Boardwalks to become ‘public highways’

Tram car jokes aside, sponsors say calling boardwalks highways means millions for improvements
Credit: dianeham via Creative Commons under CC BY NC ND 2.0.
Wildwood tram waiting for passengers on the town’s boardwalk

New Jersey’s iconic oceanfront boardwalks would be legally known as “public highways,” so they could qualify for dedicated state transportation funding under legislation that passed a key state Assembly panel on Wednesday.

The measure, which has bipartisan support, calls for spending at least $4 million annually on boardwalk projects over the next decade using funding from New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund.

But to make boardwalk projects qualified for those dedicated dollars, the bill would expand the official definition of what’s considered to be a public highway in New Jersey to include “boardwalks and promenades.”

Boardwalks are often considered to be vital drivers of tourism dollars in the state’s oceanfront communities, and sponsors say that broadening the definition of a public highway to include boardwalks will provide a much-needed source of revenue for aging oceanfront promenades that have proven costly to maintain and repair for the municipalities in which they are located.

Their effort comes on the heels of what turned out to be a disappointing 2020 tourism season, due in part to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

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NJ boardwalks showing their age

“The Atlantic City boardwalk is 150 years old. The Wildwood boardwalk is 100 years old. Many more iconic walkways that hug the Jersey Shore are decades old and in dire need of repair,” said Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Atlantic).

“This bill creates new avenues to support boardwalk maintenance and revitalization projects so that they may welcome visitors for future generations,” said Mazzeo, a primary sponsor of the bill.

The Transportation Trust Fund, or TTF, is supported by a portion of New Jersey’s general sales-tax revenue, as well as state gas-tax dollars constitutionally dedicated to funding transportation projects. The trust fund is separate from the state budget, and it draws federal matching dollars that further stretch investments made by taxpayers.

The trust fund was last reauthorized in 2016, around the same time then-Gov. Chris Christie and lawmakers agreed to hike the state’s per-gallon gas tax by more than 20 cents. The bipartisan compromise also set the stage for future gas-tax increases, including a nearly 10-cent hike that went into effect last year on Oct. 1.

New Jersey voters also approved in 2016 a ballot question that dedicated all taxes levied on fuel sales to funding state transportation projects.

Counting boardwalk miles

The bill that passed the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee in a unanimous vote on Wednesday would incorporate “boardwalk mileage” in municipalities and counties into the formula that’s used to allot dollars each year from the trust fund’s Local Aid Infrastructure Fund.

The measure also calls for spending at least $4 million annually on boardwalks projects over each of the next 10 state fiscal years.

State law already allows for a fairly wide definition of what’s considered to be a “public highway.” Rest areas, Park & Ride facilities and pedestrian and bicycle bridges over highways are among the items that meet the current definition. The bill would expand the definition by adding the words “boardwalks” and “promenades.”

Another section of the legislation would define “boardwalk mileage” as “the mileage of elevated pedestrian walkways or footpaths, regardless of construction material, which allows pedestrians to cross wet, fragile, sandy, or marshy land and which is owned or maintained by municipalities.”

An identical version of the bill has been introduced in the Senate, but it has yet come up for a review in committee.

Taming the Wildwood boardwalk

Separately, Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget proposal for the fiscal year which begins July 1 calls for appropriating $4 million for the Wildwood boardwalk, which lawmakers have previously identified as in need of significant repairs.

Several years ago, when lawmakers first sought to make a policy change to fund the state’s aging boardwalks, the effort was criticized by some who questioned whether it was appropriate to use dedicated funds that are typically spent on road, bridge and rail projects throughout the state to fund boardwalk improvements.

This time around, the new effort comes as statistics released by the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism earlier this month documented the damage that the coronavirus pandemic did to the state’s tourism economy last year.

In all, the total number of visitors dropped by nearly 30% year-over-year in 2020, and total spending by tourists was down by nearly 40% year-over-year, according to the division’s study.

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