The New Jersey Turnpike Authority voted today to redirect $1.25 billion from the canceled New Jersey-New York commuter rail tunnel to local road and bridge projects over the next five years.
The move allows Gov. Chris Christie to boost the state’s Transportation Trust Fund that pays for road and bridge repairs and transit services, while at the same time keeping his pledge not to raise the state’s comparatively low gas tax.
The authority, which runs the Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, had agreed during former Gov. Jon Corzine’s administration to earmark $1.25 billion for the ARC commuter rail tunnel that was to run from Secaucus to West 34th Street in Manhattan. But citing billions in potential cost overruns, Christie terminated the $9.8 billion tunnel project in October.
State Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson said redirecting the money from the canceled tunnel project to a capital plan that maintains roads and bridges is a better use of Turnpike Authority money for New Jersey residents.
"The transportation system does not end at the end of the Parkway or the end of the Turnpike," said Simpson, who chairs the authority. "It’s a network. People need to get all over the state, around the state, they take all sorts of roads. So that has to be paid for someplace."
Much of the funding, he said, is being provided by tolls from out-of-state residents, who make up about half the Turnpike’s traffic.
"We think it’s a well-balanced, well-thought-out plan, and nobody has come up with a better plan — nobody," Simpson said.
Given that Turnpike toll collectors were offered pay cuts amid claims by authority officials there wasn’t enough money to pay interest on bonds, union official Frank Forst of International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local No. 194 said, "I wonder if this proposal is a little ambitious."
New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel called it "highway robbery," adding, "We are going to be using Turnpike money to repave roads and fix roadways all over New Jersey that have nothing to do with the Turnpike or Parkway."
Simpson said many of the state’s more than 5,000 bridges are functionally obsolete or deficient and half the state’s roadways are "poor." The plan is to get 80 percent of the state’s asphalt in good repair in a decade, he said.
Christie has said he didn’t want to add to the burden of already overtaxed New Jerseyans by raising the state’s gas tax — America’s third-lowest at 10.5 cents a gallon.
He said earlier this year that cries by political opponents to roll back Turnpike and Parkway toll hikes scheduled for next year — since those increases were intended to go toward the rail tunnel — were the "height of hypocrisy" and insisted toll money being used for road and bridge projects was a better fit than a rail tunnel.
Christie said if New York cooperates in paying for it, he supports in concept two other New Jersey-New York rail tunnel proposals that have developed after ARC was killed.
One is the extension of the No. 7 New York City subway line to Secaucus and the other is a plan by Amtrak to tunnel from Secaucus to the south side of New York Penn Station.
In addition to the $1.25 billion from the Turnpike Authority, some of the $3 billion in Port Authority of New York and New Jersey money earmarked for the ARC tunnel was shifted to repairs on the decrepit Pulaski Skyway and the Route 7 Wittpenn Bridge in Hudson County.
Simpson said that, too, makes sense.
"For too long, New Jersey residents have been getting shortchanged by the Port Authority, because all those trucks that come and go from the port have been beating up the very bridges and the very roadways we are now attempting to rehabilitate," he said.