Officials warn about New Jersey's roads and bridges as transportation fund faces insolvency

Energy Associated Press

State officials, from the leaders of the Democrat-controlled Legislature to Gov. Chris Christie's transportation commissioner, along with outside groups are stepping up warnings about the dire state of New Jersey's bridges, roads and tunnels.

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Here's a look at key questions surrounding the debate over the transportation trust fund.

WHAT'S THE PROBLEM WITH THE TRANSPORTATION TRUST FUND?

By July 1, authority to pay for new projects runs out. Legislative leaders have called for raising more revenue — including through increasing the state's 14.5-cent gasoline tax. But no plan has gained enough support to pass. The trust fund brings in about $1.2 billion in revenue, but those funds pay down the program's debt, while new projects are paid for through bonding and cash infusions from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

WHAT IS THE STATUS OF THE STATE'S INFRASTRUCTURE?

Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox this week ordered a review of New Jersey's 597 structurally deficient bridges. The announcement came after the collapse of a bridge in Ohio and the closure of a bridge in New Jersey last week. Fox also announced the closure of a part of the Route 3 bridge leading to the Lincoln Tunnel in northern New Jersey because of structural cracks.

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Transportation spokesman Steve Schapiro has said it's unclear how long it will take the state's 125 bridge inspectors to complete the review. Inspectors review the state's 6,600 bridges at least every two years. Schapiro has said more bridge may need to be closed because of the inspections.

HOW MUCH WILL THIS COST NEW JERSEY TAXPAYERS?

The Washington-based nonprofit TRIP this week concluded that drivers in the state spend $11.8 billion yearly because of deficient roads, bridges and tunnels. The costs, the report said, stem from increased maintenance costs, traffic delays and accidents. To fix the roads, lawmakers are also proposing raising taxes. One proposal is estimated to cost drivers roughly $300 a year. Taxpayers are also facing the fund's roughly $16 billion in outstanding debt.

WHAT ARE OFFICIALS DOING ABOUT IT?

In addition to Fox's calls to review bridges, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Transportation Committee chairman John Wisniewski held four hearings across the state last year to raise public awareness about the transportation trust fund. Senate President Steve Sweeney tapped two advisers to devise a "master plan" for the state's roads and bridges. Christie has said all options are on the table but has not specified his preference.

HOW ARE INTEREST GROUPS DOING TO ADDRESS THE FUND?

Forward NJ, a coalition advocating lawmakers address the fund's shortfall, has launched a series of radio spots warning of the direness of not repairing infrastructure. A spokesman for the group would not say how much they've spent on the ads or how long they will run. The group, which includes labor and business interest groups, is calling for $2 billion in capital spending, but it hasn't embraced a way to pay for it. The conservative group Americans for Prosperity has been rallying residents to oppose any gas tax hike. Spokesman Mike Proto says the group has about 1,000 signatures to its petition asking lawmakers not to raise the gas tax.

WHAT DO VOTERS WANT?

One thing seems clear, according to polling: Voters don't want their taxes raised. In a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University, 68 percent of respondents opposed raising the gas tax. The poll of 803 adults in New Jersey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. A December Quinnipiac University poll found that 58 percent of respondents opposed raising the tax to pay for road work. That poll surveyed 1,340 registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.