Transportation Trust Fund at Center of Endless Debate as Election Day Looms

By David Cruz

It’s the biggest issue nobody seems ready to do anything about. The Transportation Trust Fund, that mechanism for funding bridge and highway maintenance and mass transit projects, is mired in debt and unable to fund much of anything nowadays. But what is this TTF? What was it supposed to do and how did it get so broke. Martin Robbins spent more than a quarter century as a policy planner for the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the Port Authority, NJ Transit and a host of other transportation entities.

“It started off funding about $350 million worth of transportation capital,” he remembered, “and it was a mix of “pay as you go” and a limited amount of bonding and it was supposed to be – and now it seems almost laughable – it was supposed to be self-replenishing, that is, as the bonds would mature, the money that would come in every year from the appropriations would pay off the bonds and we would be able to then using the revenue flow, be able to generate more pay as you go and some more bonding.”

But that was the 80’s, when only about 2 cents of the state’s gas tax was dedicated to the TTF. Today, all of the gas tax goes to the fund but it doesn’t pay for any critically-needed new stuff; it essentially paying the debt that’s been accruing over the years, creating what almost everyone believes is a crisis.

“It’s not a crisis at the moment,” is what governor Christie said in February.

But that is a minority opinion; every lawmaker we talked to for this story says the TTF is one of their biggest concerns. The solution, says Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto – and just about everyone else in Trenton – is an increase in the gas tax.

“The gas tax that I’ve been talking about as a funding source for this has not been raised since 1988,” said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto. “We are second lowest in the nation; we are some 40 cents cheaper than our surrounding states. Almost 40 percent of it is bought by people out of state – we are a corridor state – and our roads and bridges are in deplorable condition. They need to be fixed and this will help our economy.”

But, this is election season and every seat in the Assembly is up this year, which means that nobody wants to take credit – or blame – for a tax hike. So, nothing on that until after the election. Then, there’s the other side. Republicans, like Transportation Committee Member Holly Schepisi who says a gas tax is something she’s ready to discuss, if it can be revenue neutral.

“If there’s a proposal that gets put on the table that can maybe lessen a burden for the people who I represent, while continuing to fund our projects and our roads and our bridges and tunnels, would I look at it? Absolutely,” she said.

Schepisi and others in her party have called for a cut in the inheritance and estate tax, which would offset the impact of a gas tax increase, a compromise that everyone seems ready to embrace. But Committee Chairman Jon Wisniewski says that’s just trying to be all things to all people. He argues that if you raise one tax and cut another, you’ve actually done nothing.

“I’ll compromise on policy. I’ll even compromise on politics. I won’t compromise on mathematics. And one minus one still equals zero,” added Wisniewski. “And raising a tax only to offset it with a tax decrease only means that at the end of the transaction, we wind up with not as much money as we’ve told people we’re gonna raise; we wind up not being able to fully solve the problem …”

And end up leaving the same problem for another governor and legislature to deal with in a few years time. Wisniewski and other Democrats blame Christie – who as a presidential candidate has signed a “no tax” pledge, and threatens a veto of any bill that would raise a gas tax. Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick says Democrats need to sing a different song.

“Pointing the finger at the governor is just a cop out,” he said. “It does not answer the question of why you haven’t passed the fix for the last 13 years and when you have an opportunity to talk about the majority party, the Democrats, that’s the question to ask them.”

Some sort of compromise is expected on the gas tax. Then voters will be asked to approve a constitutional amendment that puts those funds in a lock box for transportation fixes only. The only question then is how much do you raise the gas tax? 10 cents, 15 cents a gallon? Robins says unless you talk about a 30 cent a gallon increase, you’re just filling a gas tank with a hole in it.