Top priority for these lawmakers: Plan B for Gateway Project
In addition to a new transportation commissioner and NJ Transit director, the state Legislature’s transportation committees have gotten new leaders for the first time since 2002. The biggest challenge on the newcomers’ agenda might be deciding where to start.
Senator Bob Gordon, D-Bergen, said his priorities include the Port Authority Bus Terminal, positive train control, tracking spending from the Transportation Trust Fund and supporting light rail – both to Englewood and in Gloucester and Camden counties.
But above everything else is the Gateway Project – and developing a Plan B in case it doesn’t happen. He said he can’t say he’s optimistic the $30 billion project will get its federal funding on time.
“So we have to – it would be irresponsible if we weren’t looking at other alternatives,” Gordon said.
Gordon says backup plans should include speeding up renovations of the bus terminal, extending PATH to Newark Airport, expanding PATH platforms in Jersey City and supporting the expansion of ferry service.
Gordon says Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration and Legislature need to consider shifting New Jersey Transit out of the state Department of Transportation and instead make it a stand-alone agency in the governor’s Cabinet.
“So that Transit is not the stepchild that it appears to be, that it gets the attention, that the requests for funding go directly to the governor as opposed to through the DOT structure,” Gordon said.
Gordon solicited other ideas from transportation experts at Monday’s first hearing of the two-year session. The 1 hour, 51 minute meeting was the panel’s longest since May 2003.
Among the most urgent priorities repeated by the witnesses was finding a way to reduce the number of pedestrians killed on New Jersey roads – 187 last year, the most since 1993.
Janna Chernetz, senior New Jersey policy analyst for Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said 25 cities, including New York and Philadelphia, have ‘Vision Zero’ programs with the goal of ending pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities – by 2024 in NYC and 2030 in Philly.
Chernetz said Gov. Phil Murphy should make that New Jersey’s goal for 2028 and suggested Murphy convene a task force soon to organize first steps toward that goal.
“We need an aggressive guide. We need an aggressive plan,” Chernetz said.
Chernetz said New Jersey forfeited $6.2 million in federal grants in October that could have been used to help towns and counties make roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists. In all, she said, close to $90 million in federal aid may be squandered this year because the state isn’t spending the money on time.
“It’s a serious loss, especially given the financial situation that we are in when it comes to transportation. But it’s a serious loss and letdown to our residents, because this money could be used to make our roads safer,” Chernetz said.
The hike in the gas tax doubled state aid for local road and bridge work and added funding for state efforts, but the Department of Transportation hasn’t been able to keep pace with approving projects, said Anthony Attanasio, executive director of the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association.
Attanasio said one-third of staff in that section of the NJDOT has turned over in the last seven years and that 30-year staffers are being replaced by civil engineer trainees.
“A hundred retirements is not equal to a hundred hires. The loss of institutional knowledge in that agency is staggering,” Attanasio said. “The folks that are still there are doing their best to deliver great capital projects, but they need support.”
Half of the additional $400 million a year in transportation spending approved in conjunction with the 23-cent a gallon hike in the gas tax is dedicated to aid to counties and municipalities. The other half is split between the NJDOT and NJ Transit.