Doherty on Transportation Trust Fund funding debate: New Jersey must make “informed decisions”
February 19, 2015
By Senator Mike Doherty (R-23)
There has been much discussion recently about a report on state highway systems by the Reason Foundation that found New Jersey’s roads to be the nation’s most expensive to build, operate and maintain.
According to that report, New Jersey’s state-administered highways cost taxpayers $2 million per mile, which the Reason Foundation claims to be 12 times the national average, three times the cost in the next highest state and four times the cost in New York.
The next most expensive state, according to the Reason Foundation, is Massachusetts, which spends a comparatively paltry $675,000 per mile. By most measures other than cost, apparently, our highway systems and the conditions they face seem nearly identical.
We have similar population densities — we are ranked first and they third in the nation — and our roads are both heavily travelled.
We share harsh northeast winters and maintain a comparable surface area of highway — they have 9,572 highway lane miles to our 8,496.
We also have similarly sized highways, with our state maintained roads averaging 3.65 lanes per mile and theirs 3.17 lanes per mile.
It also should be noted that Massachusetts is home to America’s most-expensive transportation project – the $24 billion “Big Dig” – that Bay State taxpayers will be paying off for the next 20+ years.
Despite all of the similarities in density, climate, actual area of road surface maintained and its own massive transportation spending, Massachusetts still manages to build and operate highways for what the Reason Foundation contends is one-third of what New Jersey pays.
If those numbers are correct, New Jersey’s taxpayers should be outraged and policymakers should take action.
Some, including state Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox, have questioned the report’s findings and underlying methodology. Those concerns are valid and deserve to be investigated.
Despite his objections, Commissioner Fox concedes, however, that it is “more expensive to build a mile of road in New Jersey,” and few dispute the claim that New Jersey drivers and taxpayers pay more for our highways than anyone else in the nation.
It’s for that reason that the Reason Foundation report has suddenly become a central issue in the growing debate over how to address the long-term funding needs of the state’s Transportation Trust Fund (TTF).
The TTF, which helps pay for road and bridge projects around New Jersey, is in a perpetual state of financial distress and debt. Some would say it’s broke.
While we shouldn’t base state transportation funding policy on one organization’s report, we should pay attention when a seemingly well-formulated analysis raises such serious questions about where our money is going.
The Reason Foundation report, with its shocking conclusions, has fueled the argument that our transportation funding problem isn’t one of insufficient money, but of unreasonable spending.
A TTF plan put forward by New Jersey Democrats – who control both houses of the Legislature – doesn’t address spending, however. They simply want to increase the state’s gas tax, perhaps by 25 cents per gallon.
Such an increase would cost the average New Jersey driver $300 more per year at the pump, and the additional expense to our businesses would drive up the cost of virtually every product and service sold in the state.
According to the Tax Foundation, New Jersey residents already shoulder the second highest combined state and local tax burden, driven by our state’s highest in the nation property and business taxes, and sales and income taxes that are among the highest.
Perhaps the only source of relief for New Jerseyans in our entire tax structure is our gas tax, currently 14.5 cents per gallon, which is the second lowest in the nation.
Yet, this is precisely why Democrats see our gas tax as ripe for increasing. In their myopic view, we’re undertaxed!
Before we let Trenton politicians reach into the pockets of taxpayers yet again, shouldn’t we demand that we first find out why we spend so much more for our highways than every other state?
Shouldn’t we ask why we spend so much more than our peers, including Massachusetts, that have highway systems that are so similar to ours?
I think so, which is why I will introduce legislation requiring our own analysis of the factors that drive New Jersey’s road costs and a look at other states to determine how they are able to operate more efficiently.
If there were objections to the methodology employed by the Reason Foundation, the study I am proposing will be our opportunity to address those concerns and reach our own conclusions.
I hope Commissioner Fox, Governor Christie and other legislators will agree that this is necessary.
Until we determine exactly why we spend more than every other state, it will be impossible to lower our costs or make informed decisions about how much funding is really needed to complete important transportation projects at a cost reasonable to New Jersey taxpayers.