Christie Says There's No Transportation Crisis; Critics Sharply Disagree
State claims it has scraped together money to make it through next fiscal year, but legislators worry about administration's wait-and-see attitude
During a recent radio program, Gov. Chris Christie told his audience that New Jersey has no transportation “crisis at the moment,” a comment that angered a number of transportation advocates who spoke out during a hearing in Trenton yesterday.
They pointed to potholes that are opening up seemingly everywhere on roads across the state, another possible fare hike that New Jersey Transit commuters are facing, and bridges that were just rated the sixth-worst in the country.
“I think we’re very close to a catastrophe,” said Gordon MacInnes, executive director of the liberal-leaning think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective.
MacInnes and other advocates spoke during a morning meeting of the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee, a panel that has held a series of hearings on the status of the New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund in recent months.
Christie and lawmakers have been going down to the wire in talks to find a new source of revenue for the trust fund, refusing at this point to commit to increasing the state’s 14.5-cent gas tax or publicly identifying another option to help support the roughly $1.6 billion the state has been spending annually on road, bridge, and rail projects, money that also generates federal matching funds.
Without an increase in revenues, all of the money raised by the gas tax and tolls will go to paying off the fund’s debt after June 30.
Christie, during his February 25 talk on NJ 101.5 FM, said he’s been having productive talks with legislative leaders, and his administration has found enough money to get through the next fiscal year without major cutbacks in transportation spending.
“It’s not a crisis at the moment,” he said. “We’re funded pretty well now.”
But during yesterday’s hearing, Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert pointed out that local government officials like her are drawing up their budgets right now for the calendar year, and the uncertainty makes it harder to do proper planning. The state has traditionally provided municipalities and county governments with funding for road-maintenance projects on an annual basis.
“It’s frustrating to local officials to know that there has been no agreement,” she said. “The funding may not be there, but the needs are there to ensure the safety of our local roads for residents.”
She was then asked by Committee Chair John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) if she thinks the issue has become a crisis. It was a question Wisniewski -- a former state Democratic Party leader who led the special legislative panel that investigated the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal for much of 2014 -- would pose to nearly all who appeared before the committee yesterday.
“In my opinion, yes,” she said.
Christie, a Republican, put forward in 2011 a five-year plan for transportation spending that was to take the state through the end of the 2016 fiscal year. At the heart of his plan was the use of more “pay-as-you-go” funding out of the state’s annual budget, a strategy that was intended to ease a reliance on new borrowing.
At the time, Christie said New Jersey would become “the model for restoring a state to fiscal health.”
But state revenues haven’t grown as quickly as Christie projected, and he’s been forced to abandon the “pay-as-you-go” goal, putting more reliance on authorized borrowing and one-time funding sources.
Wisniewski, in remarks he made at the start of the hearing, said he believes the state will end up spending about $800 million on transportation in the next fiscal year.
“It’s safe to say as a state that we need far in excess of $1.2 billion a year,” Wisniewski said. (Without new funding) “we’re already at a $400 million deficit.”
“By any realistic definition that’s a crisis,’ he said.
But after the hearing, state Department of Treasury spokesman Christopher Santarelli provided a list of revenue sources that now shows the state is planning to spend about $1.5 billion through the end of June 2016, roughly the same amount the administration spent on transportation during the earlier years of Christie’s five-year plan.
The list included $627 million from borrowing and a $281 million cash balance that can be spent down. Another $241.5 million will come in the form of a New Jersey Transit cash-advance repayment and the state will also use a $36 million Build America Bond interest subsidy.
“These expenditures to project costs are in line with past years under the current authorization,” Santarelli said.
The Port Authority, meanwhile, is also contributing another $353 million to support state transportation projects. That is the last installment of a funding commitment that was originally intended to go to paying for the planned Access to the Region’s Core rail tunnel under the Hudson River. Christie killed that project in 2010 citing concerns about New Jersey taxpayers’ exposure to cost overruns.
Lawmakers earlier this week called on the Port Authority, which is also trying to find the money to redo its bus terminal, to provide the seed funds to move forward Amtrak’s planned Gateway tunnel.
Christie press secretary Kevin Roberts said yesterday that Wisniewski’s comments didn’t square with the facts.
“More heated political rhetoric that is completely at odds with the facts coming from the Assemblyman? Color me surprised,” Roberts said.
But during the hearing, Anthony Attanasio, a former state Department of Transportation assistant commissioner who now serves as executive director of the state Utility & Transportation Contractors Association, said New Jersey should be spending roughly $3 billion annually for the next 20 years on transportation to meet the goal of “state of good repair.”
He also cited a recent federal ranking of bridge conditions that put New Jersey’s as sixth worst.
“We are in a crisis. We’re beyond a crisis,” he said.
And Janna Cherntez, senior New Jersey policy analyst at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, didn’t wait for Wisniewski to ask whether she sees things in New Jersey as a crisis.
“I thought there was a crisis a long time ago,” she said. “I don’t know what else we need to make this crisis any clearer.”