No solution in sight, all transportation work shutdowns likely to continue
New Jersey’s acting transportation commissioner said so far none of the roughly $650 million in suspended construction projects are slated to spring back into action following a one-week temporary shutdown initiated because there’s not a source of money for the Transportation Trust Fund.
Acting Commissioner Richard Hammer said Department of Transportation, NJ Transit and local projects are still being assessed as to whether any should be immediately restarted due to health and safety reasons. He said that work should be complete within the next couple of days. Christie’s executive order had called for it to be done by Friday.
“We have not as of yet come across any projects that should continue to move forward,” Hammer said.
Hammer was testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which unanimously endorsed his nomination to head the Department of Transportation. He has been the acting commissioner since October 2015, replacing Jamie Fox – who, incidentally, was criminally charged Thursday for a matter stemming from work as a United Airlines lobbyist, not for his work at DOT.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, questioned Hammer about the process of shuttering construction work – asking whether there had been “a little planning before the executive order took place” – with nobody still having a handle on the cost impacts.
“Everything was shut down without much thought for what the financial implications might be,” Weinberg said.
Hammer said it’s not possible to know the costs, which are estimated by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association at $39 million to shut down and eventually restart projects, plus $1.7 million a week to maintain safety and facilities at job sites.
“There really is no measure of the cost of the shutdown at this point. It’s difficult to determine that until after it has completed itself,” Hammer said. “Obviously there will be many costs that will be accrued, both by contractors and others, and those are the types of things we’re going to have evaluate on a case-by-case basis. So I couldn’t sit here today and even guesstimate.”
“The bottom line is we don’t have any money. The responsible thing to do is to stop to spend – we’re running out of money – and to use those dollars towards emergent needs that we need to respond to on a daily basis,” Hammer said.
The TTF, which the state has used for 30 years to help finance road, bridge and rail projects, is now running on fumes, with less than $50 million in uncommitted funds. It entered the new fiscal year having to devote all of its revenues toward repaying debts and without permission to borrow more money.
Lawmakers have been working for months to come up with a funding plan. They’ve wanted to include tax cuts with it, in large part to attract the support needed for a bipartisan vote. A version of the plan that included cuts in taxes for estates, retirement income, charitable donations and the working poor was scuttled when Gov. Chris Christie and the Assembly opted instead for a cut in the sales tax.
Senators balked, saying the state can’t afford cutting the sales tax by more than $1.6 billion a year, on top of the tax cut on retirement income that was part of both plans.
Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, introduced legislation Thursday that would increase the gas tax 25 cents over three years – 10 cents the first year, 10 cents the second, 5 cents the third – rather than 23 cents immediately, as called for by the earlier Senate plan and the Christie/Assembly bill.
A Wall Street Journal report said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, floated the idea of phasing in the gas tax hike to Christie in a private meeting Tuesday morning. Sweeney wouldn’t confirm that, though he said such an approach wouldn’t win over gas-tax skeptics.
“No, absolutely not,” Sweeney said. “I remember in 2003, when Gov. (James) McGreevey was the governor, we were talking about a nickel. Every one of the arguments that’s being made now was made then: ‘It’s too much. It’s too expensive. There’s no way.’
“No one is ever going to be palatable to this. It’s not about palatable,” Sweeney said. “It’s about trying to get the votes to get it done. I can’t possibly imagine anyone ever saying they like this.”
Sweeney said Thursday afternoon he was still waiting for a response from Christie to his latest proposals. He said he expected a response this week but noted the calendar means action isn’t likely until the last week of July at the earliest.
“Look, this week’s done. In all reality, if he gives us something back, it’s going to take us a day to at least look at it. It’s Thursday. Next week, they’re not here. So the earliest you’re going to have some kind of solution to it is the week of the Democrat National Convention,” Sweeney said.
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