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NJ Lawmakers Authorize Funds For Transit Projects

New Jersey Statehouse - Trenton, NJ - File Photo

New Jersey Statehouse – Trenton, NJ (file)

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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — About 2,000 idled construction workers — sidelined when Gov. Chris Christie’s administration ordered work stopped on all state-funded road construction projects — will go back to work after Democrats in the New Jersey Legislature approved stopgap funding on Monday.

A Joint Budget Oversight Committee controlled by Democrats convened an emergency meeting to find a way to carry road and rail projects through the early spring. On Friday, Christie’s Transportation chief ordered more than 100 projects that rely on state money halted because the Legislature had not authorized a bond sale of more than $1 billion to keep the work on track.

“We appreciate that the committee members came to realize the urgency of the situation,” Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said after the vote. “These votes had been routine in the past as part of the prior administration’s five-year Transportation Trust Fund plan. This funding is for the final year of that plan.”

During Monday’s session, each side accused the other of engaging in political theater.

Committee members had refused to act on the request for temporary funding until the administration presents a long-term plan for funding infrastructure improvements. The Transportation Trust Fund has essentially run out of money for new projects; all incoming revenue soon will be spoken for to service existing debt.

Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Lou Greenwald, the lone dissenting vote, said the administration is able to raise $513 million through bonds without approval. Coupled with the $50 million still on hand, he said the transportation fund could meet its financial obligations of $125 million a month for a few months until a long-term solution is presented.

“There is no reason for the state to incur this significant obligation and go further into debt for what the treasurer talks about as a $15 million gain on $1.2 billion borrowing scheme,” Greenwald, a Democrat, said. “That’s the same type of antics that’s gotten us into this problem. It’s the same type of hypocrisy that this governor has talked about in the past when he said he would not borrow without voter approval.”

Monday’s action allows Treasurer Andrew Eristoff to sell more than $1 billion in new and refinanced bonds to fund road projects through February or March. They include reconstruction of I-295 in Burlington County and the extension of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail to Eighth Street in Bayonne.

Transportation Commissioner James Simpson said a longer-term funding plan is being drawn up, but he would not speculate on what it might include. Increasing the state gasoline tax is off the table at the governor’s insistence.

Simpson acknowledged under recent public questioning by Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski that the administration has discussed the possibility of diverting money earmarked for a new commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River into Manhattan to fund more modest transportation improvements.

Christie temporarily halted new work on the tunnel while his administration reviews the project’s costs. The governor has said he would not authorize work to continue unless he is sure the state can pay for its portion of the project.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)