Roundtable Focuses on NJ’s Transportation Future

February 22, 2016 | Politics, Transportation
A roundtable on New Jersey's transportation future discussed the soon to be depleted Transportation Trust Fund.

By Michael Hill

In his budget address, Gov. Chris Christie swept aside claims the state’s Transportation Trust Fund is in trouble.

“To imply that the TTF is in crisis and is suddenly and unexpectedly run out of money is just a politically driven mischaracterization,” he said Feb. 16.

“I’m just startled that the governor seemed to feel there’s no problem. If we don’t have any money for our transportation needs, bridges fall down, tunnels collapse. It’s just not a sustainable situation,” said former Gov. Jim Florio.

Florio was among those at an NJ Spotlight roundtable on New Jersey’s transportation future, wondering how Gov. Christie could downplay the lack of a definite future funding source for the TTF to improve the state’s transportation system.

Are we in a crisis?

“We could be. The governor might figure out, the governor has lots of powers. He might figure out some way that it might not seem like a crisis, like he did about a year ago,” said Martin Robins, director emeritus of the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University.

“If we don’t have any new funding developed by June 30, then we will be in a crisis,” said Jerry Keenan, executive vice president for the New Jersey Alliance for Action.

“I think there is a crisis,” said Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association.

Wright pointed out the massive projects and commitments to moving commuters from Connecticut, Long Island and throughout New York City into Manhattan.

“I put these out there to say the rest of the region is not standing still,” he said.

Wright says what’s at stake — among other things — is the ability of New Jerseyans to get to jobs in Manhattan, a number that way outpaced commuters coming from all other regions combined between 1990 and 2010.

“When you think about those 50 million square feet of new commercial office space on the West Side, New Jerseyans could be getting a very large number of those jobs if they could get to them,” he said.

Wright says it’s critically important for lawmakers and the governor to come up with how to fund the TTF after June 30 because right now nearly all — 98 cents of every gas tax dollar collected — pays TTF debt.

He says there’s a case for raising the gasoline tax. Some urge by 10 cents a gallon while some lawmakers say no more taxes.

The RPA compared taxes per gallon in Europe, New York and Connecticut to New Jersey’s.

“So the gas tax in New Jersey, we talk about how it hasn’t been raised in a long time, but the point is it is severely out of whack with the rest of the region and the rest of the world. So, this is an opportunity. That’s just low-hanging fruit. Frankly, over the long term the gas tax is not going to generate what we need. We know we’re switching to electric vehicles, we’re getting more miles per gallon. So, we’re going to have to look for other ways to pay for these things,” Wright said.

Advocates say creating long-term funding for the Transportation Trust Fund has been a challenge for years.

“No one has been able to develop that program. You call it political games, lack of funding, foresight, but we have come to the point where there’s no turning back,” Keenan said.

With the governor back in Jersey after his failed presidential bid, touting repealing the estate tax in while raising the gas tax, advocates are watching to see if his presence will be a game changer for the TTF.

“Yet to be seen. But, I think he’s coming back here wanting to get some things done. He’s got a legacy to fulfill,” said John Mooney of NJ Spotlight.

In the meantime, the clock is ticking on the Transportation Trust Fund.

Follow @HillNJTV