Millions of dollars have been spent over the past four years by the South Jersey Transportation Authority and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority to maintain roads they don’t own.
Both authorities have helped close a state budget shortfall by turning over money since 2009 under agreements that describe the payments as “reimbursement” to the state for maintenance of the state’s own roads, resolutions provided to The Press of Atlantic City show. The resolutions approve contracts known as “feeder road” maintenance agreements.
By the end of 2012, the SJTA will have paid $2.8 million to maintain segments of state highways that intersect with the Atlantic City Expressway, and the NJTA will have relinquished $32 million for state roads that intersect with the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway.
The state Department of Transportation’s theory is this: By maintaining the roads that lead travelers to the expressway, parkway and turnpike, the SJTA and the NJTA are helping to bring more traffic to their roadways. But that also means millions of dollars that in prior years had gone to the authorities’ operating budgets and to local capital projects are now devoted to state road maintenance.
“The genesis of this was ... it was created in part to replace funding that was lost due to budget cuts,” said Joe Dee, director of communications for the DOT. “The larger rationale, or justification, is that there’s a synergy between these two road systems (feeder roads and the main highways). They both need to be in good shape to benefit the customer.”
That maintenance includes everything from filling potholes and cleaning drainage inlets to cutting grass and picking up litter. The DOT sends its crews out to complete that work, but in any place where a state road intersects with one of the highways — such as the Folsom intersection of Route 54 and the expressway — the SJTA or NJTA pays the state for what was done.
Both authorities are chaired by DOT Commissioner James Simpson. Each year, the SJTA’s bill from the state totals $700,000. The NJTA’s payment totals $8 million.
“By us taking care of the roads that feed into and from the highways, we’re benefiting everybody. It just seemed reasonable to get some reimbursement for that,” Dee said.
Sam Donelson, acting executive director of the SJTA, said he understands the concept behind the agreement that the board of directors renewed in July, noting that DOT-maintained roads lead to the expressway.
“They’re in a tight budget just like every other government entity known to man. I understand the predicament,” Donelson said.
The SJTA derives its revenue primarily from tolls on the expressway and through fees from parking facilities in Atlantic City and at Atlantic City International Airport. In 2011, it took in $106 million in revenue applied to an $87 million operating budget. Revenue from the expressway also provided a $3.5 million subsidy to the airport, which has historically been unable to sustain itself. What remains goes toward paying off debt and funding capital projects.
The SJTA has no shortage of capital projects it wants to initiate. The authority’s 10-year capital plan lists $50 million in 2013 for a road that would directly connect the expressway to Amelia Earhart Boulevard at the airport in Egg Harbor Township. Yet that project — necessary to relieve congestion at the airport circle — remains unfunded.
Before 2009, the state paid for maintenance of the feeder roads itself, Dee said. But that was before a looming budget crisis that took center stage in the gubernatorial race between then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine and his Republican opponent, Chris Christie. In June 2009, after the 2009-10 budget was adopted, the state Office of Legislative Services predicted an $8 billion deficit in the following year’s budget that in actuality was closer to $11 million.
Then, weeks before the election, Corzine’s administration announced that revenue was off by nearly $200 million and said budget cuts in that amount would have to be identified by Dec. 1. Weeks later, the SJTA and NJTA passed resolutions entering into the first agreements to pay for the state’s road maintenance.
The SJTA pays $23,333 per lane mile for work on six feeder roads that come within 2.5 miles of an expressway interchange. That includes the Black Horse Pike and Routes 9, 50, 54, 73 and 42, Donelson said. In all, 15 miles of state roads are included.
The NJTA’s cost is higher. That agency pays $28,575 per lane mile for work on 56 roads; the NJTA could not provide a list of all of the feeder roads, spokesman Tom Feeney said. The agency is paying for work on about 140 miles of state highways.
“There is no list of feeder roads,” Feeney said. “They are defined in the agreement as state highways that intersect with the turnpike or parkway interchanges. There are 56 segments of state roads that fit that description with a total of 280 lane miles. We have made quarterly payments since the agreement was first signed.”
That’s not the case for the SJTA. When an extension of the agreement expired in June 2011, it was left unrenewed for a year. Then, in July, the authority voted to pay the $700,000 for the previous year retroactively and extend the agreement through June 2013.
Donelson said the delay reflected the fact that the agency’s finances were tight.
“The DOT commissioner is also our chairman. Really, it was in recognition that he did not want to take monies that the SJTA didn’t necessarily have,” Donelson said. “We got past the winter, and now we’re playing our part in the feeder-road agreement just like the Turnpike Authority.”
It doesn’t appear likely that the precedent set by the agreements will be broken any time soon. A resolution passed by the SJTA in July states that the parties anticipate additional extension of the agreement will be necessary for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. A new agreement will be required for fiscal year 2016, the resolution states.
“This was the arrangement that was mutually agreed upon,” Dee said. “I haven’t heard of any plans to end these agreements.”
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