New Jersey Faces a Transportation Funding Crisis, With No Clear Solution

SECAUCUS, N.J. — Bridges across the state are falling apart. Roads are rife with potholes. Frustrated New Jersey Transit riders are facing another fare increase.

As many commuters bemoan the mounting delays and disruptions, state officials say New Jersey is confronting a transportation funding crisis with no easy way out. Voters are so fed up, support is growing for a revenue option long viewed as politically untenable: raising the state’s gas tax, which is the second lowest in the country.

Whatever happens with the gas tax, many New Jerseyans soon will be paying more to get to work. New Jersey Transit has proposed raising fares by about 9 percent for its 915,000 daily riders, and an increase of some amount is all but certain. Federal and state subsidies as a share of the agency’s annual budget have been falling, and that has left it increasingly reliant on fares to cover costs, even as many passengers say service is slipping.

Here at one of the busiest rail hubs in the state, the exasperation was evident, in interviews with people headed home, and in the pointed testimony of commuters who turned out last week for a public hearing on the proposed fare increase.

Marianne Sailer, of Wood-Ridge, who works as a property manager in Manhattan, said she could not afford higher fares because she had not received a raise in three years.

“Any increase would be devastating to my family,” Ms. Sailer told officials. “The service does not warrant an increase – filthy cars, constantly late.”

Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, has said little in recent months about roads and transit even as his own transportation commissioner, Jamie Fox, has forcefully called for revenue for the state’s depleted transportation trust fund. Despite the governor’s relative silence, the troubles of the state’s transportation agencies have emerged as a grinding issue for him, including the scandal involving his appointees to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the growing backlash over his decision to halt construction of a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River.

Officials across the country are wrestling with how to pay for big transportation projects in an era of less federal funding. Nowhere is the problem more pronounced than in the transit-dependent Northeast.

In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, is trying to marshal a infrastructure plan that would invest $100 billion over 30 years for roadways and mass transit. In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, has championed the replacement Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson between Rockland and Westchester Counties, even as he faces questions over paying for the crossing’s projected $3.9 billion cost and for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $32 billion capital plan.

Here in New Jersey, Mr. Fox has been sounding the alarm over the state’s aging infrastructure for months. He shut down a bridge in Franklin Township in Somerset County in January and has partially closed other bridges for emergency repairs.

“Our bridges and roads are old, crumbling and getting worse every day,” Mr. Fox told state lawmakers in April. “We can no longer kick the can down the road.”

The transportation trust fund is financed through next summer with about $1.1 billion planned for project costs, according to the state treasurer. Mr. Fox said the fund would be broke after that.

Many blame Mr. Christie and his presidential ambitions for the lack of action this year on a long-term funding solution. Democratic leaders in the state have expressed support for raising the gas tax.

“Since the governor appears to intend to run for president, raising taxes of any kind is problematic, to put it mildly,” said David P. Redlawsk, a political science professor at Rutgers University.

Mr. Christie’s pledges not to raise taxes might win favor with Republicans in a presidential primary, but his stance on transportation funding has opened him to criticism at home with business groups. They say the state’s poor infrastructure has hurt its competitiveness with other states.

A poll last month by Quinnipiac University found that attitudes among New Jersey voters were changing: 50 percent would support an increase in the gas tax to pay for road improvements and mass transit, up from 35 percent in 2010. The state’s gas tax is generally referred to as 14.5 cents per gallon, which includes a 10.5-cent motor fuels tax that has not increased since 1988 and a 4-cent petroleum products tax first approved in 1990.

Efforts by Mr. Fox and others to highlight the problem have had an effect, but raising the gas tax could still be a difficult sell, Dr. Redlawsk said.

“It’s penetrating people’s awareness about how bad the infrastructure is,” he said, “but that competes with their visceral dislike of any increase in taxes.”

At the fare hearing, riders said the proposed increase, planned for the fall, felt like a tax increase for those who rely on mass transit and could least afford it. The last increase came five years ago when fares were raised by up to 25 percent.

New Jersey Transit has become more dependent on fares: They currently cover 47 percent of the budget, up from 40 percent a decade ago, said Nancy Snyder, a spokeswoman for the agency. It has a budget shortfall because of rising costs, officials said, despite plans to increase state support by $22.1 million for the 2016 fiscal year.

Mr. Fox, who is in his second stint as the state’s transportation commissioner, having served in 2002 under Gov. James E. McGreevey, a Democrat, said in an interview that he would prefer to invest more in mass transit to keep fares lower.

“No one likes to raise fares because you want to get more people on mass transit and out of cars,” Mr. Fox said. “It tends to hurt the lower income folks more so you don’t want to do that. But at the same time, you need to be realistic and realize that you have to have money to keep the trains running.

Asked whether it had been frustrating to return to the post without the support so far to increase transportation funding, Mr. Fox said the issue had not been addressed for 25 years.

“If it were easy, it would have been done already,” he said, adding: “I’m not frustrated by it. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to come back.”

In a radio interview in January, Mr. Christie said that “all options are on the table” in his discussions with legislative leaders over the funding. He said the transportation trust fund was not in crisis because it was financed through next year.

A coalition of business groups and unions called Forward NJ has been pressing for more money. The group’s chairman, Thomas A. Bracken, said a deal seemed close earlier this year, but then came apart.

“The fact that it didn’t happen this year was disappointing, but we’re not giving up,” said Mr. Bracken, the president of the state’s chamber of commerce.

The Quinnipiac poll also found that two-thirds of voters thought it was important to add another rail tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan. A top official from the Obama administration recently urged local leaders to work together to build the tunnel, calling it the most important rail proposal in the country.

Amtrak and New Jersey Transit rely on the current tunnels, which Amtrak has said need to be temporarily shut down to repair damage from Hurricane Sandy. Some residents bitterly recall how Mr. Christie stopped a project to build a tunnel under the river in 2010.

Glenn Cariddi, 50, of Emerson, who takes the Pascack Valley line home from his electrician job in New York City, said riders needed a new tunnel.

“He totally knocked that down,” Mr. Cariddi said of the governor. “It was supposed to be a go, and all of a sudden that money went toward other things.”

Money intended for the rail tunnel project was used to pay for major repairs to the Pulaski Skyway, between Newark and Jersey City, and related road projects. Last year, prosecutors and securities regulators began to investigate the decision to divert about $1.8 billion from the Port Authority to the state for those projects, possibly looking at whether bond holders were deceived.

The concerns over transportation and other fiscal issues like pensions have taken a political toll, with Mr. Christie’s approval dropping in the state.

As Stephen Bruce, of Waldwick, took the Bergen County line home from his banking job in Manhattan on a recent evening, he said he still liked the governor. But Mr. Bruce said that Mr. Christie should fix the transportation fund and that he would consider supporting an increase in the gas tax.

“You’ve got to face the realities of what’s going on and make some decisions,” he said of Mr. Christie. “That’s what he always said he was going to do and what he was about, and basically I think he’s ducking on this one.”

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