BY TOM HESTER SR.
A faceoff between Gov. Chris Christie and Democrats who control the Legislature over the use of approximately $1.7 billion in transportation construction funds will bring all state-funded highway, bridge and rail projects to a halt as of Monday.
The stoppage applies to projects throughout the state, including the reconstruction of I-295 in Burlington County, the Route 3 Passaic River Crossing project in Passaic and Bergen counties and scores of NJ TRANSIT projects including the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail extension to 8th Street in Bayonne.
In all, about 100 state Department of Transportation construction projects and 200 DOT design contracts are affected.
Emergency repairs and federally-funded projects are not affected.
The standoff will also put thousands of construction personnel out of work.
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.
Democrats on Thursday opted not to approve a $1.25 billion bond over concern that Christie may use billion of dollars earmarked for the Hudson River commuter rail tunnel to refinance the state's Transportation Trust Fund. The Democrats threatened last week they would withhold transportation funding until Christie details his plan to pay for them Instead, Christie ordered a halt to all the state-funded road and rail projects. On Sept. 10, the governor ordered a 30-day halt to the construction of the Hudson River tunnel he can get a grip on the cost. He is expected to have an answer by Oct. 10.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), the lower house's Transportation Committee chairman, said, "The governor can try to spin this any way he pleases, but the reality is that we cannot continue to fund a broken system. This administration has had nine months to come up with an honest plan to fund the Transportation Trust Fund and has failed to do so.
"Now, at the close of business on a Friday night they announce that they are going to shut down construction work because they are not getting their way, in turn, putting the safety and economic well-being of our residents at risk,'' Wisniewski said. "Instead of using working families as human shields, maybe this administration should get serious about transportation funding and agree that there is a legitimate need for more money. It's time for the governor to stop avoiding the hard decisions - a criticism he has leveled at his predecessors frequently."
State Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson is blaming the shutdown on the Democrats.
"Because of the Legislature's failure to act, thousands of engineers, planners, designers and construction workers will be put out of work and projects schedules will be disrupted,'' Simpson told The Star-Ledger on Friday.
Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the Joint Budget Oversight Committee, said last week that Democrats want to know Christie's plans for financing the Transportation Trust Fund and the tunnel before moving on the 1.25 billion bond.
Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce(R-Morris) joined Simpson in blaming the Democrats.
"....To withhold critical funding for transportation projects until Governor Christie announces his long-term transportation strategy is another blatant example of Democrat leaders putting politics ahead of policy and not acting in the best interest of taxpayers,'' DeCroce said. "Holding transportation projects hostage that address key infrastructure needs on our roads and bridges has significant consequences for commuters and New Jersey's economy."
Assemblyman Scott Rudder (R-Burlington), a member of the Assembly Transportation Committee, said, "It is shocking and deplorable that Democrat leaders would not convene a meeting of the Joint Budget Oversight Committee to authorize funding for new construction projects. As a result of their decision to play politics, critical transportation projects are in limbo that affect the safety of travelers and will put many workers out of a job. At a time when the unemployment rate is hovering at 10 percent, the last thing New Jersey families need to see are job-killing political games."