NJ Transportation Plan Draws Fire; Some ARC Money Goes to Roads

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(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation)  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's announcement yesterday that he was putting forward a "responsible transportation capital plan," drew a quick torrent of criticism from transit advocates already stung by huge fare hikes and, later, the death of the trans-Hudson passenger rail ARC tunnel.

Christie's move does seem to take NJ transportation funding back to the future -- to a time when road-building was prioritized over transit.   In the 1950's and through the end of the twentieth century, U.S. transportation policy favored road funding over transit funding at a ratio of about eighty to twenty percent.  In the last decade, everyone from urban planning graduate students to President Barack Obama have decried the sprawl such funding formulas created.

But for Christie, the ARC tunnel was an unsustainable project, getting built as NJ's Highway Trust Fund was broke and roads were falling into disrepair.   By re-purposing this funding, Christie says, he's taking the fiscally responsible route.

"Over each of the next five years the Christie Plan will increase cash contributions used to fund transportation projects while at the same time decreasing the use of borrowing.

"The Christie Plan includes approximately $1.8 billion in "pay as you go" cash contributions growing from a nominal amount under the former plan to over $600 million by the end of the five-year term. This represents a substantial increase in the amount of cash financing (1,600% over five years) and is a marked departure from the previous policy of borrowing money and running up debt.

"Over the plan’s five year period, the Christie Plan provides almost 37 percent pay as you go funding in contrast to the former plan’s five-year PAYGO composition of 10.6 percent."

But Senator Frank Lautenberg, Christie's nemesis on ARC, virtually shouted back in an email statement.

"The Governor’s transportation plan is short on details, but it made one thing very clear.  The plan is more proof that the Governor killed the critically-needed new tunnel to Manhattan so he could use its funding as part of a fix for his political problems.  Transportation is the economic lifeblood of our state - the most densely populated in the country - and Governor Christie's policies are undermining years of planning and hard work to keep New Jersey on the move.

"During Governor Christie’s campaign for office, he said borrowing to finance the Transportation Trust Fund is 'unconscionable.'  Why is it now acceptable?  All he is doing is piling more debt on the state.”

What has Lautenberg so upset is the use of upwards of $1.8 billion dollars that would have been used for a new transit tunnel that that Christie is spending on roadways.   Lautenberg and other critics have said that using this infusion is tantamount to a dreaded "one-shot," i.e. a budget fix that only applies once rather than offering a consistent and recurring source of revenue.

However, it's worth noting that that entire Christie plan does include a portion for transit.

Here's the Tri-State Transportation Campaign's  statement:

"Governor Christie released his plan to replenish the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, New Jersey’s main source of funding for road, bridge, transit, and freight projects. Replenishing that fund is vital to New Jersey’s environmental health and economic vitality.

"The specific details of the plan are murky. It is difficult to understand where the Governor will find $600 million from the general fund and how the state will manage to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund without raising new revenue.
It is clear that the Christie plan relies heavily on the use of ARC funds, including $1.8 billion from the Port Authority and additional funds from the NJ Turnpike Authority. TSTC has called on Governor Christie and Governor Cuomo to redirect the $3 billion in Port Authority of New York and New Jersey previously designated for the Access to the Region’s Core tunnel to projects that address the same problem: delays and congestion crossing the Hudson River. Unfortunately, Governor Christie’s plan largely calls for that money to be spent on port roadway projects.

"The increase in transit funding is good news, but provides little solace to riders who last year saw a 22% fare increase and the loss of ARC, one of the best transit projects of a generation.

"The transportation funding crisis in the state is real. We hope the State Legislature and the Governor will have the leadership to find a long term solution. And it is up to Governor Cuomo to decide whether he wants bistate Port Authority money to pay for New Jersey’s decision not to raise its gas tax.

"This is the time for change - when budgets are tight and elected officials are forced to make difficult decisions. New Jersey can either go with the status quo, another round of short-term financial gimmicks, or seize this opportunity to affect lasting, structural change in its transportation funding."