Uncertain Future for Trust Fund, PATCO Extension at Transportation Hearing
NJDOT Commissioner Jim Simpson and NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein went before the Senate Budget Committee today in Trenton to address some of the major issues confronting their respective agencies. The hearing began with a discussion of arguably the most pressing issue facing both agencies, the pending bankruptcy of the state’s Transportation Trust Fund. Commissioner Simpson confirmed that by the end of fiscal year 2011 (June 30th, 2011), the Transportation Trust Fund will be out of money for new projects, with all incoming revenue (approximately $895 million) going to service existing bonds, though he did note that, between federal dollars and state money already allocated, projects that are underway at that point would be able to continue. When asked how the administration is planning to address this situation, Simpson pointed to ideas for leasing some rest stops, increasing efficiency of Turnpike operations, and other cost saving measures, but conceded that at this point there was no plan to fully refund the Trust Fund.
Asked about specific revenue options, Commissioner Simpson stated emphatically that the Christie administration remained opposed to raising the gas tax, and that an increase in that tax would not be a component of any plan from the administration on how to address the Trust Fund. On the possibility of raising tolls, he noted that there is already a planned toll hike for the Turnpike and Parkway approved under the Corzine administration, though proceeds from that increase will not go to the Transportation Trust Fund. He also hinted that $895 million (the current amount of revenue from the Trust Fund used, through bonding, to pay for the State’s $1.6 billion annual transportation capital program) may not be the right target, though he would not say in which direction the true number lies.
Without ever mentioning it by name, the Commissioner also dealt a blow to the proposed extension of PATCO commuter rail into Gloucester County during his testimony. In the context of potential cost savings for the Transportation Trust Fund, Simpson said that proposed light rail extensions currently slated for TTF funding should be evaluated for their utility as transportation projects, rather than for political reasons, and that Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) could potentially be just as effective. He noted that the days of “build it and they will come” are over with regard to rail lines (a likely reference to the Camden to Trenton River Line), and suggested that the project should seek federal funding under the revised New Starts rules, which would be more favorable to NJ projects than previous rules (which Simpson was in charge of as the Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration under President Bush). These statements comport with statements Commissioner Simpson made during an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer several weeks ago, when he said “The transportation system is broken. Politics drives the spending. There’s a lot of pork and payoffs: ‘Give me a rail project in the north and I’ll give you a rail project in the south.’ “
This comes as PATCO and the DRPA are moving forward with the rail line, holding public meetings to discuss the environmental impact statement (EIS), which is the next phase in the project.