What Christie’s budget address means for a depleted Transportation Trust Fund

In frigid weather conditions, the chartered Amtrak train heads back toward an inviting looking New Jersey.

In frigid weather conditions, the chartered Amtrak train heads back toward an inviting looking New Jersey.

TRENTON — Political observers looking for some sign that lawmakers have inched closer to a long-term solution to a depleted Transportation Trust Fund would have been hugely disappointed by Gov. Chris Christie’s budget address yesterday.

Not once during Christie’s 28-minute budget speech, delivered on the floor of the Assembly, did the Republican mention the words “transportation” or “trust fund.” Instead, Christie stuck almost entirely to talk about public pension and benefits, touting a new plan to overhaul the system with the help of unions like the New Jersey Education Association.

But lawmakers and local officials a day after Christie’s speech say they see meaning in his silence on the subject. Some simply don’t see a solution to the fund’s problems coming together in time for state and municipal budget proceedings and a June 31st insolvency deadline — and for them, Christie’s neglect of the issue yesterday was an affirmation of that fact.

“I don’t see it happening with all the other things going on in the state,” said Hope Mayor Timothy McDonough, an independent and transportation expert from Warren County and a past president of the New Jersey League of Municipalities

Christie’s avoidance of the TTF issue yesterday was somewhat understandable. Lawmakers say backroom talk surrounding a fix for the fund, which has centered on installing a possible gas tax at the pumps or on petroleum imports, is still ongoing. Not to mention, dealing with the state’s time-bomb pension debacle is likely to be more politically productive for the Republican presidential hopeful.

Still, it’s one of the most pressing issues the legislature faces as it heads into what should prove to be a hectic budget season, when a whole host of other issues are likely to occupy lawmakers’ attention. Democrats both in the Senate and the Assembly were particularly incensed at Christie’s refusal to address the subject, upbraiding the governor for failing to lay out a vision for the state’s economy and finances in 2016 outside of his pension plans.

“Clearly, when the Senate President talks about growing the economy, if you have a weakened or crumbling infrastructure, it is very business to retain businesses in the state, or two attract businesses to the state,” said state Senator and joint budget committee chairman Paul Sarlo (D-36) during a press conference after Christie’s address yesterday. “So as we sit here, we have no plan for out Transportation Trust Fund. No plan to invest in our infrastructure.”

Absent an agreement that placates both sides’ interests, some fear the clock could run out on the TTF by the summer, leaving the state no money to repair its ailing transportation infrastructure. At that point, experts say lawmakers have two options: either let the TTF languish without funds, or fall back on more emergency borrowing and debt refinancing, as previous administrations have done in the past.

The latter scenario, especially in light of Christie address — as well as comments he made at an NJ Chamber of Commerce dinner in Washington D.C. last week, when he vowed not to raise taxes on New Jersey residents — is looking more and more likely.

“I think that’s a fair read of it,” Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19), chairman of the lower chamber’s Transportation Committee and proponent of a gas tax, said of the likelihood that Christie will evade that option in the interest of looking more appealing to Republicans on the national stage.

Indeed, the scenario may already be reality: State Tresurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff said Tuesday that the Christie’s 2016 budget assumes the transportation department will tap into some $600 million in authorized but unused debt, according to the Associated Press.

Wisniewski, for his part, called the governor’s address a “major disappointment.”

“If it’s not the gas tax, I have not seen anybody come up with something realistic,” Wisniewski said. “And clearly, anything that does not involve having new revenue to pay for the transportation work is a plan that relies on debt and digs the hole deeper.”

McDonough, who had previously come out in support of a gas tax as a possible fix for the TTF — coupled with a constitutional amendment that that gas tax would be permanently dedicated to fixing roads and bridges and mass transit — said he’d be satisfied with a temporary stop-gap solution, just as long as officials in municipalities like his are promised the funding needed to pay for road and bridge repairs that in some cases they’ve already planned for.

“My support of a gas tax was coupled with a constitutional amendment that that gas tax would be permanently dedicated to fixing roads and bridges and mass transit,” he said. “We don’t have enough time to do all that now. So what I would suggest is let’s do this fix if you will, this band-aid approach, and then hit the ground running after the budget is approved, and let’s get out there and get on the ballot with a constitutional amendment, strike a gas tax or petroleum tax or whatever you want to do, and get it done.”

Such a “band-aid approach” wouldn’t suffice in the long-term, he said, but could help hold municipalities over until lawmakers work out a more sustainable solution.

“Yeah, is it kind of kicking the can down the road, yes, but –we all know there’s got to be a permanent fix someday, it looks like there’s not going to be enough time now, but let’s do what we can do so towns can start putting things together and at least have something for next year,” he said.

What Christie’s budget address means for a depleted Transportation Trust Fund