NJ Turnpike Expansion Nearly Complete, While Rail Tunnels to NYC Remain a Pipe Dream

EXITS 6-9, NJ—After four years, the New Jersey Turnpike widening project appears to be nearing its end, but questions about the state's transportation priorities persist.

The repaving and widening has made for a smoother ride, and congestion appears to be low. The expansion lengthens the traditional Turnpike division between cars-only lanes and cars-trucks-buses lanes.

Among the improvements that came with the expansion are computerized highway signs, longer acceleration and deceleration areas, and renewed median barriers.

Meanwhile, the state's transportation trust fund is about to go bankrupt despite the use of Turnpike toll dollars to prop it up, and another long-awaited project to improve the region's transportation system, rail tunnels to connect New York and New Jersey, remains at a standstill.

Unlike previous Governors, who balanced road and railroad construction and introduced new light rail systems in urban areas, Chris Christie cut back on railroad spending, increased fares, and shifted money from a railroad project to road construction projects.

Around the time that the Turnpike expansion was approved, Christie's cancellation of an enormous rail project that would have doubled the capacity of trains into and out of New York City from places such as New Brunswick, quickly became one of the hallmarks of his administration.

During his first year in office, Christie famously killed a plan for two rail tunnels, which were already under construction and would have been supported by millions of dollars in federal aid and would have created thousands of jobs.

New Jersey taxpayers ended up paying more than $800,000 on a law firm fighting the federal government's attempts to recoup some of the money they had burned on the project.  They ultimately got the bill negotiated down from $271 million to $95 million, which the state is giving back in $19 million annual payments.

The plan later resurfaced in two competing varieties: a proposal to extend New York City's Flushing Line (the 7 train in the Subway) to New Jersey, and a separate proposal to widen the Northeast Corridor through new Amtrak tunnels.

The subway proposal has not made any progress since a 2013 feasibility study; the other proposal, the Gateway project, has seen a bit of action.

$185 million was allocated to the building of a "tunnel box" at the head of the tunnel's right-of-way, on the Manhattan side, after Hurricane Sandy. Further funding has not been identified, but the tunnel box's construction began in September 2013.

The ARC tunnels would have supplemented two existing tunnels that are more than a century old and operating at maximum capacity.

The Governor later redirected the $3.2 billion from the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel to local road projects in New Jersey that would have normally been paid for by the state's troubled Transportation Trust Fund (TTF).

The TTF was instituted by Governor Thomas Kean in 1984, was the first of its kind in the nation, and is used primarily to pay for the costs of rebuilding the state’s infrastructure, including roadways, bridges, and rail lines.

Since its genesis, New Jersey politicians have continually opted to borrow money to increase the size of the TTF to meet the road repair needs of the state, instead of increasing unpopular taxes.

The fund would have gone bankrupt much sooner, were it not for a questionable decision Christie made to shift the funds from the ARC tunnel.

In 2011, Christie redirected the $3.2 billion from the railroad tunnel to local road projects in New Jersey that would have normally been paid for by the TTF.

Those road reconstruction projects included expensive ones such as the Pulaski Skyway. Because Port Authority of New York and New Jersey funds were used, and the project did not appear to be related to their mission, an investigation was sparked into whether funds were shifted in a ruse to replenish the TTF.

Now, years later, the TTF is approaching bankruptcy, and has increasingly borrowed against future revenue and used Turnpike toll money to fill gaps in its budget.

The TTF, which is expected to run out of money by the beginning of the next fiscal year in July, is funded largely by the state's gasoline tax, which consumers pay at the pump.

Republican Governor Christie has hired a new Democrat Transportation Commissioner who some say will work towards a deal with Democrats to raise the tax.

In another Eagleton poll released this month, New Jerseyans were asked if they would support a raise in the gas tax. Of the 842 people who participated in the survey, 58% said they are opposed to raising the tax. 

The gas tax is currently at 14.5 cents per gallon, the second-lowest in the nation.  The Office of Legislative services estimated that a 31-cent per gallon tax increase would be necessary to sustain the Department of Transportation's’ current spending level.

In his first campaign for Governor, Christie promised not to raise the tax. But as the fund's balance declines, many political observers think Christie may be left with little choice besides raising the tax, which is the second lowest in the country.

When a question was raised about the gas tax on 101.5 FM’s broadcast of “Ask the Governor,” Christie responded with “Everything is on the table.”

The news came just a short time after the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers released their poll results for Christie’s approval rating, indicating that only 42% of New Jerseyans registered to vote view the governor favorably.

Though many are opposed to the tax hike, the condition of New Jersey’s infrastructure cannot be described in any way other than poor.

John Wisniewski, a Middlesex County Assemblyman who serves as Chairman of the Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee, said in September that "New Jersey's transportation infrastructure in New Jersey is in horrible shape and there's essentially no money left to pay for any improvements."

He further criticized Christie and the DOT’s effectiveness at rebuilding faulty and crumbling infrastructure, “New Jersey has been doing nothing more than a series of reckless patchwork moves that have left … our roads and bridges in terrible shape, threatening jobs and public safety."

A coalition of unions, business organizations, the League of Municipalities, and transportation organizations like AAA and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign have former the group Forward NJ, which is advocating for " a full, sustainable TTF replenishment."

One bill currently pending, sponsored by State Senator Raymond Lesniak, would increase the gas tax five cents per year for three years.  It has not been scheduled for a committee hearing, and no companion bill has been introduced in the NJ Assembly.