NJ mayors worry state panel will play politics with transportation funds
TRENTON — Mayors on Wednesday pressed state officials for assurances that transportation funding decisions won’t be unduly influenced by a new oversight panel created in the Transportation Trust Fund refinancing approved in the fall.
The law creates a four-member Annual Transportation Capital Program Approval Committee, which includes the Department of Transportation commissioner and three public members appointed by the governor in consultation with the Senate president and Assembly speaker.
The public members will include one resident each from north, central and south Jersey and is intended to ensure the Legislature has input in selecting transportation projects. Starting with the upcoming fiscal year, it must unanimously certify that it approves the capital program before it can be funded.
Mayors said that worries them, as does the lack of information about the process.
“There’s going to be a panel of four people that decide billions of dollars and where it’s going. That’s an awful lot of power for four people,” said Hardwick Mayor James Perry.
Department of Transportation chief of staff John Case said the system that’s been in place for years won’t change. Boards of state, county and municipal engineers will score and rank every aid application. Funding is allotted by county, and every project above the cutoff point gets funded.
“What those folks are going to do is they’re going to sign off on the capital program, which we submit to the Legislature every year. And basically the capital program, local aid is a line item in this,” Case said of the new committee. “I do not believe that they will be looking into every initial local aid inquiry. We are still going to leave that in the hands of our professionals.”
“This year, the grants will not be affected by it,” Case said.
The committee might not even be in place in time for this year. The first annual certification is due March 1, and the members haven’t even yet been identified.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said lawmakers have no idea what criteria is used now.
“This committee’s not going to stop, can’t stop anything anyway. It’s oversight that we don’t have right now on why these projects are in the place they are,” Sweeney said.
Local aid is increasing from around $190 million annually to $400 million annually for the next eight years. Some of that money is specified for bridges and freight-rail projects, but municipal and county aid will each be allotted $150 million a year.
East Windsor Mayor Janice Mironov seemed satisfied with Case’s remarks.
“The mysterious committee that everyone has been speculating about was clarified that, at least at this point, there is no committee. No one’s been appointed, and they’re not going to be involved in any decisions. The decisions will be made at the department level, as they have in prior years,” Mironov said.
Mironov says she still has concerns about the process for future years.
Sweeney said he and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson, are working with Gov. Chris Christie to get approval committee members in place.
Sweeney also said he’s working on legislation that aims to speed up spending from the Transportation Trust Fund by having municipal and county engineers take the lead on some funding. He said the state DOT doesn’t have sufficient staff to put out additional roadwork projects.
“We’re not looking to grow the Department of Transportation, but we need to get the money out,” Sweeney said. “If you only can get $600 million a year out on the street, it’s not going to be the jolt and the benefit to the economy that we need it to be.”