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NJ Transportation Officials Halt Early-Stage Work

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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey transportation officials on Tuesday said they have indefinitely suspended about 100 state-funded road and rail projects that are in their early stages as the cash-strapped state grapples with how to pay for needed infrastructure improvements over the long haul.

The announcement came a day after work resumed on hundreds of transportation, transit and local aid projects that Gov. Chris Christie’s transportation commissioner had ordered stopped because he said the fund dedicated to pay for the work had become dangerously low. Most of the projects resumed after lawmakers approved a $1.25 billion bond sale to keep the work funded through spring.

Those that were put on hold Tuesday are in the early phases of planning and development, and the costs and benefits of proceeding with each project will be reviewed, officials said.

“We are taking the prudent step of extending the hold on early planning and design work at least until the bond sale and refinancing plan is executed,” Transportation Commissioner James Simpson said in a statement.

Simpson last week ordered work stopped on all state-funded projects because the funding source, the Transportation Trust Fund, is nearly depleted. The planned bond sale, which involves refinancing existing debt at lower interest rates and new borrowing, is expected to keep the work going through February or March.

Democrats who control the Legislature’s Joint Budget Oversight Committee approved the bond sale reluctantly, saying they did not want to idle construction workers.

Committee members had refused to act on the request for temporary funding until the Christie administration presents a long-term plan for funding infrastructure improvements. The transportation 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.

Simpson said a longer-term funding plan is being drafted, but he would not speculate on what it might include or say exactly when it would be ready. Increasing the state’s gasoline tax is off the table at the governor’s insistence.

NJTransit head James Weinstein acknowledged under recent public questioning that the administration has discussed diverting money earmarked for a new commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River into Manhattan to fund state transportation improvements.

Christie temporarily halted new work on the $8.7 billion 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, including overruns.

Campaigning for Republicans on Tuesday in Illinois, Christie said he would meet with transportation and transit officials in New Jersey on Wednesday to discuss revised cost estimates for the project.

A decision on the tunnel could come at the end of this week or next week.

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

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