NJ lawmakers push back on Christie’s $300M plan for Statehouse renovation
TRENTON — Six weeks after Gov. Chris Christie announced a $300 million Statehouse restoration, a state Senate committee heard from the state treasurer Thursday about the scope of the plan – with some lawmakers pushing for it to be scaled back or delayed.
Lawmakers said they agreed the Statehouse needs extensive work, though some advocated limiting construction to the building’s basic safety needs, hoping that would slash the cost by half to two-thirds.
“Is there a no-frills or a sweet spot, whatever phrase we want to use, to say, OK, we can do what is absolutely essential here?” said Sen. James Whelan, D-Atlantic.
State Treasurer Ford Scudder said he asked similar questions but that the neglect is so extensive that would essentially mean wasting millions of dollars.
“There reaches a time where we’re not going to be able to restore this Statehouse, and we’re getting dangerously close to that,” Scudder said, “Such that we’d have to figure out whether we’re going to follow historical standards and just mothball the executive Statehouse, or demolition it, and how you would remove that from the legislative side.”
Scudder said doing repairs, rather than the renovations needed to modernize the building, would include $16 million in costs to relocate and restore an inadequate HVAC system that is wasteful and fails to properly heat more than one-third of the building.
“That’s just one example of $16 million that we’re essentially lighting on fire” if the full project isn’t done, he said.
The Statehouse dates to 1792 and has undergone various expansions, without a comprehensive restoration in its executive wing in more than 60 years. The legislative portion, home to the Senate and Assembly chambers, was restored around 25 years ago.
In 2013, a partnership of architectural firms now called Nelson/PDP was awarded a contract to do repairs to the building’s exterior. That work would have cost around $38 million. The companies stopped because they concluded it would be a waste.
“Just doing repairs is going to be incredibly expensive in and of itself, and it’s going to be throwing tons of money away that will have no future benefit,” Scudder said.
The contractors hired by the state have worked on restoring the U.S. Supreme Court, the New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia capitol buildings and, currently, the Alamo.
Lawmakers and a representative from the New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects said the project changed so significantly that the state should advertise again for the work because it could save money.
Michael Hanrahan of the AIA said some architects bid on the original project but others passed – although could look differently at a project some 10 times bigger.
“There is a dramatic difference between a modest $20 million project and a $300 million project,” Hanrahan said.
Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, who chairs the Senate Economic Growth Committee, which held Thursday’s hearing, said the state must re-bid the work. He also said the borrowing is required to be approved by the Legislature, as a lawyer for the state advised the Building Authority in 2015.
He said he’ll take the Christie administration to court if it doesn’t change the project’s path.
“First, we will negotiate. We will negotiate with the Governor’s Office, with the treasurer, to do this in the correct way – so that we can have public input, so that we can sharpen pencils to see, prioritize how much is absolutely necessary, particularly because of the impact that such a large bond issue could have on our credit rating. And most importantly, to prioritize what the needs of the state absolutely are,” Lesniak said.
Of going to court, he added: “I’m sure we will do that. I hope we will not have to do that.”
Scudder said the original proposal was sent to all 52 prequalified architectural firms and doubted additional ones would bid on the recast project.
Scudder said Christie has the authority to greenlight the $300 million plan by having the Economic Development Authority borrow the money.
“He views this as part and parcel of the redevelopment of Trenton, for which EDA is spearheading the effort,” Scudder said.
The $300 million cost estimate includes $55 million for contingencies and cost overruns. There is currently $25 million available to start the work, left over from previous borrowing.
In addition to safety, structural and security improvements, the plan includes renovation of a building across West State Street from the Statehouse to be occupied by the State Police, as well as $20 million in upgrades to the legislative wing of the complex.