There is never a good time to raise taxes, especially in New Jersey, given how high our taxes are already. We have the highest property taxes in the nation and our income tax isn’t anything to write home about—even after Governor Christie Whitman cut it by 30 percent.
But one tax that needs to be raised is the gas tax. I’ve been arguing for years that we should acknowledge and confront the fact that New Jersey roads and bridges are falling apart. According to studies by the Department of Transportation, a significant percentage of our roads and bridges are in disrepair or obsolete. We are lucky that a bridge hasn’t collapsed or a road hasn’t caved in. It is like playing Russian roulette with our lives every day on the roads.
It happened in 1983 in Connecticut when the Myannis River Bridge collapsed and seven people lost their lives. More recently it happened in Minneapolis when the I-35 bridge collapsed. Thirteen people were killed and dozens more injured.
What do New Jersey’s crumbling roads and bridges have to do with the gas tax? A lot. New Jersey maintains its transportation infrastructure through something called the Transportation Trust Fund, which was created in 1984. I was a member of the legislature at the time and was proud to vote for the creation of the trust fund. It designated a significant pot of money to pay for road improvement and mass-transit projects. As everyone in the Statehouse knows, the fund has been running out of money for years. The primary vehicle to support the Trust Fund is the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in what feels like an eternity. In fact, New Jersey has one of the lowest gas tax rates in the nation.
Granted, when gas prices were up around $4 per gallon, it wasn’t feasible to hike the gas tax. But now that prices have magically come down to the neighborhood of a buck fifty, I say let’s do it. Let’s raise the gas tax 3 cents a year for the next five years. That will go a long way toward ensuring that New Jersey roads and bridges can be improved and the risk of disaster reduced.
Because the gas tax hasn’t been hiked, the state has maintained the trust fund primarily by refinancing the debt connected to the fund. Recently, the state refinanced $2 billion in transportation bonds, lowering the annual debt payment by more than $100 million. Sounds great, right? The only problem is instead of paying those bonds off in twenty years, we will be paying them off in 30. What message does that send to our children, who will eventually have to bear the burden of our failure to pay our bills as we go?
Every governor from Whitman to Jim McGreevey to Jon Corzine has been reluctant to ask for a gas tax increase. But that’s the wrong question to ask. The more important question is whether voters are willing to pay a few more pennies at the pump to fix decrepit roads and crumbling bridges. I say most New Jersey citizens—and specifically those who use the roads— would be willing to fund such improvements.
Hike the gas tax now. Stop borrowing against the future and ballooning our debt like drunken sailors on a weekend pass.
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