Budget Committee Discusses Borrowing for Transportation Trust Fund

By David Cruz

The Department of Transportation drew most of the attention from budget committee members who zeroed in on the Transportation Trust Fund, which is broke, unable to pay for — or plan for — any future infrastructure projects and continues to borrow billions of dollars.

“My understanding is that fiscal year ’15 we will be expending $1.26 billion for debt service, while borrowing $1.2 billion for the Transportation Trust Fund,” said Budget Committee Chairman Assemblyman Gary Schaer.

“We have a state appropriation for the debt service. It’s separate and distinct from the bonds that have been sold year to year,” said Transportation Trust Fund Authority Executive Director Gary Brune.

For most of us, that kind of accountant speak makes the eyes glaze over.

And it was Commissioner Jim Simpson who had the tough job of trying to put a positive spin on all the borrowing, while fighting off calls by some Democratic lawmakers pushing for an increase in the state’s gas tax.

“The gas tax is not sustainable,” Simpson said. “I’ve said that since I was confirmed into this job, before my confirmation hearing that the gas tax is not sustainable. This is a dilemma that every state has and the federal
government has, so we’re not alone here. This conversation is happening in state houses, as you know, across the country.”

But a gas tax, or more specifically a gas sales tax, is the only way to fund what should be — according to NJ Policy Perspective — a serious 10-year, $20 billion plan to upgrade the state’s roads and bridges.

“A plan like that requires money; it requires a lot of money. It would require about a billion to a billion and a half dollars, and we’ve suggested that putting a sales tax on gasoline, which would equal about 24 and a half cents a gallon — so it’s a significant increase from the current price — would pay for that,” David Rousseau said.

Also fueling skepticism on the part of some Democrats is the role of the Port Authority, which is funding a large portion of the Pulaski Skyway renovation. The legality of that funding, was recently questioned by officials at the Port Authority itself, leaving some state lawmakers worried about the ramifications of having to give that money back.

“The bottom line to it is, what do you do, and did we indemnify anybody, do we take any legal strategy whatsoever, in case there’s a problem?” asked Assemblyman Joe Cryan.

“Those are questions left to the attorney general’s office,” Simpson said. “Who knew about the laws? I didn’t know about the laws. The DOT didn’t know about the laws, so any communications that you’re referring to respectively back to 2011 between staffers within the Port Authority is news to me, just like it was news to you.”

Two-thirds of New Jersey motorists say they don’t want to pay more in gas taxes. Meanwhile, almost everyone at today’s hearing agreed, the state of New Jersey’s infrastructure is as bad as it’s ever been, but like the prospects for funding the Transportation Trust Fund, an answer to this conundrum, seems far off.