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Money Crisis Could Derail NYC Tunnel, Lawmakers Warn

Fri May 09, 2008 - Northeast Edition
Tom Hester Jr.

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) More talk but still no answers from lawmakers on solving the New Jersey’s looming transportation financial crisis that could threaten plans to build a new train tunnel under the Hudson River to New York City.

Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri reminded state senators that New Jersey risks losing federal money for the long-sought rail tunnel if it doesn’t by year’s end ensure reliable transportation funding for years to come.

A solution to provide that money remains elusive.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine has proposed significantly increasing highway tolls to pay for such work, but the plan lacks public and legislative support.

Kolluri noted the state plans to spend $42.1 billion on transportation projects in the next decade, including the new Hudson River rail tunnel and widening the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway.

“Unless we find a long-term financial solution, none of the infrastructure needs in this plan will be met,’’ Kolluri said.

The fund used by the state for transportation work will run out of money in 2011.

The federal government has expressed a willingness to contribute $3 billion toward the $7.5 billion project, with New Jersey and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey paying the rest.

But James Simpson, the Federal Transit Administration chief, has said the federal government won’t provide money if New Jersey doesn’t have reliable transportation funding in place.

“If we’re not in position to demonstrate that funding this year, somebody else will go up the ladder ahead of us,’’ said Richard Sarles, NJ Transit’s executive director.

The two-track tunnel, a massive project discussed for more than a decade, would double commuter rail capacity between New Jersey and New York City. Construction could begin as soon as 2009 and be complete by 2016.

Kolluri said it’s vital to keep New Jersey commuters who travel into New York City happy. For instance, he said the average salary of a Ridgewood train commuter is $174,000.

Corzine is weighing alternatives to his toll hike plan but hasn’t settled on any. He remains reluctant to increase the gas tax to fund transportation work.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, wants the New Jersey Turnpike Authority to consider increasing tolls 45 percent to 50 percent to pay to widen the turnpike and parkway and repair bridges on them.

He said he’ll also push for another 50 percent toll increase in five years and for adding tolls to Interstates 78 and 80 at the Pennsylvania border.

Senate Budget Chairwoman Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, questioned why the turnpike authority hasn’t simply held public hearings on a toll increase and voted to implement one.

That said, she thinks lawmakers still need more information on transportation funding.

“We’ve begun the discussion,’’ she said, “and that’s really all that can be said at this point.’’

Kolluri said Corzine wants a statewide transportation improvement plan: “Our approach was to come up with a unified solution.’’

But he added, “I think it would be irresponsible for us not to respond to the overwhelming infrastructure needs we have.’’

Sen. Phil Haines, R-Burlington, predicted tough debate ahead.

“It sounds like we all have our work cut out for us,’’ Haines said.

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