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Transportation Crisis Puts Christie, Democrats On Collision Course

Battles loom over gas tax to fund Transportation Trust Fund and the future of the Port Authority after Bridegate

Pulaski Skyway

New Jerseyans pay more for unnecessary repairs caused by driving on poor or mediocre roads than residents of any other state. One out of every three bridges is decrepit or obsolete. Trains into Manhattan are jammed to capacity, with construction of a new rail tunnel at least a decade away.

Meanwhile, the Christie administration has borrowed so heavily that the Transportation Trust Fund that pays for highways, bridges, and mass-transit projects is going to run out of money a year early. And Gov. Chris Christie has called for the breakup of the Port Authority, the bistate agency set up to fund large-scale projects in the busiest transportation hub in the world.

“We certainly cannot renew the Transportation Trust Fund without a revenue source,” said Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex). “But I’m not sure that the public is prepared for the sticker shock of what it’s going to cost to fix our transportation system.”

While Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) has introduced legislation raising New Jersey’s gas tax, which is the second-lowest in the nation, by nine cents a gallon over three years, New Jersey Policy Perspective yesterday slapped a realistic sticker price on New Jersey’s transportation crisis: The liberal think tank suggested a plan to raise $1.25 billion a year by hiking the tax on a gallon of gas from 14.5 cents to 39 cents a gallon -- which would still be lower than New York, Pennsylvania, and six other large urban states.

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It’s a question of economic competitiveness, Gordon MacInnes, NJPP’s president, insisted.

“We have a transportation system that is deteriorating at a pace that is frightening, and we are ignoring the assets that we need to be paying attention to because we are plagued by a short-term outlook and a failure to accept the fact that our transportation network is at the heart of our economic future,” MacInnes said.

The need to renew the Transportation Trust Fund and reform the Port Authority this year sets Christie and Democratic legislative leaders on a collision course over how to pay for the state’s transportation infrastructure needs.

It is a critical policy battle that will be fought out on a complicated political landscape.

Read My Lips . . .

It pits Christie’s determination to keep his “no new taxes” pledge -- a political necessity if he still plans to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 -- against a growing recognition by Democratic legislative leaders that approval of a gas tax increase will be necessary to provide the revenue needed to fund TTF for five more years and avoid another credit downgrade by the Wall Street bond rating agencies.

The battle will be waged against the backdrop of Bridgegate hearings by a legislative investigative committee focused not only on potential misconduct by the governor’s office in the controversial George Washington Bridge lane closures, but also on whether Christie killed the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) rail passenger tunnel in order to fund the renewal of the last five-year TTF plan without raising the gas tax in 2011.

And it will take place as the Port Authority -- whose reputation has been damaged by Bridgegate, conflict-of-interest charges against ex-Chairman David Samson, and allegations that it misled the public on its massive 2011 toll hike -- strives to return to its core mission as a regional transportation planning agency in the face of suggestions by Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that the agency should instead by broken in two.

Breaking up the Port Authority is virtually the only option that could provide Christie with a way to renew the TTF for another five years without raising the gas tax and without having to borrow virtually the entire $1.6 billion a year in state funds needed.

Christie used $1.8 billion in Port Authority money diverted from the cancelled ARC Tunnel as the main pay-as-you-go funding in the five-year, $8 billion TTF plan he announced in 2011, but not without internal opposition from the Port Authority’s professional staff, who argued that spending the toll money on rebuilding the Pulaski Skyway would be illegal.

Dissolution of the bistate agency would give each state about $1.3 billion in annual toll revenue from the six trans-Hudson bridges and tunnels. And Christie would presumably have the ability to put Port Authority funds into TTF pay-as-you-go projects in North Jersey without agency interference.

Wisniewski said, however, that “any plan that would result in the Port Authority being broken up into two agencies that write checks to the two states is a non-starter,” and it is the Democratic-controlled Assembly that is prepared to move the cones in Christie’s way.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), the new member of New Jersey’s ruling triumvirate who bucked Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) on a critical interest-arbitration bill recently, publicly called for an increase in the gas tax to provide a significant level of pay-as-you-go funding for transportation construction projects as part of the next TTF renewal.

Kicking the Can

Prieto, who previously served as Assembly Budget Committee chairman, appointed his vice-chair, Schaer, an even more outspoken opponent of what he has criticized as the Christie administration’s practice of “kicking the can down the road” by relying on borrowing and budget gimmicks that will increase the costs for future administrations. Wisniewski, who has chaired the Assembly Transportation Committee for 12 years, noted that he has always been an outspoken proponent of raising the gas tax to put TTF on a firm fiscal footing. “Our Achilles heel as a state has always been that we acknowledge that we can’t fund the Transportation Trust Fund without a revenue source, but our reluctance to identify one. We thought we had a gas tax increase in the Democratic administration of Gov. (Jim) McGreevey. We were close,” Wisniewski said.

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