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Christie's proposed budget doesn't cover fixing bridges, NJ transportation chief says

April 2, 2015, 7:08 PM    Last updated: Friday, April 3, 2015, 9:24 AM
Staff Writer | 
The Record

Even after spending $1.1 billion next year on New Jerseys’ transportation department, Governor Christie’s proposed budget does not provide enough money for the state to fix its backlog of 290 structurally deficient bridges, Christie’s transportation commissioner said at a Senate hearing Thursday.

The budget calls for the state Department of Transportation to receive $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2016. But fixing the state’s ailing bridges may cost up to twice that amount, Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox told the Senate budget committee. That estimate does not include any major road maintenance or expansion projects, Fox said.

“The amount we’re spending annually now will not allow us to catch up,” said Fox, who estimated the cost of fixing bridges at between $1.8 billion and $2 billion. “We’ll need an increase to our budget just to do the backlog of bridges that need to be repaired. It will take a number of years to catch up, especially on the bridges.”

Fox also expressed concern that while the budget proposed by Christie maintains roughly the same amount of funding and construction work as last year, it does so with a number of one-time revenues that cannot be repeated next year. That includes borrowing to the hilt against revenue from motor fuel taxes, vehicle fees and turnpike tolls, Fox said, and using every dollar left in the Transportation Trust Fund.

“This short-term fix is anything but ideal,” Fox said. “As of July 1 of next year we will have hit a wall. There would have to be drastic cuts” unless new revenue is found.

Meanwhile, the transportation department is working harder than ever just to keep the state roads passable after a long, cold winter, Fox said. State workers already have filled 180,000 potholes this fiscal year, and they plan to patch nearly 300,000, Fox said, twice the amount for a normal year.

“We had a winter from hell, and it just would not end,” Fox said, “and now we’re dealing with potholes that won’t go away.”

Senators focused on a variety of questions for Fox and Ronnie Hakim, executive director of NJ Transit, especially around a possible transit fare hike. Hakim explained that the agency originally faced a shortfall of $120 million for next fiscal year, but managed to whittle that down to $60 million by cutting internal costs. As the agency continues to look for more efficiencies, it’s also considering cutting service along underperforming bus and train routes, Hakim said, or raising fares.

Many senators said their constituents would be outraged by a fare increase, especially after NJ Transit’s decision five years ago to hike fares by an average of 22 percent. Hakim said she and other leaders of the agency have not forgotten riders’ outrage.

“My policy is to minimize the impact to our customers on service or fares,” Hakim said. “I know what happened in 2010, that it was a hardship for our customers. Any proposal we put on the table would have to be less than that to be palatable.”



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