New Jersey's top transportation official defended Gov. Chris Christie's $8 billion plan for road, rail and bridge projects as fiscally responsible on Monday, as Democrats intensified their criticism of an approach they say relies too heavily on borrowing and fails to identify a permanent funding source for ongoing infrastructure needs.
The clash between Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson and Democrats on the Assembly Transportation Committee took place during a hearing that focused on the amount of new borrowing required to fund the five-year plan. The state plans to borrow $2.6 billion to fund various transportation improvements, with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey borrowing another $1.8 billion to fund four other projects.
Democrats led by Assemblyman John Wisniewski of Parlin, who chairs the panel, panned the capital plan because it calls for billions in new borrowing without voter approval and relies on revenue from a previously approved Turnpike toll increase that was intended to help pay for a new rail tunnel into Manhattan. Christie abandoned the tunnel as too costly, then rededicated money to state transportation projects.
Simpson said the new capital plan, which runs from the 2012 fiscal year through mid-2016, decreases borrowing over previous five-year funding cycles and increases the amount of pay-as-you-go funds from $76 million next year to $605 million in fiscal year 2016.
An additional $895 million in revenue pledged to the Transportation Trust Fund is needed to pay the annual debt for projects that have already been built or are in the process of being completed. The fund was out of money for new projects before Christie announced the new five-year plan in January.
"This is the best plan I've seen. It's viable, it's doable," Simpson told the panel.
He said the only alternative Democrats have offered is raising the gas tax, which Christie refused to consider.
New Jersey's 32.9 cents per gallon gas tax is third lowest in the country, behind Wyoming and Alaska. One proposal would have raised the tax 8 cents a gallon each year for three years to fund transportation projects. An increase of 5 cents a gallon would raise about $250 million, according to another proposal.
Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, a Secaucus Democrat, took issue with Simpson's contention that the new plan funds transportation projects without raising taxes. He said toll hikes and more borrowing lead to higher taxes. He said it was "disingenuous" for the administration to claim there was no money to pay for tunnel cost overruns while basing the capital plan on the anticipation that revenues will grow in the next five years.
Simpson acknowledged that the proposal is "a very complex plan with a lot of moving parts to it," after Wisniewski pointed out that the funding sources aren't assured. There is no guarantee that revenue growth will be as strong as projected, he said, or that the Port Authority or the governor of New York will continue to go along with New Jersey's plan.