For 4,000 laid-off construction workers, gas tax means going back to work
While the looming increase in the gas tax is a headache that angers many New Jerseyans, it’s also a lifeline for thousands of construction workers who’ve been off the job for more than three months, idled along with the Transportation Trust Fund.
How soon they’ll be back on the job isn’t yet clear, but contractors hope it’s soon. When the winter weather moves in, roadwork projects will again have to go on the shelf until spring.
“Hopefully we can get back to work immediately. It depends on how fast DOT can gear up the projects because this is not – you don’t come in, you don’t turn the light on and off. So we need this done now,” said Robert Briant Jr., chief executive officer of the Utilities and Transportation Contractors Association.
Gov. Chris Christie signed an executive order at the end of June directing all state-funded projects shuttered, unless they were needed for safety reasons. Some 900 projects were affected, including county and local projects that get state funding, plus work at New Jersey Transit.
So, the first step will be Christie lifting that executive order. Given that the tax hike won’t take effect until Nov. 1 at the earliest, it remains to be seen whether he’ll lift the order when he signs the TTF bills or wait until the revenues start arriving. Even if it’s immediate, projects won’t start the following morning.
Briant said contractors will have to mobilize equipment, some of which is at rented storage sites. In some cases, businesses have lost employees that have found other types of jobs, so they’ll have to find replacements. There will also be a process at the New Jersey Department of Transportation for giving counties and municipalities the green light to restart their projects that have been shut down.
“It’s going to take a number of days to get this thing working before we can get people going,” Briant said.
A quick start will be critical for making up for lost time and getting people back to work, he said.
“They know the construction season is narrowing down. We have a very narrow window here, particularly for paving contracts,” Briant said. “They’re ready to go. Their employees are calling every day: ‘When can we go to work? When can we go to work?’ We have 4,000 people out of work. Four thousand people. Families. Christmas, Thanksgiving coming up. Haven’t had a paycheck since June.”
“In the meantime, we’re running out of days. This is our work season. We’ve missed the best time of the year to get overtime because a lot of our workers, they can’t work in the winter,” he said.
Briant said the construction season, in a good year, ends a couple of weeks into December. Most projects won’t restart again until March, while paving operations are generally on hold until April.
“So this is very critical that we try to salvage something that’s left of this job for those folks so that they can make a paycheck,” Briant said.
The timing for the restart of construction will also determine how many projects are completed before winter arrives and how many roads will linger for months in another round of construction limbo.
“On the paving side, it’s going to be very tough to get those things done. I think you’re going to get portions of projects that will be done, paving, depending on the size of the project,” Briant said. “But if it’s any project of any size, it’s going to be very difficult to get that project completed before the winter comes. So we’re going to have a lot of projects that are going to be half done.”
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