A Pattern of Failure: NJTA's Debt Spiral Driven By Fearful Politics, Financial Shell Games

“What experience and history teach is this — that people and governments never have learned anything from history.”

- George Wilhelm Hegel, German philosopher.

 

With the 2011 collapse of New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund (see MTR #556) and Governor Corzine’s secret “asset monetization” of the Garden State Parkway and NJ Turnpike menacing the horizon, Tri-State decided to look back and examine the big picture of New Jersey transportation funding. As we set about our research, it became increasingly apparent that the history of transportation in New Jersey is plagued by poor planning and underfunding, largely caused by a lack of political will. The first article in A Pattern of Failure, a series exploring the current state of transportation funding in New Jersey, examines how the New Jersey Turnpike Authority racked up its monumental debt and how it relates to the upcoming monetization.

Recently, Governor Corzine stated that in lieu of forming a public-private partnership, his “asset monetization” plan would likely raise tolls and divert the increased revenue to a newly formed public corporation, which would then issue bonds backed by that money. While this may seem fiscally responsible, when coupled with the planned $2 billion widening of the New Jersey Turnpike from exits 6 to 9, NJTA’s financial history would show otherwise.

No one wants to pay more tolls; but, even more than that, no one wants potholes, collapsing bridges or congestion. Unfortunately, New Jersey has not learned this lesson. In fact, the State has only been willing to raise tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike at ten-year intervals, and only once ever on the Garden State Parkway – despite borrowing plans based on more frequent hikes. In terms of the larger transportation funding structure, tolls contribute very little to the Transportation Trust Fund. In fact, they are not constitutionally dedicated to the TTF and are often diverted to the General Fund – a practice that has certainly contributed to the TTF’s skyrocketing debt.

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Variable MTA Tolls Could Save the Fare

The MTA reported $220 million in unanticipated revenues last week, helping to somewhat alleviate its budget deficit. But the agency still needs to raise a significant amount of new revenue and is now suggesting that it will increase commuter rail fares and tolls by 3.85% (down from its earlier 6.5% estimate). MTA has [...]

LI Smart Growth Enthusiasm Plain to See

When it comes to smart growth, some view Long Island as lagging behind the rest of the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan area. New Jersey’s Transit Village program issued its first grant eight years ago. Westchester County’s new master plan identifies proposed “centers” for transit-oriented development. Meanwhile, many people still think Levittown when they think of Long Island – and local opposition to the LIRR Third Track doesn’t help the Island’s reputation as fearful of change.

Vision Long Island has been working to change this impression, and hosted its sixth annual Smart Growth Summit in Melville on Nov. 16. As evidenced by a stellar turnout estimated at 700 attendees, behind the reputation is real enthusiasm for smart growth.

At the morning plenary “State of the Towns” session, representatives from five of Long Island’s thirteen towns described smart growth projects in various states of progress, including a $100 million mixed-use redevelopment of downtown Riverhead. North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman discussed the importance of a community-inclusive development process. Brookhaven Councilwoman Connie Kepert challenged elected officials to “show the courage to vote their conscience” in promoting affordable housing and mixed-use development. The speakers were united in emphasizing the need for projects to mitigate traffic concerns.

The summit also included discussions on topics from affordable housing to downtown zoning, as well as on projects of regional significance, including the 321-acre Tallgrass mixed-use project approved by Brookhaven officials in October and the much-publicized 150-acre Lighthouse project which would anchor Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi’s plan to densify and bring transit to the Nassau Hub area. Hempstead town officials got their first look at updated Lighthouse plans earlier this month.

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Fare Hike Epidemic Spreads to Bee-Line

Earlier this month, Westchester County’s Bee-Line bus system joined the ranks of transit agencies seeking fare increases after County Executive Andrew Spano released the proposed 2008 budget, which calls for a 25-cent increase in the cash fare to $2. More than half of Bee-Line rides are paid via MetroCard (which finally came to Bee-Line [...]

Advocacy Alert: Tell NYSDOT to Swap the Sheridan

Nearly ten years have passed since regional planning and transportation organizations and community groups in the South Bronx began their campaign to replace the 1.25-mile Sheridan Expressway with 28 acres worth of affordable housing, green space, bike paths, and new economic development opportunities. The Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance, of which Tri-State is a [...]

In Search of a Rational Toll Policy for the Tappan Zee Bridge

Before the New York State Thruway Authority delayed its scheduled Nov. 19 board meeting, the speculation was that the authority might finally implement congestion pricing for passenger cars on the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Truck tolls on the Tappan Zee Bridge are doubled at peak hours, but passenger car tolls are currently set [...]

We'd Be More Thankful If…

Yesterday we discussed the many policy developments we’re thankful for. Today, we’re stuffed with turkey (and tofurkey) and can barely move, which has given us plenty of time to consider how far the region has to go towards a balanced transportation network. We are definitely still thankful, but we’d be more thankful if…

Congestion [...]

What We're Thankful For

It’s astonishing to look back at this year in transportation advocacy and realize just how much we have to be thankful for:

Congestion pricing is on the table. Around this time last year, the Tri-State Campaign released a poll which found that 73% of New Yorkers believed that congestion pricing would be effective in [...]

Bike Lanes and the Bottom Line

The New York Post recently quoted a few business owners angry about the effect NYC’s separated Ninth Avenue bike lane is having (or potentially could have) on their bottom line. Typical among the complaints was that customers could no longer simply “pull up and run in.” Putting aside the possibility that business owners are [...]

TSTC Statement on Gov. Spitzer's MTA Fare Hike Announcement

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign applauds Governor Spitzer’s commitment to holding subway and bus fares at $2, and his promise to increase state aid to the MTA. Plain and simple, the announcement proves that he is listening to transit riders.

The proposal still leaves some unanswered questions, like how much the unlimited ride cards will [...]