Pa., N.J. must resolve austerity, transportation needs

Southbound traffic stalls at the Ridley Park exi t of I-95, a highway where Pa. legislators are looking at tolls.
Southbound traffic stalls at the Ridley Park exi t of I-95, a highway where Pa. legislators are looking at tolls.
Posted: March 22, 2011

Will I-95 be the region's next toll road?

Will a commuter rail line from Camden to Gloucester County actually be built?

The answers are waiting at the crowded intersection of Travel and Politics, where two new Republican governors are trying to balance demands for better roads and transit with promises to cut spending.

Gov. Christie in New Jersey and Gov. Corbett in Pennsylvania must face their transportation challenges this year without the infusion of federal stimulus funds that propped up states' budgets last year.

Corbett plans to appoint a committee of experts to advise him on new ways (tolls? public-private partnerships?) to find money for transportation, and Christie is borrowing more money and shifting many millions from a canceled rail tunnel to highway and bridge projects.

Pennsylvania last year received about $1.3 billion and New Jersey got about $1.1 billion from the federal stimulus pot for highway, bridge, and mass-transportation projects. Of that, about $660 million flowed to Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey

This year, though, Corbett and Christie will have to make do with the usual sources of money: gasoline taxes, highway tolls, and money borrowed from Wall Street. Both governors were elected on pledges of no new taxes, so revenues are not likely to increase significantly.

"We're in a political climate that seems to have taken a negative turn against any government spending," said Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which oversees transportation planning for the nine-county bistate region. Any new tolls or payments will need to demonstrate a direct benefit to users to win public support, he said.

In New Jersey, Christie unveiled a plan earlier this year to finance state transportation projects for five years, relying on additional borrowing and funds diverted from the canceled construction of a commuter rail tunnel into Manhattan.

Under his plan, $1.6 billion a year would be spent on roads, bridges, and mass transit, the same as now. Christie said his proposal for the state's Transportation Trust Fund was more responsible than those of previous administrations because it would depend less on borrowing and more on "pay-as-you-go" cash contributions. But legislative Democrats criticized it for continuing to rely on loans and future toll increases.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly transportation committee, said it was "irresponsible" for Christie not to seek new revenues for transportation.

"New Jersey is a transportation state . . . our ranking as the second-highest in personal income is sustained by our transportation network built up over 25 years," Wisniewski said. "If we allow it to decay, no one will notice tomorrow or next year. But in five years, when businesses have decided to relocate elsewhere, it will be too late."

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Gloucester County Democrat, said he would insist that the state's new transportation funding plan include money for a proposed commuter rail line between Camden and Gloucester County. Former Gov. Jon S. Corzine had promised to provide $500 million in state funds for the $1.5 billion line, but the Christie administration has not said how much, if any, funding it will offer the line.

Although the Delaware River Port Authority is in charge of planning the 18-mile line, it has said it will not pay for its construction or operation. The commuter line is proposed to run along an existing freight line from Glassboro to Camden. It would connect to PATCO and River Line trains in Camden, where passengers could catch trains to Philadelphia or Trenton.

In Pennsylvania, state funding for highways and bridge maintenance is up slightly in Corbett's proposed budget, while the funding picture for mass transit is mixed.

Corbett says he hasn't decided whether to support efforts by state lawmakers to place tolls on highways that are now free, following the federal government's rejection of Pennsylvania's applications to toll I-80. Corbett said that he wouldn't try again to toll I-80 and that he hoped to get ideas in about six months from a transportation advisory committee on financing ideas for transportation.

I-95 and U.S. 422 are favorite candidates in Southeastern Pennsylvania for tolls, under plans being considered by some legislators.

State Sen. John Rafferty (R., Montgomery), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he was "sitting and waiting until we know where the governor stands" on new tolls. Rafferty said any tolling plan would have to include interstates in other parts of Pennsylvania, as well, to reduce the burden on Southeastern Pennsylvania.


Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

 

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