Menendez Outlines Plan for N.J.’s Stimulus Spending

Fri January 16, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Victor Epstein




NEWARK, N.J. (AP) The 76-year-old Pulaski Skyway is typical of the neglected bridges that should have repairs funded by the economic stimulus package, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez said Jan. 5.

With the dated Skyway as his backdrop, the New Jersey Democrat outlined his priorities for the spending package, expected to total about $800 billion, which the 111th Congress are crafting in Washington.

Menendez said he favors construction projects for roads, bridges and schools that are already out of the design phase and ready to create jobs immediately, such as the 5,000 positions he said would be generated by a $200 million upgrade of the Skyway.

He said government spending is needed to steady an economy that lost 1.59 million jobs in the first 11 months of 2008. New Jersey lost 34,000 jobs during the same period.

“The economic crisis is hitting people hard ... the reason we’re talking about an economic stimulus of this size is because we’re in a deep recession,’’ Menendez said.

The Pulaski Skyway links Newark and Jersey City. The 3.5 mi.-long (5.6 km) span, which passes over the Passaic and Hackensack rivers, was built during the Great Depression and carries 85,000 vehicles daily. Trucks are prohibited from using the Skyway and speeds are restricted to 45 mph because of its condition — the dated bridge lacks breakdown lanes and features abrupt merges and poor signage.

The Skyway has the same construction as the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, which brought national attention to the issue of bridge safety when 13 people died after its collapse on Aug. 1, 2007.

The Pulaski Skyway is one of 73,519 structurally deficient bridges in the United States in 2007, according to a report by the General Accountability Office.

The structurally deficient category means that elements of a bridge need monitoring and parts of the bridge needs to be scheduled for repair or replacement. It does not necessarily mean a bridge is unsafe, though it is one of the key factors used to determine when a bridge is at risk, and which ones qualify for federal funding.

One of the reasons the Pulaski Skyway has not been fully upgraded is that such a complete retrofit could cost more than $1 billion, according to the New Jersey Department of Transportation.

Without sweeping action, Menendez predicted the U.S. unemployment rate could hit 10 percent; it was 6.7 percent in November.

The federal budget deficit is already on pace for a record annual shortfall of $1 trillion or more. The deficit totaled $401.6 billion in the first two months of the budget year, which started Oct. 1. That compares with the current record gap of $455 billion set in 2007-08.

Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy said the first step toward righting the economy is correctly identifying the scale of the challenge facing federal and local policy-makers.

Healy said President-elect Barack Obama’s administration needs to create jobs through infrastructure projects just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt did to bring the U.S. economy out of the Great Depression.

“Now is the time for the federal government to step in,’’ Menendez said.