McGreevey Forms Transportation Panel To Solve Problems, Costs

By James T. Prior, Editor-in-Chief
NJB Magazine, February 2003

Governor James E. McGreevey, speaking at the 1st Annual Transportation Conference on January 7, created a "Blue Ribbon" Transportation Commission to study and develop recommendations on the pressing transportation issues confronting New Jersey over the next decade. He said "Despite the $2.5 billion we spend on capital projects, there is a $5-billion deficit to fix our infrastructure over the next five years. There are 2,000 deteriorating bridges causing bottlenecks across the state."

He named Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere to chair the commission and, in a few weeks, will name seven public members representing the spectrum of interests, from business to labor.

McGreevey told some 1,000 business executives, labor leaders, government officials and transportation experts at the conference, in the Hyatt Regency, New Brunswick, that "Traffic and congestion costs the New Jersey economy over $7 billion each year and families and commuters will lose 261 million hours to congestion."

Specifically, the governor charged the panel with:

The conference, presented by the New Jersey Department of Transportation in conjunction with the New Jersey Alliance for Action, was aimed at raising the awareness of the issues confronting the state in regard to funding the state's transportation system. The New Jersey Business & Industry Association was one of 30 co-sponsors. Philip K. Beachem, president of the Alliance for Action, said two key factors of the conference were renewal of the federal, Transportation Enhancement Act for the 21st Century (called TEA-21) and the expiration of the state's Transportation Trust Fund, which will expire in 17 months. TEA-21, which accounts for about half of the funding for transportation, is the only area in which New Jersey receives more in federal dollars back than it sends to Washington in taxes. Beachem said it is essential to New Jersey's economy and quality of life. The State Transportation Trust Fund is funded by some $400 million per year from the gasoline tax.

A half-dozen panel sessions, two massive video screens and background music underscored what some said was a rally in support of the two funds. Several panelists urged the creation of a cadre of concerned citizens to champion solutions to our transportation troubles. Steve Adubato, Jr., the motivational moderator of most of the panels, engaged the massive audience into participation.

Generally, most in the audience favored a gasoline tax to be applied specifically to transportation needs. Currently, there is a 17-cent federal tax and a 10.5-cent state tax on gasoline. Most agreed that a boost in the gas tax would not be done until after the November elections - in the lame duck session. New Jersey's gas tax is the 49th lowest in the nation (behind Alaska, .08 cents; and Georgia, .07 cents). Three of the highest gas tax states are our neighbors: Connecticut, 32 cents; New York 29.3 cents; and Pennsylvania, 25.9 cents. Experts say that each penny increase would bring some $45 million to the State's Transportation Trust Fund.

Virtually all agreed that the public must buy into the program for increased gas taxes to pay for the needed projects if the money is designated for transportation needs. Most said all of the needs must be documented. Commissioner Lettiere said, "No matter what it is, whatever kind of tax, whatever kind of assessment - it is initially difficult because there is a skepticism. We have to overcome the residents' skepticism."

Assemblyman Alex DeCroce, R-26., said of the possible increase in the gas tax, "It depends on the economic conditions. You won't sell an increase if gas prices escalate." A number of speakers during the day said that now is "The time for boldness" along the lines of the massive public works projects and the work of Robert Moses in New York during the Depression Thirties.

One panel, titled "Keeping New Jersey's Economy Moving - Transportation Infrastructure and the Economy," featured former Governor Jim Florio; Port Authority Chairman Jack Sinagra; and former New Jersey Transportation Commis-sioners Lou Gambaccini and John Sheridan. McGreevey said, Gambaccini "planted the seed for the Transportation Trust Fund," and that Sheridan (along with then Governor Tom Kean) made that vision a reality. Gambaccini noted "How little has changed in the past 25 years." He was the most vocal in calling for a "Time of Boldness." Sinagra said the Port Authority is committed to an $8.5 billion capital improvement plan over the next five years to move people and goods. Florio called for a cadre, or coaliton, to campaign for funding for transportation needs. He said some people can work inside the administration, others outside - to achieve the goal.

Former Transportation Commissioner and now the Governor's Chief Counsel, Jamie Fox, welcomed the group. One panel, "The Dilemma of the State's Growth and Maturing Infrastructure - The Public's Transportation Needs," featured Commissioner Lettiere and NJTransit Executive Director George Warrington. Jack Lettiere had been deputy commissioner and took over from Fox. Warrington was brought to NJT to bring focus back to that agency. He has added 11,000 additional seats on trains. Among the improvements have been: a new concourse for NJT customers at New York's Penn Station; new direct service from Montclair to midtown New York; extension of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail to Hoboken; and 25 percent more trains along the Northeast Corridor. Soon, the Secaucus Transfer Station will provide rail access from Bergen and Passaic counties to 375,000 jobs in Newark and New York City for the first time.

A legislative panel discussed "Addressing the State's Transportation Challenges and Marshaling the Resources." They included Sen. Andrew Ciesla, R-10, co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee; Assemblyman John S. Wisnewski, D-19, chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee; Assemblyman Alex DeCroce, R-26, ranking member of the Assembly Transportation Committee; and Asemblywoman Linda Stender, D-22.

Wisnewski said, "resources are never close to the transportation needs" and the solution can not be done with sound bites." Ciesla said the "political course is to do the right thing." Stender said that transportation-related taxes and revenues should not be diverted to other state uses, other than transportation. She also called for fixing the infrastructure first, before embarking on new projects.

In another portion of the program, Tom Bracken, president, Sun National Bank and chairman of the Keep New Jersey Moving Coalition, spoke of "The 'Business' of Transportation - A Corporate Perspec-tive on Transportation Investment." A 34-year veteran of doing business in the state, Bracken said transportation is the "single largest business concern." He said it has a far-reaching impact on our economy.