NJ Senate panel approves creating transportation infrastructure bank

TRENTON — With New Jersey’s main source of funding for transportation improvements nearly insolvent, state lawmakers are trying again to create a transportation infrastructure bank to help finance bridge and road repairs, and other major projects.

Legislation to establish the bank cleared the Senate Transportation Committee on Monday morning, marking the second time in two years that the committee has advanced the measure.

The committee first approved the bill in October 2012, and the full Senate and Assembly approved it in early January this year. The bill received bipartisan support in both chambers, but Gov. Chris Christie chose not to sign it before the end of the legislative session.

Undeterred, Sens. Robert Gordon, D-38th of Fair Lawn, and Donald Norcross, D-5th of Camden, and Assemblymen John Wisniewski, D-19th of Sayreville, and Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, reintroduced the measure and continue to push for its passage, claiming the bank would provide an alternative funding source to the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.

Supporters said the proposed bank would put New Jersey in line for substantial federal transportation money and loans that could be used to finance projects. In addition to those funds, the bank would be eligible to accept investment dollars from pension funds and private sources.

“There’s federal money out there for transportation infrastructure projects, but the federal government requires states to create an infrastructure bank to be a repository for those funds,” Gordon said Monday during a hearing on the bill.

The bank would be part of the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust, which provides funding for water and sewer projects, but the state Department of Transportation would decide which transportation projects would receive priority for funding.

Money for transportation would remain segregated from funds for water and sewer projects, officials said.

“We’re trying to take advantage of the staff within the trust and apply their talents to transportation-related projects,” Gordon said.

Transportation funding has become a major issue in New Jersey because of the poor condition of its roads and bridges and because of a financial crisis involving the Transportation Trust Fund, which is the primary mechanism used by the state to finance highway and transit projects.

The fund receives most of its revenues from the state’s gasoline tax as well as some motor vehicle fees. But after decades of borrowing, all of the money from the state’s gasoline tax now is devoted to paying off debt service.

Christie has managed to keep the fund solvent by refinancing some of its debt and by canceling the ARC Hudson River rail tunnel. But his administration has continued to add to its debt load by borrowing to pay for transportation projects, and the fund’s borrowing capacity is expected to max out during the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Singleton, who is a primary sponsor of the Assembly version of the bank bill, said that the Transportation Trust Fund needs to be fixed, but that establishing the bank could relieve pressure on it and allow the state to fix more roads and bridges and expand transit options.

“What we’re trying to do is combine pending (federal funding) along with private investments to advance some of the transportation projects we see get stagnated,” Singleton said. “Ideally with (the bank), we’ll be able to get more projects done.”

He said funding more transportation projects would create more construction and construction-related jobs as well as help the state’s economy. He cited a recent study which estimated that every additional $1 billion in nonresidential construction spending in New Jersey creates or sustains 18,000 jobs.

“New Jersey is a corridor state, so having a good transportation system is crucial. There’s a direct impact of putting people back to work, but improving transportation also allows other industries to thrive,” the assemblyman said.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 4-0 to advance the measure, but one of its strongest supporters said it may still be amended before it’s posted for a vote by the full Senate.

“We’re working on some technical changes with (the DOT),” said Evan Piscitelli, government affairs director for the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association of New Jersey. “The large picture of what the bill is trying to do won’t change, but we’re working to make sure that, line by line, everything is to the department’s and administration’s liking.”

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