“Moving me down the highway
Moving ahead so life won’t pass me by.
And I’m gonna go there free,
Like the fool I am and I’ll always be.”
Jim Croce: I Got a Name
Ah… the romance of the highway. But it really never was free, and its costs are catching up on us. NJ over many years has been burning through principal, and according to the Regional Plan Association by mid 2011 the NJ Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) will have enough monies to pay only its interest costs. Governor Christie, never one to do things with a light touch, on September 10 called a 30-day halt to the multi-billion Hudson River train tunnel, and on Friday his Transportation Commissioner James Simpson announced all state-funded transportation construction projects will be stopped on Monday. The problems are real but they call not for petulant, sudden halts but a comprehensive, long-term transportation plan from the Governor – one which the legislature can support and implement.
The halt to state-funded projects was precipitated after the state sought legislative approval for selling over $1 billion in bonds and refinancing up to $500 million in existing debt. Commissioner Simpson on Friday said in a press release “In January the Corzine Administration issued $857 million in bonds to pay the ongoing cost of these important construction projects with the understanding that the Christie Administration would need to issue bonds in the fall to finish the work. Today, only $50 million remains in the TTF, all of which is needed to cover the next debt service payment in December.” Having provided the legislature with very short notice, the administration is now upset that the legislature did not immediately approve its request.
Sen. Paul A. Sarlo and Assemblyman Louis D. Greenwald on Friday said the Joint Budget Oversight Committee will hold an emergency meeting on Monday to consider the financing proposal. Sen. Sarlo added, “The Commissioner’s decision to level a threat to lay off workers through a late-day press release rather than by picking up a telephone to discuss this vital matter directly is enough of a signal that the administration has no plan.”
Christie recently downplayed talk of replenishing the TTF with Hudson tunnel project money, but there is ongoing concern that he may seek to end this huge, important project with its long-term benefits to NJ. It is appears, as reported by the Star Ledger, “that the transit agency didn’t properly outline how it would it go about combating fraud, waste and abuse, on this project, and auditors also took issue with the Federal Transit Administration’s early handling of the program.” Nonetheless, the project is in its infancy, and the administration must generate a better plan to oversee its costs.
The ball is in Christie’s court. The time is now. Short-term tinkering is no solution for long-standing, long-term problems. No more instant demands for legislative action and work stoppage, particularly in the midst of an unemployment crisis. Show us a plan to replenish the trust fund. (The Regional Plan Association and many other groups have recommended elements of such a plan.) And create an enforceable system to better control expenses in the tunnel project so that its benefits can be available to future New Jerseyans.