No Gas Tax…Now What?

Should New Jersey increase its gas tax—currently the lowest in the nation—to help support its depleted Transportation Trust Fund?

For years, I have advocated for an increase in New Jersey’s gas tax, which is one of the lowest in the nation. I’m not alone. As recently as a few months ago, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, chairman of the Transportation Committee, said that a gas tax was needed to help support the Transportation Trust Fund—which was intended to be the state’s most stable source of funding for transportation projects.

But recently and reluctantly I’ve come to the conclusion that a gas tax hike (even one of 10 cents per gallon) is not going to happen. Governor Chris Christie has made it clear that he won’t sign such an increase—or any tax increase for that matter. Now, support from Democrats has waned, and, with gas prices going up, the environment in which to pass a gas tax increase is really bleak.

At the same time, there are positive reasons to take a gas tax hike off the table for now. The Christie Administration has been creative enough to find new sources of transportation funding, including some federal dollars. In addition, by halting the highly publicized ARC tunnel into New York City, Christie was able to shift funds from that project to much-needed road and bridge-related projects in New Jersey. The Christie Administration has also ensured that the revenue from a sales tax increase on certain vehicles is dedicated to the Transportation Trust Fund.

How bad are the state’s roads and bridges? Several years ago, a study concluded nearly 35 percent of our bridges are in serious disrepair, which is close to saying they could potentially fall apart. This brings to mind tragedies such as the collapse in 1983 of the Mianus River Bridge in Connecticut, which caused three deaths, and the I-35 Bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007, when 13 people were killed and dozens more injured.

Transportation experts—including legislators and folks at the Alliance for Action, a non-partisan coalition that advocates for investment in infrastructure in New Jersey—have additional recommendations for the governor. Here are some of their innovative ideas:

Expand public-private partnerships. There is a global trend of letting the private sector partner with the public sector on road and bridge projects. Consider the Dulles Greenway, a privately built toll road in Northern Virginia, right outside Washington, D.C. This 12-mile road, which receives no public subsidies, competes with state-built and -maintained roads. Motorists can choose to travel for free on an often-congested public highway or pay for the convenience of a private-sector road with less traffic.

Institute a county transportation fee to fund local improvements. Doing this would be comparable to the county open-space program, which has been very successful. Funds would have to be approved by local voters, who would be able to see exactly how the money was to be spent.

Extend the state sales tax to the rental of condominium vacation properties. Under existing tax rules, hotels and motels collect a sales tax on room rentals, but there is no sales tax on the rental of condominium resort units and other vacation properties. This loophole could be closed and the added revenue could be put directly into road and bridge repairs.

I know this isn’t sexy stuff. Transportation projects don’t get people excited like same-sex marriage or the latest Chris Christie YouTube moment. But it is important stuff—and with so many of us behind the wheel, we shouldn’t have to wait until something goes horribly wrong to improve our roads and bridges.

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