Many New Jersey motorists say they have yet to feel the benefits of recent gas-tax hikes that are bringing in more revenue than ever for road improvements, but a new state law could change that by making transportation projects run more expeditiously.
Enacted by Gov. Phil Murphy last week, the legislation makes a number of administrative reforms that are designed to improve efficiency and speed up the time it takes the state to complete road work that’s funded with gas-tax revenues.
For example, the design of some transportation projects can now be “bundled” into a single contract during the pre-construction phase, and state and county transportation officials can now work more closely together to prevent construction delays. More cooperation between state government and colleges and universities has also been authorized, a policy change that could bring more federal matching funds into New Jersey for transportation projects.
The administrative reforms come in the wake of recent gas-tax hikes that have raised the state’s per-gallon levy by nearly 30 cents in just the last few years. The hikes have also put more pressure on state government to deliver more results, as recent public-opinion polling suggests most motorists don’t believe the state has been doing enough to maintain and repair roads and bridges even as they have been paying more at the pump.
As quickly as possible
“We want to put people to work and get the projects done in a timely manner so that improvements to our roads, bridges and other transportation facilities are made as quickly as possible,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), a primary sponsor of the new law.
For the most part, the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) funds road, bridge and rail-infrastructure projects in New Jersey. The TTF, using money that is separate from the general state budget, relies heavily on dedicated revenue generated by the state gas tax. Matching dollars are also drawn from the federal government, though not necessarily on a dollar-for-dollar basis.
The TTF is deep in debt after state government for years spent more on transportation projects than it took in from the gas tax, and it was on the verge of going broke in 2016 before lawmakers came up with a fix that involved increasing the state gas tax by nearly 23 cents. Lawmakers also authorized more borrowing for transportation projects as part of the TTF initiative, which extended the fund’s life for another eight years. Annual spending on transportation projects was also increased from $1.6 billion to $2 billion.
To make sure the TTF wouldn’t run at a deficit, the legislative fix also tied future gas-tax increases to specific revenue targets, allowing for the tax rate to rise and fall automatically in response to consumption trends and the level of tax collections. That led to a 4.3-cent gas-tax increase that occurred automatically last year, pushing the per-gallon levy up to 41.4 cents.
But even with the increased revenues, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has been concerned about the efficiency of the state Department of Transportation, the agency that oversees the construction work. Their concerns were underscored by the recent Fairleigh Dickinson University Poll, a public-opinion poll done in partnership with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825. More than 60 percent of those polled believed the state is not doing enough currently to maintain and repair roads and bridges, while more than 80 percent said they oppose any new tax hikes and instead believe the state should do a better job of using existing resources to maintain infrastructure.
Learning from Pennsylvania
One of the policy changes authorized by the new law would allow the DOT to bundle transportation projects during the design phase. Sponsors said the bundling provision was modeled after a similar policy in Pennsylvania that has helped ease planning delays.
To be eligible for bundling, projects will have to be “of similar size or design” and will have to “provide the department with cost and time savings,” according to the new law. The bundling can also not come at the expense of stringent environmental review, the law states.
Another policy change allows the DOT to begin working more closely with county government transportation engineers to get projects started that may otherwise be stalled due to DOT staff constraints. County engineers can now create 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, according to the law. But the funding would still come from the TTF.
It also allows for the establishment of the New Jersey Transportation Research Center, which would authorize the DOT to work more closely with in-state public-research institutions to do academic analysis of the state’s infrastructure and transportation needs. Sponsors of the law said working on an official basis with institutions like Rutgers and Rowan universities would allow state government 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 in the past.
After Murphy enacted the policy reforms last week, Sweeney and other sponsors said the changes should improve the bottom line for the motorists footing the bill.
“This will make the construction and repair of vital transportation projects more efficient and more effective,” Sweeney said.
“Taxpayers are making a heavy investment in the state infrastructure, and it’s vitally important that money is used efficiently,” said Assemblyman Harold Wirths (R-Sussex).
“With this (law), we can be more productive with every dollar spent,” Wirths said. “Our roadways and our taxpayers will benefit.”