By Tom Hester Jr.
Associated Press Writer
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine has an idea in mind to lift the state from the economic doldrums — a massive statewide initiative to repair aging roads, bridges and mass transit that would create thousands of new jobs.
But there’s one problem with that idea.
Legislators continue to balk at Corzine’s plan to increase highway tolls to pay debt and fund transportation projects, leaving the state with dwindling money for the massive new construction that could bring those new jobs.
Corzine isn’t pushing his toll plan hard these days, instead weighing alternatives and concentrating on getting a $33 billion state budget approved by July 1. Corzine has proposed $2.7 billion in cuts in that budget.
But the former Goldman Sachs chairman thinks the national economy is in recession and worries the federal government isn’t doing enough to help.
The $42.1 billion his administration would like to spend on transportation projects in the next decade would give the economy a much needed spark, Corzine contends.
“The economic distress that we see nationally, not just here in New Jersey but nationally, ought to be supported with job creation that actually comes from putting people to work in widening the turnpike, building a tunnel, building mass transit,’’ Corzine said.
Corzine’s thoughts come as the state’s unemployment rate has risen to 4.8 percent, equaling the national rate for the first time since October 2006.
The state has lost 10,300 jobs so far this year.
“To sit and not try to be stimulative to the economy right now is a big mistake,’’ the Democratic governor said.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, every $1 billion in highway construction creates 42,000 jobs, with every dollar invested in highways creating $5.60 in economic benefits.
Of those 42,100 jobs, 19,750 are workers supplying highway construction materials and equipment, 14,500 are workers in businesses where construction dollars are spent and 7,900 are workers at construction sites.
“Anyone who analyzes making investments in infrastructure knows that it has impact on job creation,’’ Corzine said.
Corzine in January proposed increasing tolls 50 percent in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022. The increases would include inflation adjustments. After 2022, tolls would increase every four years until 2085 to reflect inflation.
The money would pay at least half of $32 billion in debt and fund transportation work for 75 years.
The Atlantic City Expressway, Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike would be affected, but no state lawmakers back the plan and polls indicate heavy public opposition.
Republicans who have decried Corzine’s plan question whether the economy can be stimulated by plans that rely on toll increases.
“People may not just be able to afford it,’’ said Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth.
Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-Morris, said the state should be able to find money for transportation improvements without increasing tolls.
“In a $33 billion budget, there has to be $1 billion for transportation improvements that will benefit the entire state,’’ said Pennacchio, who is among those also opposing putting tolls onto free highways like Interstates 78 and 80, an alternative some have suggested.
Some lawmakers have suggested lesser toll increases, increasing the 14.5 cent per gallon gasoline tax and putting tolls on free highways, but nothing formal has been considered.
Corzine said he’s weighing alternatives, but his first priority is the current budget.
The state fund that pays for transportation improvements is to be consumed by debt in 2011, leaving the state with no way to pay for new projects unless new money is found.
The state estimates it needs to spend $13.6 billion to upgrade bridges. Major planned projects include widening the turnpike and parkway and building a new rail tunnel underneath the Hudson River to New York City.
In all, the administration has proposed spending $42.1 billion on transportation improvements in the next decade. Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri has said that would represent the largest transportation improvement program in state history and compares to $29 billion that was spent from 1999 to this year.
“We’re putting it off onto somebody else’s back in the future if we don’t do it, and we have this added reason now of the economic slowdown driving why we would want to be doing this right now,’’ Corzine said.