Mike Frassinelli/The Star-Ledger
An emergency meeting in Trenton is scheduled for 10 this morning, but high noon might be a more appropriate time for the showdown between Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Chris Christie’s administration over the fate of $1.7 billion in construction projects.
Beginning today, all state-funded transportation construction projects will be halted until the dispute is resolved.
On one side is the Democratic Legislature. Concerned Christie might use money allocated for a multi- billion dollar rail tunnel under the Hudson River to instead shore up the state’s nearly bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund, the lawmakers last week held up approval of a $1.25 billion bond needed to cover road construction contracts through March.
On the other side is the Republican governor’s administration, which answered Friday afternoon by ordering the stoppage of more than 100 construction projects, effective today, until the funding fight is settled.
Left flopping like tumbleweeds in the wind are thousands of construction workers, engineers and planners. Among the projects affected: reconstruction of Interstate 295 in Burlington County, the Route 3 Passaic River crossing project in Passaic and Bergen counties; work on the Route 206 Hillsborough Bypass in Somerset County; Route 35 Sea Girt Avenue improvements and dozens of NJ Transit projects.
“I hate for this to escalate into a situation where both sides are waiting for the other to blink,” said Tom Wright, executive director of the Regional Plan Association, a transportation advocacy group. “Everyone is going to have to come to the table.”
During today’s emergency meeting at the Statehouse Annex, the Joint Budget Oversight Committee will consider the $1.25 billion bond.
State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), who co-chairs the committee with Assemblyman Louis D. Greenwald (D-Camden), warned last month that Democratic lawmakers would withhold approval of new borrowing for transportation projects until Christie explained his long-term fix for the Transportation Trust Fund.
The fund pays for road and bridge repairs and transit services. Christie has vehemently opposed increasing the gas tax to pay for the fund.
“A real leader would propose a long-term solution to our Transportation Trust Fund, not threaten New Jersey’s public safety and economic development,” Greenwald said.
The administration’s rebuttal to the bond-funding freeze out was to order the shutdown of $1.7 billion worth of projects across New Jersey.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said Democratic lawmakers were fully aware that financing for the transportation projects would only carry through to the end of August, but chose to abandon their duties to “obstruct and gain political points.”
Raymond M. Pocino, vice president and eastern regional manager for the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which represents more than 40,000 construction workers in New Jersey, New York City, Long Island and Delaware, said thousands of construction workers are out of a job until the standoff is resolved.
“The Transportation Trust Fund was established in 1984 by a group of leaders — Democrats and Republicans alike — who were willing to forgo political posturing to work corroboratively on a non-partisan issue: the need to maintain and improve the state’s transportation system,” Pocino said. “That type of leadership has been absent for quite a long time.”
Today’s meeting begins what shapes up to be a busy week regarding New Jersey’s transportation crisis.
The governor on Sept. 10 called for a 30-day moratorium on a new rail tunnel construction to review the financial viability of the project that was expected to double train capacity between New Jersey and Manhattan by the end of 2018. He could make a decision on the fate of the project by the end of the week.
The tunnel, known as Access to the Region’s Core, was expected to cost $8.7 billion, but overruns could send the total up by as much as $5 billion.
Also, as early as Wednesday, the Federal Transit Administration could give its latest estimate of the project’s price tag.