BY TOM HESTER SR.
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COMThe Legislature's Democratic-controlled Joint Budget Committee Monday reluctantly approved the Christie administration plan to sell $1.25 billion in bonds and to refinance up to $500 million for the nearly busted fund for highway, bridge and rail repairs, a move that would also put over 2,000 construction crewmen back to work.
Gov. Chris Christie's decision to halt state-funded public works until Democrats in the Legislature approve the bond sale and their initial reluctance to support it, led to work stoppages on Monday at as many as 100 major and minor road and bridge repair projects and design activity on 200 others.
However, state Transportation Commissioner James Simpson revealed at the Joint Budget Committee hearing that over the weekend it was decided not to halt NJ Transit projects that are partially funded by the federal government.As the climax to a nearly two-hour hearing, the committee voted 4 to 1 with one abstention to approve the bond sale and refinancing. Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the panel's co-chairman, abstained from the vote, declaring, "This is a silly mistake. The governor has criticized the Legislature, both Democrats and Republicans for the same action we are taking here today.''
Assemblyman Louis D. Greenwald (D-Camden), the other co-chairman, voted against the financial move, leaving to remaining Democrats and the panel‘s two Republicans to approve it.
It was a tense hearing with Sarlo and Greenwald sometimes raising their voices during questioning and Simpson answering the same way.
Simpson and state Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff told the legislators the governor has no plan to raise the gas tax as part of any effort to raise money to refinance the state Transportation Trust Fund. They also maintained no decision has been made to transfer $1.2 billion earmarked for the stalled Hudson River commuter rail tunnel to help finance the fund.
The current five-year financial plan for the trust fund, which finances New Jersey highway, bridge and rail repair projects is due to expire in June and Sidamon-Eristoff told legislators only $50 million remains in the fund. The Legislature and Christie must approve a new long-term plan by June to keep projects moving ahead.
Among the affected projects are the reconstruction of I-295 in Burlington County and the Route 3 Passaic River Crossing project in Passaic and Bergen counties. Christie's plan, which would only bring $14 million in present value savings over 29 years. Emergency repairs and federally-funded projects are not affected.
New Jersey's $2.2 billion capital improvement program for 2010-11 allocates over $700 million for repairing state and local bridges, $437 million to address highway congestion, nearly $200 million for road pavement and resurfacing and $84 million for safety programs.
Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) was one of the two Democrats who voted to allow the bond sale and refinancing but she maintained there was no need for Christie to halt the projects and put crewmen out of work, even for a day.
"He didn‘t do it because he had too," Buono said. "He used the workers as pawns. The sooner we realize this, the better. This administration should be prepared to come together with this Legislature to come up with solution to problem we all have, the TTF is broke.''
After the hearing, Assembly Republican Budget Officer Joe Malone (R-Burlington) charged it was the Democrats who used constructions workers as pawns.
"Many construction projects and workers lost a day of work and wages because Democrats in the Legislature are more interested in political theatrics than keeping people at work maintaining and improving our roads, which is an important part of rebuilding our economy,'' Malone said. "The Christie administration is finishing a long-term plan for our state's roads that will fix years of inaction by Democratic governors and legislators. Instead of working cooperatively on this plan, Democrats based a hearing on incomplete and inaccurate information provided by the supposedly nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services that erroneously stated the state has $300 million for road improvements that does not exist.''
Greenwald said after the hearing, "It wasn't all that long ago that Governor Christie described borrowing to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund as ‘unconscionable,' but once again the governor's words are far different from his actions. I'm tired of the hypocrisy. The testimony we just heard made it clear that the governor's decision to halt transportation work was arbitrary and unnecessary. The state still has $50 million available for transportation work and the ability to generate more than $500 million more without legislative approval. That's enough funding to continue transportation work into the spring and hopefully give the governor enough time to show leadership and devise a long-term transportation plan for our state, though the testimony we heard today offered little hope such a plan is near."
Sidamon-Eristoff said the $1.25 billion bond sale and refinancing of the $500 million would enable the funding of road and bridge and rail projects to continue until June. He said $50 million must go to pay bond debts and $392 million that was borrowed to finance projects must be repaid to the state's general fund. He also said it costs $125 million a month to finance the ongoing projects.
"The bottom line is the trust fund is broke,'' Sidamon-Eristoff said. "This situation could not be more urgent.''
When questioned by Sarlo, Simpson said the administration's plan for a renewed trust fund that would have to be approved in June is a work in progress and is not ready to be revealed to the Legislature.
"It's a big issue and we are working on it,'' Simpson said. "We have had listening sessions with every single stakeholder. We are looking at cost-cutting and revenue options. We are not at the point where we are ready to announce a plan.‘'
When Sarlo asked when the plan might be revealed, Simpson replied, "Soon, hopefully by the end of the year."
Sidamon-Eristoff added, "The administration will share its plan with the Legislature later this fall. We recognize this is a very collaborative process. There is plenty of ample time to get into all of this. There will be hearings, and the exchange of information. There will be ample opportunity to engage in discussion."
Neither Simpson or Sidamon-Eristoff could say when Christie will make his decision on continuing or permanently halting work on the Hudson River commuter rail tunnel.
They said NJ Transit officials spent last week discussing the ultimate cost of the tunnel with federal officials Christie halted work on the project Sept. 10 for 30 days fearing the final cost would be more than the $8.7 billion initially projected. The 30-day period delay period ends Sunday but neither Simpson or Sidamon-Eristoff could say if Christie will decide the tunnel's fate by then.