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Corzine Transportation Fund Fix Passes Senate Committee

Wed March 22, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Jeffrey Gold



TRENTON, NJ (AP) Over criticism from Republicans and transit advocates, a state Senate panel on March 6 approved Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s plan to keep the state Transportation Trust Fund alive for the next five years.

Democrats on the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee had limited enthusiasm for the plan, with Sen. Shirley K. Turner of Mercer County calling it a “stopgap measure” and Sen. Joseph V. Doria of Hudson County allowing, “We need to do something now. We need to move forward.”

The measure to restructure the fund’s debt passed 13-1, with one abstention.

The lone no vote came from Sen. Leonard Lance, R-Hunterdon, who said it added debt to an already over-indebted state without voter approval.

Lance, a GOP leader on budget issues, noted that the Corzine administration, which unveiled the plan Feb. 24, was still unable on March 6 to provide an estimate of how much the plan would cost the state.

Corzine’s plan to revive the ailing fund for road and rail projects would restructure part of its debt.

It would not increase the gasoline tax — which most legislators consider political suicide — and would dedicate all of the existing gasoline tax toward the fund. That aspect passed 15-zero.

The fund, which has bankrolled billions of dollars of construction since 1984, is on track to run dry June 30. That’s because all of the money now coming into the fund, primarily from the gasoline tax, will be needed to pay interest on its debt.

The bill, which anticipates a fund that could provide up to $1.6 billion a year for projects, could be addressed by an Assembly committee.

Under the Corzine plan, the state would issue $8 billion in new bonds over the next five years. Of that, $1.8 billion would refinance existing bonds and would need to be paid in 20 years. The remaining $6.2 billion would be new bonds, and have 30-year terms.

Assembly Republicans on March 6 presented their own plan. Like Corzine’s, it requires that all 10.5 cents of the state’s gasoline tax go toward the transportation fund, which is supposed to get 9 cents of the tax. It would reduce debt by limiting bonding to just half of the amount of projects funded.

“New Jersey is drowning in a sea of debt,” Assembly GOP Leader Alex DeCroce, R-Morris and Passaic counties, told reporters before the budget panel hearing, said the figure is already approximately $30 billion.

The Republican plan suggested a $950-million annual outlay for projects, in part, DeCroce said, because the state Transportation Department is incapable of spending $1.6 billion a year.

Corzine Spokesman Anthony Coley said that while the governor and Assembly Republicans may disagree over how to deal with the trust fund, “He is pleased they have joined this important discussion on how best to move our state forward.”

Republicans also noted that the Corzine plan would mean that some projects done in the next five years might not be paid for until 2041, a term they felt would be a lengthy burden.

In response, the budget committee chairman, Sen. Wayne R. Bryant, D-Camden, said, “We do 30-year mortgages for a house. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to do that for a bridge.”

Critics of the plan told the committee it appeared rushed. Damien Newton, state coordinator for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said that while it was important to revive the fund to get federal matching funds the state had until fall to present a plan.

And Thomas G. Dallessio, New Jersey director of the Regional Plan Association, said, “While it provides much-needed funds for immediate projects, the governor’s proposal lacks a sustainable source of revenue and will leave us in even worse shape down the road.”