Transportation chief pleased trust fund will be paid for, even though it means more borrowing

Gov. Chris Christie's chief transportation officer might be forgiven if he were disappointed the governor did not address the state's ailing trust fund in his 2016 budget address last month.

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The fate of the fund has catapulted to center stage for lawmakers — sharing the spotlight with top-tier issues like the future of Atlantic City and the state's public pension system — because the issue directly impacts New Jersey drivers if taxes go up to replenish the fund.

But that won't happen for now after Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff said the governor plans to pay for the fund with about $600 million in unused bonding authority. In other words, more debt — precisely the scenario Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox and others aimed to avoid.

Despite this, Fox said through a spokesman that he's pleased the treasury found a way to shore up the state's $1.125 billion trust fund, which would otherwise run out of money for new projects by July 1.

Christie did not mention the fund during his address, focusing instead on the state's troubled pension fund. The Republican governor did, though, say raising sales or income taxes will not solve the state's problems. The line got a standing ovation from Republicans and members of Christie's Cabinet.

Fox, a Democrat appointed by Christie last year, stood with his colleagues, but didn't applaud. Fox had called for new revenues for the fund but stopped short of saying taxes should go up.

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Fox canceled a scheduled appearance at a business forum and public discussion in northern New Jersey last week and has kept a low profile since the budget address.

Spokesman Stephen Schapiro said that Fox has not given up on finding new revenue to pay for the fund, which Schapiro said remains a top priority.

As for whether the roughly $600 million in bonds will be enough to keep projects going, Schapiro said the department will not speculate on what work will get done in the next fiscal year.

"That said, any project that is currently under construction will continue," Schapiro said. "The commissioner is an optimistic person and is confident the ongoing discussions will produce a plan to renew the (transportation trust fund)."

The problem with the fund stretches back beyond Christie and across Democratic and Republican governorships. The fund has nearly $16 billion in debt and over time, lawmakers and governors stopped paying for road and bridge work out of real receipts — so called pay-as-you-go budgeting — and instead began taking on more debt.

The issue is getting attention as the Legislature begins holding hearings this week on the governor's budget and as Christie considers a 2016 bid for the White House.

Currently, dedicated funds like the state's gas tax go to pay down debt while new projects and repairs are paid for with more debt.

Christie has said all options are on the table when it comes to paying for the fund, but Democratic lawmakers who control the Legislature have been more vocal in calling for higher taxes.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Senate President Steve Sweeney have been in closed-door talks with Christie to hammer out a solution, but no agreement has emerged.

Prieto said in a recent interview he hopes to meet with Sweeney and the governor again this week.

"It's been one of my important issues," Prieto said.