year, $8 billion TTF spending plan before it ran out of money on June 30. Road, bridge, and rail projects were subsequently shut down throughout the state for several months before a bipartisan TTF agreement was reached in the wake of a fatal NJ Transit train accident in Hoboken in late September 2016.

Because of the political disagreement, Christie decided to work with lawmakers on a supplemental TTF spending bill during the 2017 fiscal year. The TTF allocations for the 2018 fiscal year included the full $2 billion envisioned under the eight-year plan when it was approved by Christie and lawmakers last July.

Fifty road and bridge projects

Under the $166 million fiscal year 2018 supplemental bill the Assembly committee approved yesterday, nearly 50 road and bridge projects would receive TTF funding, ranging from a $50,000 road improvement in Essex County to a $15 million road realignment in Middlesex County. The legislation would also cover eight proposed NJ Transit projects, ranging from a $500,000 right-of-way project in Boonton to $25 million for the proposed Glassboro-to-Camden light-rail line. It would also fund a $10 million Rutgers to downtown New Brunswick light rail system.

Other state mass-transit funds have been going to projects that impact commutes into New York City and the busy Northeast Corridor, including a plan to replace the aging Portal Bridge near Secaucus Junction that is used by both NJ Transit and Amtrak.

Assemblyman Dan Benson, the primary sponsor of this year’s supplemental bill, suggested the projects that would receive funding under the legislation were already in the planning pipeline, and simply did not get on the final list for the fiscal year 2018 TTF appropriation when Christie and lawmakers finalized it last July.

“These are projects that are ready to go and were identified by leadership,” said Benson (D-Mercer).

Republicans question the spending

Assemblyman Robert Clifton (R-Monmouth) was among the Republicans who questioned Benson about the proposed spending during the hearing, and he asked about how the supplemental appropriation could change the overall eight-year TTF plan, since it’s only in the second full fiscal year of the eight-year plan.

“We don’t have a very long program anyway, is this going to negatively impact the back end?” Clifton asked.

Benson responded, in part, by saying it all depends on how much ends up being raised for the TTF each year throughout the eight-year program. In addition to revenue that comes in from the state gas tax, the TTF is also funded with revenue from the state sales tax and with borrowed money.

“We have a $16 billion program, so some years it might be over $2 billion, some years it might be less,” Benson said. “We want to make sure we don’t get too far out of that (framework) so that we don’t shorten that life.”

After the hearing ended, Benson told a reporter that lawmakers are aware of “sins of the past” when it comes to TTF spending, a reference to prior long-term programs that came up short of original projections due to overspending.

“We always have to be vigilant, to spend our money wisely,” he said.

A spokesman for Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who replaced Christie last month, did not respond yesterday to a request for comment on the proposed new spending.