Roadwork shutdown cost about $41 million — but who should pay?
Despite state assurances that it will work with local governments to cover extra costs incurred when Gov. Chris Christie shut down construction last year during a funding impasse, lawmakers are plowing ahead with plans to mandate such funding.
The Senate Transportation Committee voted to advance the proposal, S2776/A4114, Monday. The only senator not supporting the idea voted to abstain, saying he was provided research showing it could cost the state $41 million in additional payments to counties and municipalities.
“Who’s got $41 million? The state doesn’t have $41 million,” said Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-Morris.
Pennacchio said the support from the bill from the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and New Jersey League of Municipalities is “frankly just a knee-jerk reaction that, ‘There might be some money in it for us, so let’s get it.’”
“I think the administration has some concerns. Even the new administration coming in in January may have some concern with this,” Pennacchio said. “But again, if you’re going to spend that kind of money, it would be nice to know where it’s coming from.”
The New Jersey Association of Counties says the contractual delay claims from five counties was more than $9.1 million. Some are suing the state, after being sued by contractors whose work had stopped, including Hudson County.
“They’re willing to look at it on a case by case, and that’s something,” Sen. Nicholas Sacco, D-Hudson, the Senate Transportation Committee chairman, said of the state Department of Transportation. “But the bill is here in case they don’t. There has to be a fallback position now.”
Sacco said he didn’t know the total amount of money at stake statewide.
“I don’t, but it has to be a lot of money because the work was stopped,” Sacco said.
Sen. James Holzapfel, R-Monmouth, voted for the bill but questioned its necessity, given the lawsuits filed seeking to force the state to pay.
“I think the litigation will play out a lot sooner than if and when this bill ever gets signed,” Holzapfel said.
The Christie administration told local governments in January that the DOT would review claims for shutdown reimbursements on a project-by-project basis.
At a League of Municipalities event at the Statehouse this month, NJDOT chief of staff John Case told mayors the state is “working to compensate everyone for their shutdown costs and also possibly talking about some acceleration costs.”
Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr said there hasn’t been a clear explanation how that will work.
“There should be some sort of very clear message, path, process that’s put in place because it affected so many local communities and counties,” Mahr said.
Department of Transportation spokesman Stephen Schapiro took issue with Mahr's statement, saying the DOT sent a letter to all counties and municipalities Jan. 10 that explained the process for submitting claims or costs to accelerate the completion of projects.
He said the DOT "understands the extraordinary circumstances" associated with the shutdown and that claims are typically reviewed at the conclusion of a project.
"They will be considered on a project by project basis," Schapiro said. "It is not possible to speculate how long it may take to resolve claims or the amount until claims are actually submitted, reviewed, and settled. Funding to settle claims will come from the TTF and will not affect funding for future grants."
Last July, Christie ordered all state-funded road, bridge and rail projects idled when the Transportation Trust Fund went broke. They weren't restarted until November, after the nearly 23-cent a gallon hike in the gas tax was approved.