Lawmakers are hoping to speed up the time it takes to complete transportation-related capital projects in New Jersey, two years after they increased the amount of money that’s spent each year on the state-funded infrastructure work.
A key Senate committee yesterday approved a bipartisan bill that would rewrite some state policies to make the Transportation Trust Fund operate more efficiently, including by allowing the Department of Transportation to work more closely with county governments and outside consultants to ensure projects aren’t sidelined due to a lack of available engineers.
The designing of similar infrastructure projects could also be bundled together by the department to help speed up the pre-construction phase, according to the bill. To bring in more federal funding, the state would also be permitted to work more closely with universities in New Jersey on research projects related to infrastructure and transportation.
The measure’s advancement is the latest attempt by lawmakers to fine-tune the state’s transportation-spending policies following the 2016 renewal of the Transportation Trust Fund. It also comes as motorists are being forced to pay more at the pump to fund the infrastructure work thanks to legislation that increased the state gas tax, a primary source of revenue for the TTF along with matching contributions from the federal government. The gas tax was increased by 4.3 cents at the beginning of October, boosting it to 41.4 cents.
State infrastructure poorly rated
Annual state spending on road, bridge and rail projects was upped from $1.6 billion to $2 billion under the 2016 TTF renewal that was approved by Democratic legislative leaders and then-Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican. The increase came in the wake of the latest in a series of poor rankings of the state’s infrastructure by a national civil engineer’s group, and as a prior TTF renewal had expired without a new deal being put in place, leading to a statewide shutdown of most transportation projects.
But even after the 2016 deadlock was broken, lawmakers have complained about how long it can take for TTF-funded projects to be completed, in part due to what can be a lengthy planning and public bidding process. In some cases, the pre-construction phase can last up to six months, while other delays can be caused by a lack of available engineers.
Under the bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sens. Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Steve Oroho (D-Sussex), the DOT could begin working more closely with county engineering departments to get projects started that otherwise would face long delays. County engineers would be asked to establish capital-funding priority lists, and if a proposed project appears on the lists repeatedly without being started by the DOT, the project’s oversight could then be transferred from the DOT to the county engineers.
“The department is to remain responsible for the cost of the project and provide payments to the county for the project on a reimbursement basis,” the bill says.
The measure would also allow multiple projects of a similar nature to be bundled together for public-bidding purposes during the design phase. To be eligible for bundling, projects would have to be “of similar size or design, where the bundling of design projects will not require more stringent environmental review, and whose inclusion in the program will save the department time or money,” according to the bill.
“Contracts issued under the design bundling program are still required to adhere to all existing procurement laws, including those applying to bidding and business set-asides,” the bill says.
Sponsors say the bundling proposal is modeled after a similar policy in Pennsylvania that has helped ease planning delays. A fiscal estimate prepared by the nonpartisan New Jersey Office of Legislative Services suggested it could also help stretch the state’s transportation dollars.
“This may potentially result in overall capital program savings, which would then be available to be used to complete additional projects with existing resources,” the fiscal note said.
Could state universities help?
The measure would also establish the “New Jersey Transportation Center” to allow the DOT to work more closely with in-state public-research institutions to do academic analysis of the state’s infrastructure and transportation needs, something that it has apparently done in the past. Working on an official basis with institutions like Rutgers and Rowan universities would allow New Jersey to get funding from the federal government’s University Transportation Center grant program and free up any state funding that has been covering such research efforts.
“To the extent that the research center qualifies for more federal funding than is currently provided to the State for transportation research, this may result in an indeterminate increase in State revenue in the form of additional federal grant funding, either directly to State institutions of higher education or indirectly to State institutions of higher education with the department serving as a pass-through entity,” the OLS fiscal note said.
The TTF measure was approved by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee in an 11-0 vote yesterday. An identical version has been introduced in the Assembly, but it has yet to come up for a vote.