New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto announced late last Friday afternoon that they had reached an agreement to replenish the bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) and end a three-month shutdown of state transportation projects.
The agreement must be voted on by the full legislature before Governor Christie can sign the bill. The Senate and Assembly are scheduled to vote this Wednesday on the deal, which includes not only a 23-cent gas tax increase, but a number of tax cuts and credits unrelated to the TTF. Never raising taxes was a mantra the governor took pride in during his administration, so it was no surprise that he would hedge his support for a gas tax increase against unrelated tax cuts. His unmerited opposition to increasing the second-lowest gas tax in the nation without coupling it with additional tax cuts, and the following pushback from state lawmakers, dragged the shutdown of transportation projects along for three months.
This 23-cent gas tax increase will bring New Jersey’s state gas tax up to par with other states in the Northeast, but it packs a rather wimpy punch. Lawmakers promised the gas tax increase would yield a $2 billion annual capital program for the next eight years. That seems like a lot of money, but it’s nothing to brag about. Transportation capital funding has been stagnant at $1.6 billion for the past decade — the longest period of time that the program went without an increase. Adjusting that $1.6 billion for inflation, it comes to roughly $1.98 billion. So what lawmakers really promised was to continue the trend of stagnant funding for another eight years.
The fiscal outlook for NJ Transit, the country’s third largest transit agency, looks grim under this deal. While the TTF only addresses capital funding, the encompassing tax cuts along with the deal could spell disaster for NJ Transit’s operating budget. As it is now, NJ Transit’s operating budget is subject to the annual political process, forced to compete for funding from the state’s general fund. The TTF deal ensures that the agency’s annual capital-to-operating budget transfers will inevitably continue for the foreseeable future to cover day-to-day expenses. With a lack of permanent leadership and an absent board of directors, the agency that is responsible for providing 928,000 daily trips on buses and rail is really the orphan of the TTF deal.
By 2021, once all the accompanying tax cuts within the TTF deal are in effect, the general fund will lose out on $1.4 billion every year. Over the next decade, that loss could be at $12 billion, according to Assemblymember John Wisniewski.
This deal is better than no solution, but it is a disappointing outcome given the years of warning that preceded the TTF insolvency and the stagnant transportation investment that has characterized the past decade. The timing of the deal, a day after the Hoboken train crash, doesn’t instill much confidence that some leaders can lead without tragedy as motivation.