Big ticket items are losing their front-row seat in the New Jersey DOT budget.
After Gov.-elect Chris Christie announced that he had to borrow $1.2 billion to help restore the state’s highway trust fund, New Jersey state legislators were left scrambling to find a way to fund simple maintenance projects like pothole patching and bridge inspections.
The New Jersey highway trust fund brings in more than $800 million a year, and in the past that money has been used to activate large-scale, long-term highway and bridge projects. However, that line of thinking is now wavering, and the New Jersey Senate agreed to add pothole patching to the list of items now supported by the highway trust fund. In 2009, the NJDOT has burned through more than $2.4 million to fill the craters. Other repair items supported by the trust fund are:
- Improving guide rails and fences;
- Patching bridge decks;
- Inspecting bridges that are less than 20 ft long; and
- Maintaining highway drainage systems.
With the $1.2 billion loan, which will be thrown on a $33.9 billion pile of debt, New Jersey’s credit rating is now on life support. Moody’s Investors Service said its outlook for the state’s transportation funding system is “negative,” adding that New Jersey’s financial hole and depleted operating revenues will leave the state in a tight spot if there is an emergency. The trust fund is expected to go bankrupt by mid-2011 when all toll and tax money will go toward making debt payments.
Christie refuses to consider raising the state’s gas tax, which is one of the lowest in the U.S., and according to Ken Clausen, a former New Jersey president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, current Gov. Jon Corzine looked into privatizing some of the roads a few years back, and the idea was quickly extinguished.
“I think that idea is pretty much dead,” he told Roads & Bridges. “There was a lot of problems with that scheme anyway. It was going to be a bigger burden on certain people of the state and those that are dependent on toll roads.
“I have no idea where they are going to get the money. I have the feeling that this whole area of spending money they don’t have is a weakness of our whole system in terms of government.”
New Jersey, however, cannot afford to delay the major projects of the future. According to the 18th Annual Highway Report, which is produced by the Reason Foundation, the state’s urban and rural interstates are the third and fifth worst in the U.S., respectively. It also ranks near the bottom when it comes to bridges that are deficient or obsolete.
“Maybe we do not do as many projects,” Christie told NorthJersey.com.
Christie has already suggested a restructuring in state government that includes layoffs and eliminating departments to help provide extra dollars for routine maintenance work.