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New Jersey Spends More on Highways Than Nation

The high spending is not because New Jersey is building or repairing more roads and bridges than other states but because the state is shouldering heavy debt.

Mon March 09, 2015 - Northeast Edition
Michael Catalini - ASSOCIATED PRESS

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) A child singing “London Bridge is Falling Down.’’ Fuzzy black-and-white images of bridges. White text warning that 624 spans in New Jersey could fail.

It’s not a description of a nightmare, just the latest television ad from the business-labor coalition Forward New Jersey that’s urging officials to address the transportation trust fund.

It’s also a sign that the push to sure up the fund is ramping up — and so far producing no results in the form of an agreement.

The push also comes as new data obtained by The Associated Press show New Jersey spends at a higher rate than its neighbors and the nation at large. That’s not because New Jersey is building or repairing more roads and bridges than other states but because the state is shouldering heavy debt.

Groups like Forward New Jersey warn of the high risk to public safety and effects on the economy of rotting roads and bridges.

They’re problems lawmakers readily acknowledge yet struggle to address, and they come as Congress faces the expiration of its own temporary funding measure in May — and with no clear long-term plan in view.

With officials debating behind the scenes how to address the fund, here’s a look at what the 2013 data — the latest available — show and how the state spends on infrastructure:

New Jersey Highway Spending, by the Numbers

• Federal highway spending per capita in 2013 was $131 in New Jersey, compared with the national rate of $126.

• Total infrastructure spending in 2013 was $841 per capita in New Jersey, compared with a national rate of $496.

• Federal per capita spending rose 4.5 percent from 2008 to 2013, compared with a 7.3 percent rate of decline nationally in that period. In raw figures, federal spending in New Jersey went from $1.089 billion in 2008 to $1.165 billion in 2013.

• The state received a 7 percent increase in funding from the Highway Trust Fund for the period from 2008 to 2013, but that amounts to a decrease of 1.2 percent when adjusted for inflation.

• Total infrastructure spending per capita climbed 87 percent from 2008 to 2013, compared with an 8 percent rise nationally.

Spending up in New Jersey Due to Debt

The data shows that as federal spending on infrastructure has been falling over a five-year period, spending in New Jersey has increased.

Experts say that’s happening for a number of reasons. Perhaps the biggest factor in New Jersey’s case is that total outstanding debt nearly matches the size of the capital program. With nearly $16 billion in debt, New Jersey’s interest payments alone contribute to the state’s high infrastructure costs.

“They’ve maxed out the credit card,’’ said University of North Carolina-Charlotte transportation professor emeritus David Hartgen. “From my position it’s unsustainable.’’

So What Are Lawmakers and the Governor Doing About It?

How to pay for the transportation trust fund has dominated headlines ahead of budget season, but an agreement on how to pay for the cash infusion to keep the fund solvent eludes Gov. Christie, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Lawmakers were optimistic a deal could be reached before Christie’s annual budget, but there’s been no consensus.

Members of the Democratic-controlled Legislature have called for raising the state’s gas tax, the country’s second lowest after Alaska, but Republicans have balked at that option. One option called for raising the rate by as much as 25 cents per gallon. Christie is tight-lipped, saying only that he’s keeping all options on the table.

Meanwhile, Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox has recently had to shut down three bridges and has ordered an audit on the state’s structurally deficient spans, injecting a sense of urgency to officials’ planning.

What’s at Stake for Residents?

A transportation program funded at $2 billion a year, which Forward New Jersey and some Democratic lawmakers have advocated for, would save the state’s drivers 11 hours per year, Forward New Jersey estimates. More than convenience, though, the group raises red flags because of safety concerns. In addition to the state’s 624 deficient bridges there are 1,710 functionally obsolete bridges and an additional 2,334 that are considered problematic.

Related: N.Y. Spends More on Aging Infrastructure

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