Op-Ed: It’s Time to Put New Jersey’s Transportation System on the Right Track

This op-ed appeared in the May 11, 2014 edition of the Star-Ledger.

NJPP Op-EdNew Jersey is on the verge of washing its economic future down the drain. The state’s greatest asset, the transportation network that connects us to the world’s largest market, is falling apart.

It takes a lot to maintain, improve and expand New Jersey’s transportation network, and the state has clearly fallen behind by not properly tending to these important assets.

New Jersey’s densely clustered transportation infrastructure includes nearly 50,000 miles of roadways and close to 7,000 bridges. NJ also has a substantial public transit system. NJ Transit runs the nation’s third-most-traveled commuter rail system, the fourth-most-traveled bus system and ninth-most-traveled light rail system.

This extensive network is vital to the state’s economic future. Innumerable reports, commissions, evaluations and academic studies have shown over the years that there is no dispute: New Jersey’s transportation network suffers from insufficient maintenance and inadequate investment.

Two-thirds of New Jersey’s roads are of poor or mediocre quality and 36 percent of the state’s bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which estimates that the average New Jersey driver pays $601 per year in added repair costs.

The state’s mechanism for paying for infrastructure maintenance and improvement – the Transportation Trust Fund – is near bankruptcy. The fund has no money for new projects, no authority to issue additional bonds and it is facing the expiration of bailout funding from the Port Authority and the Turnpike Authority.

The Corzine and Christie administrations have kept the Transportation Trust Fund functioning by shifting money from the general budget and radically increasing overall debt, thereby reducing the ability to pay for projects as they are undertaken and taking money away from other essential state services.

Stretching debt and diverting money from the Port Authority avoided dealing with the fundamental problem facing the Transportation Trust Fund – it’s out of money. But avoiding the problem did not make it go away – it has only grown larger and more pressing.

Now, New Jersey needs bold action to fix its transportation system.

To maintain and improve the state’s roads, bridges and mass transit systems, as well as to begin projects critical to our future, New Jersey should increase funding for the state Transportation Trust Fund.

And the most sensible option to do so is to extend the state’s 7 percent sales tax to gasoline.

This would not only help put the Transportation Trust Fund on solid footing, but it would also prevent the dedicated resources generated from the present gas tax from losing their purchasing power over time, jeopardizing the very transportation system the money is supposed to preserve. A gallon of gas would cost another 24 cents, and the average New Jersey driver would spend about $100 more on gas each year (the same average driver currently pays about $600 each year in additional car repairs due to the state’s deteriorating roads). This modest per-driver expense would raise about $1.2 billion for the trust fund.

New Jersey policymakers have not increased the overall 14.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax in nearly 25 years. When represented as a percentage of the per-gallon price of gas, New Jersey’s gas tax is about two-thirds lower than it was in 1991.

New Jersey’s gas tax is the second lowest in the nation, higher only than oil-rich Alaska. Even Wyoming, which long had a lower rate than the Garden State, increased its gas tax by 10 cents last year to invest more money in its transportation system. The average state gas tax now totals 31.5 cents per gallon. In our neck of the woods, Pennsylvania’s total tax is 41.8 cents, New York’s is 49.9 cents and Delaware’s is 23 cents.

Restoring our roads, bridges and public transit to a state of good repair is more important than automatic pledges of “no new taxes.” This is a necessary long-term solution to a crucial structural problem that faces the state. By extending the sales tax to gasoline, the state can salvage the Transportation Trust Fund and ensure the future strength of its infrastructure.

Congestion, potholed highways, unsafe bridges and aging buses and trains will harm the state’s ability to attract and hold well-paying jobs. It’s clear New Jersey’s conditions demand action. Will the state’s leaders rise to the occasion?

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