Legislature Digs Deeper Transportation Funding Hole in the Garden State

New Jersey's transportation spending relies heavily on new debt this year.

With New Jersey’s state elections on the horizon in 2013, state taxpayers may look back on 2012 as a missed opportunity by current elected officials to identify a responsible transportation funding strategy. That’s because instead of exhibiting political courage and enacting a funding strategy that pays for roads, bridges, crosswalks, and public transportation improvements sustainably, Governor Christie and the state legislature have endorsed one that relies too heavily on borrowing and unreliable cash infusions, amplifying the uncertainty that plagued Governor Christie’s 2011 five-year patchwork transportation funding plan while undoing that plan’s chief selling point: decreased reliance on debt.

Sitting on Governor Christie’s desk is A3205, a bill that authorizes the state to issue $1.247 billion in new debt to pay for transportation needs in the upcoming fiscal year. According to Governor Christie’s flawed 2011 plan, the state was to issue roughly $986 million in bonds this year to help meet the need for approximately $1.6 billion in transportation funds, with the difference made up from Turnpike Authority toll revenue and one-shot payments from the Port Authority. However, in order to plug a revenue shortfall in this year’s state budget, New Jersey will redirect $260.6 million in toll revenue that was set to go to transportation needs, increasing the proportion of its transportation funding paid for by debt in the process. This puts the state on the hook for an additional $13 million per year in debt payments over the next 30 years.

Even while legislators endorsed the plan, they acknowledged the problems with the move to increase bonding. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who introduced A3205, said that he was “doing this bill because we need to.” Co-prime sponsor Assemblyman John Amodeo added that the bill “does not fix all of our woes,” and that “in the future we should do better.”

While acknowledging the need for the short-term funding plan [pdf], Tri-State remains concerned that next year’s transportation funding plan will be more of the same. The remainder of Governor Christie’s five-year transportation spending plan calls for even more Turnpike Authority funding, along with general fund transfers, which, when combined, amount to $374.8 million in 2014, $489.7 million in 2015, and $605.2 million in 2016. Given the executive and legislative branches’ historical unwillingness to identify new dedicated revenue sources for transportation, the possibility of meeting these obligations is grim, especially next year, when sitting legislators will be unwilling to raise the gas tax for fear of reprisal at the voting booth. For the remaining years of the plan, a lack of political will to identify new funding sources could mean the issuance of more debt to meet transportation funding goals, or, alternatively, the drastic reduction of New Jersey’s transportation capital program.

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