Fiscal Responsibility? NJ Will Borrow $2 Billion for Toll Roads as Rail Tunnel Stalls

Even as NJ Gov. Chris Christie’s administration debates canceling the Access to the Region’s Core rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York — supposedly for reasons of fiscal responsibility — state officials are borrowing another $2 billion to pay for widening NJ’s toll roads. The cost of the planned widenings of the NJ Turnpike (between interchanges 6 and 8A) and the Garden State Parkway (between exits 30 and 80) has grown by over a billion dollars in the last 3 years, to $3.6 billion.

The NJ Turnpike Authority board voted yesterday to borrow that amount with Build America Bonds, a type of bond that was authorized by the federal stimulus and includes federal subsidies that cover part of the interest payments. “It gives us the money we need so we can finish the widenings and not have to stop,” NJDOT Commissioner Jim Simpson, who chairs the NJTA board, told the Asbury Park Press.

NJ residents: Click here to tell state officials you support the ARC rail tunnel.

Simpson also said yesterday that, in the words of the Bergen Record, “there was never a plan” to kill the tunnel and use $1.25 billion in Turnpike toll revenue dedicated to ARC for the Transportation Trust Fund, which pays for most of the state’s road, bridge, and transit projects and will go bankrupt next year. But he suggested just such a plan later in the article:

“If for some reason we could not do ARC, because it’s a billion dollars over… one of the consequences of not doing ARC is some of that money would be freed up for other transportation projects,” he said. “It takes the pressure off funding transportation.”

Earlier this month, NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein testified at a legislative hearing that administration officials had, in fact, discussed delaying or canceling ARC as a way to replenish the Trust Fund. A 30-day moratorium on new ARC Tunnel work, reportedly to review project costs, expires in two short weeks.

But former Rutgers Voorhees Transportation Center director Martin Robins has pointed out that defunding ARC could only “take the pressure off” the Trust Fund for two years at most. Much of the state’s ARC funding is not “cash in hand” but is spread out over multiple years and can’t be used to fix NJ’s immediate budget gaps unless the state borrows against it. New Jersey would also lose $3 billion in federal funds dedicated to the project, and the Port Authority would retain control of the $3 billion it has pledged to ARC (so there would be significant limits on what the PA’s money could be used for instead).

As the Regional Plan Association wrote in a Record op-ed this weekend, that’s not nearly enough reason to kill a project that will double train service between New Jersey and New York, grow the economy of both states, increase home values in NJ, and take tens of thousands of cars off of state roads.  New Jersey residents can speak out for the threatened ARC Tunnel at tstc.org/weneedarc.

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