WOODBRIDGE — A leading state lawmaker Tuesday called Gov. Chris Christie a “roadblock” in efforts to establish a stable source of funding for New Jersey’s highway, bridge and rail projects.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, said the governor’s refusal to support an increase in the state’s gasoline tax has left the Transportation Trust Fund insolvent.
“The Transportation Trust Fund is without money. It’s broke,” said Wisniewski, who serves as chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee.
Wisniewski and other key Democratic lawmakers support an increase in the gas tax to generate more money for the transportation fund. Wisniewski asserted that the Republican governor is jeopardizing transportation projects across the state by not even considering an increase in the gas tax.
“The roadblock among all of this is the governor,” Wisniewski told reporters Tuesday during the monthly board meeting of the New Jersey Highway Authority.
Christie’s transportation commissioner disputed Wisniewski’s comments that the transportation fund is broke, saying there is enough money in it to last until July 2015. Transportation Commissioner James Simpson also insisted that no projects are currently at risk due to any funding shortages.
“We’ve been down this road before and always found a way forward,” Simpson said of the state’s ability to finance the transportation fund in the past.
The state is in the fourth year of the governor’s five-year transportation plan. The transportation fund draws about $1 billion in revenue each year from the state’s gas tax. At 10.5 cents per gallon, New Jersey’s gas tax is one of the lowest in the nation.
Studies have shown that New Jersey will need about $1.25 billion annually to finance its transportation network, Wisniewski said. He estimated that an additional $50 million in revenue would be generated each time the gas tax is raised by a penny.
One Democratic-sponsored piece of legislation would raise the gas tax by 15 cents over three years, but the governor and other Republican lawmakers are opposed to an increase. Instead, the Christie administration has borrowed money to generate additional revenue for the transportation fund. Simpson said the state has at least $600 million in bonding capacity for transportation projects heading into fiscal year 2016, which begins July 2015.
Simpson added that the state treasurer is crafting plans to finance the transportation fund beyond fiscal 2016. He said the Christie administration is willing to look at different options for financing transportation projects in the future, but he seemed to rule out an increase in the gas tax.
“It seems to be a non-starter,” Simpson said.
Simpson suggested that the gas tax is not sustainable as a long-term funding source because of the rising popularity of electric cars. Wisniewski, however, argued that the gas tax is the best source of funding currently available for transportation projects.
“You can’t run a transportation system on hopes and wishes,” Wisniewski said.
Wisniewski bashed the governor for his strategy of borrowing money for the transportation fund and resorting to “one-shot gimmicks” to finance key projects, such as a major restoration of the Pulaski Skyway bridge between Newark and Jersey City. Money for the $1.8 billion Pulaski Skyway project is coming from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the transportation giant that oversees airports, bridges and rail systems in both states.
Wisniewski has been a frequent critic of the governor’s administration. He appeared at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s board meeting Tuesday to denounce the agency’s plan to privatize the toll collector jobs on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway. Simpson serves as the authority’s board chairman.
Wisniewski co-chairs a legislative committee investigating the politically motivated traffic jams last year on the George Washington Bridge orchestrated by Christie’s former aides. The governor has denied any involvement in the bridge scandal.
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