Anyone who drives a car is familiar with the deplorable condition of some of New Jersey's roads and bridges. But the state's infrastructure problems go beyond its roads to include its electrical power grid and water systems. And the bill for keeping those systems working goes well beyond anything currently budgeted.
That's the gloomy assessment in a new study by a bipartisan, independent group of senior officials from previous Democratic and Republican administrations who looked at the state's infrastructure. In a report called "Facing Our Future: Infrastructure Investments Necessary for Economic Success," the group says it will take $70 billion to bring the state's electrical system, drinking-water and wastewater systems, public transportation and roadways up to necessary standards, and that meeting those standards is necessary for the state to stay competitive and grow.
This includes investing $40 billion to upgrade antiquated drinking-water plants and wastewater-treatment facilities. Another $8.7 billion needs to be spent to upgrade electrical distribution systems to make them less vulnerable to extreme weather events. And work to fix roads, highways, bridges and mass transit would cost $21.3 billion.
Unfortunately, in the past, governors and legislators of both parties pushed off the infrastructure problem, shortchanging routine maintenance and forgoing comprehensive planning. One example is our inability to find a stable funding mechanism for road and bridge maintenance, leaving the Transportation Trust Fund just about broke.
New Jersey's gas tax is the third-lowest in the nation and hasn't been increased in 21 years. Nearly all of the revenue from the 14.5-cent tax goes to pay interest on money borrowed for previous transportation projects. Not surprisingly, the report recommends raising the gas tax.
Of course, new revenue sources will only matter if that money is actually spent on infrastructure. But elected officials have routinely raided transportation funds to plug budget holes.
To prevent this, the report recommends consolidating New Jersey's seven existing transit and transportation agencies into one "public benefits corporation," a utility-like agency that could save money through consolidation. Funding would be controlled by an independent board, rather than legislators and governors.
We're not sure creating a new super transportation bureaucracy is a great idea. New Jersey's experience shows that such agencies tend to grow out of control. But the plan would be a way to encourage long-term, comprehensive thinking about infrastructure improvements.
That kind of thinking is rare. In the current political climate, it is questionable whether voters will support - or even tolerate - leaders who plan responsibly for the future, especially when that means asking more of us today.
The "Facing Our Future" report asks a different question: Can we afford to do otherwise?