Transit agency leaders assess post-recession projects in N.J.

TRENTON – Key transit agency leaders this morning reassured the business community that post-recession capital projects are improving efficiency and safety of New Jersey’s roads, trains, airports and seaports.

At the annual summit held by the N.J. Alliance for Action, executives of state and federal transit agencies sought – as one speaker phrased it – to assure the room full of engineers, builders, and other professionals that the economy-driving, shovels-in-the-ground projects exist.

Among them:

*N.J. Transit and Amtrak are working together on a $300 million elevated U-turn loop in North Brunswick to improve equipment effectiveness, N.J. Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein said.

*The $400 million Route 52 causeway project in Ocean City and Somers Point that includes boat ramps and fishing piers is completed, said Department of Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson.

*The $15 billion Gateway tunnel project into Penn Station will be the single biggest bottleneck-reduction initiative for the mega-region that is the Northeast Corridor, said Tony Coscia of Amtrak’s board of directors.

*The $330 million Scudder Falls Bridge project – trashed last week by some N.J. lawmakers and environmentalists because, among other things, of the eventual shift from a free bridge to a toll bridge – will go a long way toward relieving congestion on both sides of the Delaware River, said chief engineer George Alexandridis of the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission.

*The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is moving ahead on the billion-dollar project to raise the Bayonne Bridge and the $1.5 billion project to build a new Goethels Bridge connecting Elizabeth and Staten Island.

In addition, the state’s Transportation Trust Fund has moved from a program burdened by $8 billion in debt to one that has a five-year capital plan that eventually will reduce debt to $2.6 billion while providing $1.6 billion each year for projects and utilizing generally a pay as you go approach, Simpson said.

Perhaps more important as far as the Port Authority is concerned, said Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, is that it is entering an era of being returned to its core mission of investing in the region’s infrastructure.

The Port Authority, called “dysfunctional” in a recent report, is entering a new era of fiscal responsibility with three straight years of a flat operating budget, its lowest personnel head count since the 1940s, and the hiring of the first new auditor in 31 years, among other reforms, Baroni said.

The summit is an annual get-together organized by the non-profit Alliance, a 38-year-old coalition of more than 2,500 academic, business and labor advocates.

Simpson told the audience that making roads safer and more efficient can be a major way to pull New Jersey farther from the recession, but past practices must be abandoned.

“There needs to be better coordination among the public and private sectors with realistic cost estimates and project benefits. The day of low-balling major capital project costs is over,” he said.

Transit agency leaders assess post-recession projects in N.J.