It’s time to stop pretending that New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund stalemate is about transportation funding, because it’s not.
New Jersey’s transportation funding problem remains without a solution because Governor Chris Christie won’t sign a bill raising the gas tax unless the state legislature agrees upon a set of tax cuts. He calls it “tax fairness.” We say it’s anything but.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney was willing to agree upon a cut in the estate and inheritance tax which would have blown a $900 million hole in the general fund. Then the governor changed his mind and decided he preferred a cut in the sales tax – which would have drilled a $1.6 billion hole in the general fund. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto seems to be willing to do whatever anyone wants him to do: first he joined the estate tax team, and then he switched to the sales tax team. Now he wants a meeting.
Legislative leaders’ Plan B was to pass a gas tax increase with a veto-proof majority, but so far they’ve yet to garner enough votes to make that a feasible alternative.
Plan C, a “transportation funding summit” to discuss a solution, is more of a cop-out than a plan. The Transportation Trust Fund’s insolvency has been discussed at hearings of the transportation and budget committees of both chambers during multiple legislative sessions. The TTF is bankrupt and expired. There is a plan to revive it, but the governor is bent on unrelated, self-serving tax cuts. There is nothing left to discuss.
In the meantime, transportation projects remain shut down and the bills just keep piling up. According to a report by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), New Jersey lost roughly $41 million in the first week of the shutdown and has been losing $9 million each week since. Should the shutdown continue until the election, as Senator Sweeney predicted last week, the costs to the state could reach nearly $200 million. This would render 4 cents of any gas tax increase a wash in the first year.
Hundreds of construction workers have been laid off. That means no paycheck for those workers and their families. One worker at a protest organized by LiUNA told a reporter that she must now rely on a food bank to feed herself and her two children, and others have reported cutting back and dipping into savings. And the timing couldn’t be much worse. Construction workers often rely on projects during the peak summer season to carry them through the winter months when most projects are at a standstill.
With transportation projects stalled, Garden State drivers can expect even more congestion than usual. This too comes with a price tag. According the Auto Insurance Center, North Jersey drivers waste 74 hours a year in traffic (48 hours for those living in Central Jersey). That adds up to $1,739 in wasted time and fuel costs for North Jersey drivers ($1,112 for Central Jersey drivers, $532 for Trenton drivers). Detours, rough roads, closures due to the shutdown are just complicating already congested roadways and complicating the lives of those who drive them.
There’s nothing “fair” in any of this. But not to worry. The governor says the roads are fine.
TSTC Staff Analyst Ryan Hall contributed to this report.