By David Cruz
After years of deliberations, lawmakers and the governor finally came to terms on a new funding mechanism for the Transportation Trust Fund, mainly an increase in the gas tax. If you remember, the deal didn’t get done until after Gov. Chris Christie ordered a shutdown of all infrastructure projects. But that 11th hour philosophy appears to have extended to the selection of projects that will be funded by the TTF.
The bill — it’s 82 pages long — sets parameters for implementation of the plan, but way down on page 80 is a sentence that reads: “The bill establishes the Annual Transportation Capital Program Approval Committee. The committee is to ensure that legislative input is provided in the process of selecting transportation capital projects that are funded through the Transportation Trust Fund Account.”
The four-person committee is made up of one member each recommended by the governor, the Senate president, the Assembly speaker and the commissioner of transportation.
But here we are, less than a month before the March 1 deadline for selecting the projects to be funded by the TTF and not one member of the committee has been officially selected and no projects have been chosen. Should we be concerned?
“It won’t take that long to put the committee together,” assured Senate President Steve Sweeney. “We’re waiting on the governor; we’re talking to them. We’re talking to the Assembly. It’s something we really do believe should be in place. It can’t stop anything. … But what we’re hoping to do is get the committee in place in time to have a say on the projects. We want to make sure the projects are real.”
Sweeney favors a light rail project connecting Gloucester and Camden, but there are other projects all around the state, including roads, bridges and rail projects. Expanding the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail into Bergen has been talked about for more than a decade. That light rail project will take billions to complete. Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise supports it but he says an expansion of the light rail’s western spur is a project that would pay immediate dividends.
The way the county executive sees it, a quarter mile extension of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail across Route 440 would open up the entire city’s western waterfront.
“There’s 96 now clean acres of land there … that is waiting to be developed. The city Planning Board gave them permission — on those 96 acres — to put 4,100 new units,” he said. “If the light rail carries over that third of a mile, everything doubles — 8,200 units will be allowed to go there; they’ll build a little higher and the commercial space will be doubled, as well.”
The expansion would cost about $200 million says DeGise — a lot of money on its own — but chump change when compared to other projects that the TTF could fund, especially if you consider that Bergen County expansion could take a decade and unknown billions of dollars.
“If we’re given a fair shake — and we haven’t always been given a fair shake by the Christie administration — but if the professionals from DOT look at it purely on its merits, per dollar and everything, I can’t believe that they wouldn’t see the wisdom of making an investment in the western part of Jersey City,” he added.
But Assemblyman John Wisniewski — a gubernatorial candidate and chairman of the Assembly’s Transportation Committee — says wisdom may have very little to do with the selection process. He calls the Transportation Capital Program Approval Committee a star chamber.
“In the past, when you had transportational professionals evaluating different projects, putting them on a list, working them through the process, you had some idea that there was a professional basis for the transportation decisions,” said Wisniewski. “This is pure politics. This is backroom politics run amok, but it’s traditional Trenton transactional politics.”
Sixteen billion dollars in TTF funds and another $16 billion in federal matching grants expected over the next eight years. That’s a lot of transactions. With the governor focused on the opioid epidemic and the Assembly speaker pitching education funding reform, the Transportation Capital Program Approval Committee is sitting on the back burner with a critical deadline looming.