Transportation Trust Fund talks: Posturing, not progress
Here’s how far off a solution for New Jersey’s near-broke Transportation Trust Fund remains: There’s not even agreement on the issue’s urgency.
Talks on the topic between Gov. Chris Christie and legislative leaders broke off in January 2015, according to Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, and haven’t been kick-started in the more than three weeks since Christie returned from the presidential campaign trail.
Democrats want a multi-year plan that increases state spending to $2 billion a year. Christie says he’ll react to a plan once they put “their names to it and put their votes to it.”
He left open the possibility of being shown a proposal “if they want me involved beforehand” but generally says lawmakers wanting a gas tax hike have to move past rhetorical calls for higher gas taxes as part of a new financing plan.
“I won’t take a position on their call for a tax increase until they do,” Christie said.
The state has been spending $3.2 billion a year in federal and state funds on road, bridge and rail projects, but beyond the end of June can’t borrow any additional money and must use the revenues currently put in to pay off $16 billion in debt.
“I’m the governor and I’ll be here to give them my views and my opinions on their proposals, if they put them forward. But right now they’ve put forward nothing except to say, ‘It’s a crisis!’ Well, it’s not a crisis right now. And it won’t be a crisis at its earliest until July and quite frankly well past that,” he said.
Minutes after Christie made those remarks Thursday, the state’s transit funding situation was described as a crisis at least a half dozen times at a news conference accompanying the release of a new report that finds NJ Transit, over the last 15 years, has reduced spending on capital projects by 19 percent while ridership has grown by 20 percent.
Prieto, D-Hudson, draws a direct line between transit woes and the Transportation Trust Fund, which received receiving no pay-as-you-go funding in this year’s state budget but is relying on NJ Transit to make a $241.5 million loan repayment.
“This last year was cobbled together with taking money from New Jersey Transit to really almost duct tape and Krazy Glue to get to where we’re supposed to get,” Prieto said.
The New Jersey for Transit coalition’s recommended solution: Find new sources of revenue, including a hike in the gas tax, in order to expand NJ Transit’s capital budget, as well as better support the agency’s operating budget. The state’s NJT operating subsidy is down so the money can be used for projects.
“That decreased state subsidy is forcing New Jersey Transit into cannibalistic funding practices to help keep the agency afloat,” said policy analyst Janna Chernetz of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
The report, which was written by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, says that if past spending is adjusted for inflation, the total spent maintaining, repairing and expanding NJ Transit’s assets dropped to $1.2 billion this year from $1.5 billion in 2002. Such spending peaked in 2004 at an inflation-adjusted $1.7 billion and is down 30 percent since.
Rail projects have suffered the brunt of the difference, down 34 percent to $800 million. Spending on bus projects has increased by 21 percent to $308 million.
The report says inflation-adjusted spending on maintenance is down 2 percent since 2003 and 20 percent since peaking in 2005. That has a real-world impact, it says, evidenced by things such as NJ Transit trains suffering four times more failures per mile as Metro-North trains and seven times more than the Long Island Rail Road.
Funding issues at NJ Transit, which faces the possibility of a strike by its rail workers on March 13, are going to mean another operating deficit next year and the possibility of another fare hike, Chernetz said.
Twenty percent of NJ Transit commuters said in a recent AAA New Jersey survey that another fare hike would change their commuting habits, said Cathleen Lewis, the group’s director of public affairs and government.
“If 20 percent of New Jersey riders got back in their cars, that would equate to 180,000 additional car trips each week,” Lewis said. “Simply put, there’s nowhere to put those cars on our roadways.”
For now, the two sides on the TTF issue are in a standoff, with Christie saying Democrats must move first.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, said “it’s absolute nonsense” for Christie to say he can’t take a position until lawmakers act.
“When it’s in his interest, he brings things to the Legislature,” Wisniewski said. “So what he’s clearly doing here is he’s saying: ‘I don’t care about transportation. This isn’t important to me.’”
Christie said any revenue-raising proposals have to start in the Assembly, under the state constitution.
“They say they have to wait for me? They don’t have to wait for me. And how many things have they not waited for me on, everybody? This is convenient. You know why? Because it’s politically difficult, so they want me to do it. Whenever it’s politically difficult, they want me to do it,” Christie said.
“When they think they have political advantage, they run first. Did they wait for me on a number of the issues that they have pushed forward and put on my desk that I ultimately vetoed? No, they wanted to do it and they did it. The gas tax is the same thing,” he said.
Problem is that Democrats don’t want it to be the same thing. They’re willing to vote to hike the gas tax, if Republicans vote with them. They don’t want to take a politically risky vote, only to have Christie veto the idea. Prieto has described it as jumping off the cliff together.
Wisniewski supports a 25-cent per gallon increase in the gasoline tax.
“The reality is we’re not paying our bills with the money we have. We’re not paying our pension obligation. We’re not paying our education obligation. We’re not paying our healthcare obligations. So if somebody believes that there’s some mythical pot of money in the budget that we can now take for transportation, they’re not looking at the real numbers.”
Michael Symons has covered the Statehouse since 2000. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @MichaelSymons_ on Twitter.