Christie orders shutdown of N.J. road projects amid gas tax standoff

By Samantha Marcus | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on June 30, 2016

Governor Chris Christie holds a press conference at the Statehouse on the Transportation Trust Fund. Wednesday June 29, 2016

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TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie late Thursday declared a state of emergency and ordered state officials to plan a shutdown of all ongoing work paid for by the nearly broke Transportation Trust Fund.

Christie's order came at the end of a day where the state Senate refused to take action on his offer to raise the gasoline tax by 23 cents a gallon in exchange for a 1-cent reduction in the sales tax.

He is instructing the Department of Transportation and NJ Transit leaders to submit plans by the end of the day Saturday for an "immediate and orderly shutdown of all ongoing work."

All state and municipal roadwork supported by the trust fund will halt according to those plans and can only resume if deemed essential for "the protection of the health, safety and welfare" of the public.

In his executive order, Christie placed blame on the Senate and slammed its leadership for refusing to go along with his proposal in favor of their own, which would raise the gas tax by the same amount but reduce different taxes.

The Assembly approved Christie's plan in the early morning hours Tuesday after he and Speaker Vincent Prieto struck a compromise.

"The Senate's inaction ignored the benefits the package would bring to the overburdened taxpayers of New Jersey," Christie said in a statement. "The Senate's inaction also ignored New Jersey's necessary transportation infrastructure improvements, as well as the hundreds of private-sector workers who came to Trenton today with their jobs hanging in the balance."

The transportation commissioner estimated in April the trust fund, which pays for road, bridge and rail projects across the state, would have about $85 million left at the end of June, enough to keep construction going through early August.

Christie's order would prioritize that remaining money for essential projects, though federally funded projects could continue. 

It is necessary, he said, "to take action before the funds are depleted and carefully ration the existing funds of the (Transportation Trust Fund Authority) to obtain the greatest effect out of those remaining dollars."

Christie released the order after 11 p.m. Thursday. Legislative leaders could not be reached for comment.

The Senate adjourned Thursday afternoon without taking action on the governor's tax plan. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said only a few lawmakers in either party would go along with it.

Sweeney met with Christie in the early evening but emerged declaring the two houses miles apart.

Christie offered his version in response to the Senate plan, until Monday afternoon considered the leading proposal to generate funding for the trust fund, because he didn't think the tax cuts went far enough.

That proposal would have eliminated the estate tax, created a tax deduction for charitable giving, expanded a tax credit for the working poor and raised the retirement income tax exclusion.

Wanting a more broad-based cut, Christie introduced the sales tax into the conversation, pushing aside the Senate version and proposing to reduce the sales tax from 7 percent to 6 percent by 2018 and raise the retirement income tax threshold.

Senators balked at that tax cut, which would cost the state up to $2 billion in revenue annually within years. Sweeney said his members were "vehemently" against it. The Senate's own proposal is estimated to cost the state $870 million a year once fully implemented.

While the trust fund's authorization expired Thursday, lawmakers stressed they had at least a month until the money runs out and said negotiations would pick up again in mid-July.

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