N.J.’s aging infrastructure requires long-term, coordinated response, report states

TRENTON – New Jersey must update its antiquated infrastructure in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, a new report states.

To accomplish that goal, the report by Facing Our Future, a bipartisan group whose leaders include former state Cabinet members from both parties, recommends substantive changes to the way state government is structured and operates.

Among other things, the report recommends the following:

*Collapsing several transportation agencies into one new, independent operation led by one board and not so dependant on the state budget;

*Using fees to help support improvements undertaken by water companies;

*Bolstering the Board of Public Utilities as it oversees electric companies’ upgrades.

The report points out that in the days after Sandy struck the state last year, the nation saw a New Jersey whose aging roads, bridges, water works and power lines failed.

The study had been under way before the devastating storm hit New Jersey.

“Sandy informed and highlighted the problems we had been seeing,” said Marc Pfeiffer, a retired deputy director of the Division of Local Government Services and a member of Facing Our Future’s leadership team.

“Sandy clearly amplified and highlighted challenges we were already seeing happen.”

Other members of the leadership team that oversaw the report include experts such as Ingrid Reed, a former project director for the Eagleton Institute of Politics; Sam Crane, a former state treasurer; John Farmer Jr., a former state attorney general; and Deborah Poritz, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

Among other things, the report recommends creating a more “robust, well-resourced’’ Board of Public Utilities that does more than just visit issues only during rate cases, and instead takes a more extensive role in analyzing how utilities are operating.

“BPU needs to up its game,” Pfeiffer said.

“BPU needs to seriously re-engage itself as a regulator not only of rates, but of service that is provided,” Pfeiffer said.

Among other things, the report recommended:

* Upgrading the state’s “outmoded and inadequate water systems,” reversing the annual loss of more than 20 percent of the state’s treated water supply because of leaking pipes.

And it identified some estimated costs that it said certain areas already will command:

*$21.3 billion for short-term transportation needs from 2014 to 2018;

*$8.9 billion in what utilities already plan to invest over the next 10 years;

*$40.7 billion in water system investments over the next five to 20 years.

Reed explained that part of what the report aimed for was to identify long-term needs and raise awareness of the needs for ensuring funding to meet those needs.

Regarding BPU, Reed, Pfeiffer and Crane all said they wanted to draw attention to the fact that this is a critical agency that needs to be given the resources – despite the public-sector downsizing of the last few years – in order to help ensure the infrastructure is enhanced.

Transportation, according to Crane, presents a special problem.  Unlike electricity or water, which consumers pay through monthly bills, transportation costs are more “hidden’’ but no less important.

“We are a corridor state,” he said.   “One of our largest industries is goods movement. We have large numbers of commuters.”

Sandy provided an opportunity to engage the public in this discussion, they said.

“People were standing in their driveway, no water, no power, no trains, obstructed roads,’’ Crane said.

“Maybe the time is right to have a conversation, and people are anxious for answers.” N.J.’s aging infrastructure requires long-term, coordinated response, report states