Democratic Lawmakers Say Gas Tax Hike Will Help Extend Light Rail

By Brenda Flanagan

When trains pull into the Tonnelle Avenue Station, it’s the end of the line for passengers on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, which quits in Hudson County, despite the Bergen in its name. Riders have waited more than 15 years for NJ Transit to extend the route, and they’re skeptical it’ll ever happen.

“That would be nice to believe,” said Mark Fernandez.

He doesn’t believe it? “Not really,” he said.

It’s been so long that he’s given up hope? “Yeah, like, it’s just going to be the Hudson Light Rail,” he said.

“It would be accessible. It would be easier to get to actual Bergen County and that would open up a lot of opportunities for people, especially job-wise. So I would definitely go for it,” said Francheska Davila of North Bergen.

“It’s taken too long,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg.

Today Bergen Sen. Weinberg and Democratic leadership made it clear the 23-cent gas tax increase will help extend the light rail northwards — nine extra miles and seven stations, from North Bergen up to Englewood. Weinberg likes to call it the Bergen-Hudson line.

“It was really Sen. [Bob] Gordon, Sen. [Paul] Sarlo and I who told our Senate president nobody here is voting for a gas tax unless we know — and we know for certain — that the Bergen-Hudson Light Rail is coming to fruition,” she said.

“It’s not in writing. It’s been discussed. And the reason we did the Transportation Trust Fund to this size and have us out here talking about it is we’re extremely confident it’ll get the engineering funding,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney. “It’s going to make it that much more affordable. It’s not just going to be New Jersey dollars. We’re going to get a lot of federal dollars to help it.”

The TTF is expected to generate billions through borrowing, paid for by motorists. Some Republicans today complained bitterly.

“The ink hasn’t even dried on the gas tax increase, yet Democrats are already scheming ways to divert billions paid by drivers to build the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Extension,” stated Sen. Mike Doherty.

“Their plan all along was to fuel pork spending on rail projects while returning zero additional value to drivers,” said Sen. Kip Bateman.

But Democrats said aid to counties and municipalities to fix roads and bridges will double statewide and experts said the light rail will boost the economy.

“When it’s extended into eastern Bergen County, there will be an economic, a positive economic effect that will occur in each of the municipalities either touched by the line or even close to the line,” said Martin Robins, former deputy executive director of NJ Transit.

Democrats also emphasized voters must approve ballot question number two, which restricts TTF spending.

“To make sure these funds are put in a lock box, to make sure that no politician from either party can use this money for any other unintended consequence or purpose. That this money is earmarked for transportation projects,” Sarlo said.

The light rail extension carries an estimated billion dollar price tag. How much will come from the TTF is TBA.

The timeline’s still flexible, but legislators say they want to look at funding engineering studies come February. Completion of course is still years away.