BY TOM HESTER SR.
The Christie administration is considering using $2.2 billion of the $5.5 billion in New Jersey money earmarked for the Hudson river commuter rail tunnel to refinance the state's Transportation Trust Fund for highway and bridge repair, the director of NJ Transit told an Assembly committee Monday.
In an appearance before the Transportation and Public Works Committee, James Weinstein stressed the possibility is only an idea being considered by administration officials as they ponder how to refinance the fund. Weinstein said he understands the officials want to settle the financing shortly.
"There have been those discussions but there have been no decisions,'' Weinstein said in response to a question by Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), the committee chairman, who said he is aware that shifting the money away from the tunnel project is under consideration.Weinstein was asked to appear before the committee, in part, to discuss Gov. Chris Christie's Sept. 10 decision to halt work on the tunnel for 30 days while the cost of the project is reviewed. The initial cost of the tunnel, which would run under Hudson County and the Hudson River into midtown Manhattan was set at $8.7 billion but administration officials fear that it could run as high as $5 billion over budget. Weinstein said the $8.7 billion does not include $750 million to replace a bridge leading to the current tunnel and a new bridge for the Hudson Tunnel.
Weinstein said the state, through $3 billion from the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, $1.25 billion from the Turnpike Authority and through an additional roughly $250,000 million is putting $5.5 billion into the project. The federal government is contribution another $3 billion.
Asked by Wisniewski if New Jersey would lose the $3 billion in Federal Transit Administration aid if Christie permanently halts work on the tunnel, Weinstein said, "I'd like to cross that bridge when we come to it.''
Weinstein told the committee, that NJ Transit, the Christie administration and the Federal Transit Administration are attempting to get a solid estimate of the exact cost of the tunnel project by Oct. 10, which is 19 days away.
Weinstein pointed out that the tunnel project was conceived before the economic recession and noted the state government is facing a $10 billion budget deficit in 2011-12, just as it did in 2010-11.
"It was made clear to me by the governor from the start that the budget for this project has to be there,'' Weinstein said. "This is a mega project with risks involved and that (financial) risk needs to be quantified. There is a range of views on what that risk is.'' The director added, "I will have cleared comments when the 30 days are over.''
Wisniewski said diverting money allocated for the tunnel would be an economic disaster for New Jersey.
"The idea that Governor Christie and his administration would even consider halting this tunnel project so he could avoid making the tough decision to come up with a transportation funding plan is as inexplicable as it is irresponsible,'' Wisniewski said. "Yet, that's exactly what we heard today from NJ Transit's executive director.
"This is beyond stunning,'' Wisniewski said. "It is disturbing for commuters and New Jersey's economic future. It's also a major national security concern. Governor Christie may be comfortable with risking New Jersey's economic future and losing $6 billion in federal and Port Authority funding, but taxpayers, commuters and businesses see things differently.''
Wisniewski charged that Christie can't claim that he wasn't aware of the costs of building the tunnel nor that New Jersey would be responsible for costs. The Assemblyman said the governor never objected to the terms of this agreement and even restated his commitment to a project his own transportation commissioner described as 'the most important public transportation project in the country.'
"The tunnel would create 6,000 jobs and take 22,000 cars off our already congested roads daily,'' Wisniewski said." It would open New Jersey and its residents to new jobs and expanded economic growth. It's too valuable to be tossed aside as the governor appears ready to do. Real leaders make tough decisions to ensure vital improvement projects get finished. They do not slap excuses together, nor do they risk billions of dollars in federal funding, the quality of life of New Jersey commuters and our state's economic future.''
After the meeting, Assemblymen Brian Rumpf (R-Ocean) and Scott Rudder (R-Burlington) said officials of the former Corzine administration should be invited to testify before the committee about what they knew of the potential cost of the tunnel.
"The federal report which indicates that the previous administration's plan to manage and oversee this project were ‘insufficient to detect fraud and ensure contractor integrity' shows there was a race to get a shovel in the ground in order for former Governor Jon Corzine to take credit, but now it is revealed he and his administration are at fault for putting together a shoddy plan," Rumpf, the senior Republican on the committee, said.
"The biggest question we need to ask is why wasn't the same concern shown when the application was submitted?,'' Rumpf added. "There are glaring omissions identified in the report that suggest the proposal was sloppy and done in haste. Transportation officials from the previous administration should be called to tell the committee why finalized documents on oversight of the project's management were not submitted, even as late as January. Governor Christie is wise to pause and assess the costs and potential overruns of this project.''
Rudder said, "Since the Democrats are so interested in holding hearings, but not controlling expenses, I fully support inviting the Corzine administration to testify about the inside workings of how the application was put together. Cost overruns in the billions of dollars that would leave taxpayers on the hook is something that symbolized team Corzine. Those who are responsible for submitting faulty and incomplete plans need to be held accountable. In the previous administration's rush to get their pictures in the paper, the long-run costs of this project show their carelessness and ineptitude."