Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Time To Fix New Jersey's Broken Transportation Policy

Gov. Chris Christie refuses to fix the state's chronically underfunded transportation system out of the state's own revenues. This includes roads, bridges, transit, and rail systems. Rather than increase the state's low motor fuel taxes and risk the ire of Republicans who would complain about the tax hike, he's used his sway at the Port Authority to use money originally tasked to building a new rail tunnel into Manhattan to fix several bridges that aren't part of the Port Authority's mission, including the historic Pulaski Skyway.

Fixing those bridges were overdue, but it means that funds that should have gone to expanding the state's crumbling infrastructure were instead devoted to projects that should have been covered by the state's transportation trust fund but for the fact that the fund is essentially bankrupt with no relief in sight.

Christie orchestrated a fare and toll hike at the Port Authority and then turned around to use some of those funds to go and fix the Pulaski Skyway, Wittpenn Bridge, and several other roads that are considered approaches to the Holland Tunnel, even though they are miles from the facility itself.

That's why New Jersey residents need to take matters into their own hands. If Gov. Christie wont increase the motor fuel tax or raise revenues to dedicate to transportation matters in the state, then voters need to petition to amend the state constitution to raise the needed revenue for dedicated purposes.

By fixing the state's own revenue situation, it can help get the Port Authority to refocus on the bistate projects it was designed to do. It would free up revenues to maintain and expand its facilities, including the Port Authority Bus Terminal, contemplate assisting in the construction of the Gateway Tunnel to double capacity on the Northeast Corridor, and expand PATH to Newark Airport while keeping its infrastructure in a state of good repair.

Currently, New Jersey imposes a 10.5 cent per gallon gasoline tax and 13.5 cent per gallon diesel fuel tax. It's a rate that is unchanged since 1989, and the purchasing power has seriously eroded. Together, they generate about $540 million annually. This amount has actually fallen in recent years because of declining driving and increased fuel economy.

If we assume that drivers will maintain their current amount of driving, a tax increase of $.10 per gallon on each of the gasoline and diesel tax would potentially raise about $500 million annually. It would not only replenish the transportation trust fund, but it would enable the state to fund sorely needed road and rail projects without resorting to deficit funding, fiscal gimmicks, and raiding the Port Authority to do projects.

To this end, voters should consider the following ballot question:

Constitutional amendment to set a state minimum wage with annual cost of living increases.
Do you approve amending the State Constitution to set a state motor fuel tax equal to 20.5 cents per gallon for gasoline and 23.5 cents per gallon for diesel and other motor fuels. The amendment also requires bi-annual increases in that rate if there are annual increases in the cost of living.

The interpretive statement would run something along the lines of:
This amendment to the State Constitution sets the State gasoline and motor fuel taxes at a level sufficient to fund state transportation projects. Half the funds would be dedicated to road, bridge, and tunnel projects across the state, while the other half of the funds would be devoted to supporting mass transit projects, including NJ Transit operations that have the effect of reducing motor vehicle usage, congestion, and pollution statewide. The level of the tax would be adjusted every other year to account for cost of living adjustments.
Residents know that the state's roads, bridges, and tunnels, are a mess, but Gov. Christie refuses to take the necessary actions to improve the structural problems with how the state funds its transportation and infrastructure budgets. Putting the question to voters would go a long way to fixing the problems.

For those concerned that the tax would be an economic hit, one should also count the economic harm done by having a crumbling infrastructure, where roads and bridges can no longer handle modern traffic loads, road damage to vehicles costs drivers hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in damage, and the state can't address its backlog of critical projects that need adequate funding.

The tax increase proposed would still mean that motor fuel purchased in New Jersey is cheaper than those of all the neighboring states by a wide margin. Including federal tax of 18.4 cents, New Jersey regular fuel costs motorists 33 cents a gallon in taxes overall. In Pennsylvania, it’s about 60 cents, and in New York nearly 70 cents, the group says. The 10 cent hike would still mean that New Jersey drivers would pay nearly 30 cents less per gallon than New York and 17 cents less than Pennsylvania.

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