Atlantic City Electric filed a request on Tuesday, March 22 with the state Board of Public Utilities to increase its revenue by $78.9 million, a rate boost that could increase the typical residential bill by as much as $11.73 a month. The filing is the latest by a New Jersey utility to ramp up investments in its power grid, systems that have been severely tested and compromised during extreme storms in the past few years. The company also said it will seek approval of a grid-resiliency plan, dubbed PowerAhead. If approved by the commission, Atlantic City plans to invest $176 million over five years to modernize its system and make it more resilient to storms like Hurricane Sandy. Atlantic City Electric also could learn today whether a proposed $6.8 billion merger between its parent, Pepco Holdings, Inc., and Exelon, clears its final regulatory hurdle when the D.C. Public Service Commission is scheduled to vote on the deal. It has been held up by a dispute on how to allocate Exelon funds and benefits among Pepco’s utilities if the merger is approved. Those benefits could include rate credits to ACE customers. If the merger is not approved, customers also will lose out on those benefits as well as others stemming from efficiencies made possible by the merger but not included in the rate filing, the utility said. As for the rate filing in New Jersey, it has been two years since the utility requested a rate adjustment for its half million customers. The rate impact for typical customers will vary depending on how much electricity they use. For a residential customer using 500 kilowatt-hours per month, it could boost a monthly bill by $6.81; one using 1,000 kilowatt hours per month could see an increase of $11.73. It is an investment that the BPU has strongly encouraged in the wake of powerful storms that left millions of customers without power, some for as long as two weeks. The agency has generally approved rate increases supporting projects to increase reliability, not only by the electric utilities but also by gas companies. Over the past five years, ACE has invested approximately $716 million in its system. The company said customers are seeing the benefits of that investment, with the utility achieving its best reliability performance in more than a decade. Customers experienced 41 percent fewer outages and, when they did occur, service was restored about 25 percent faster compared with 2011, the utility said. To further bolster resiliency, PowerAhead’s planned projects include selectively shifting existing distribution circuits underground; building system ties to the barrier islands from the mainland; increasing storm and flood prevention at substations; and boosting system automation and remote control for faster restoration.
The state is proposing changes to its vehicle inspection program that would exempt 200,000 older passenger cars — the ones most likely to pollute the air — from being tested for tailpipe emissions. The New Jersey Motor Vehicles Commission published a regulatory proposal earlier this month to simplify its emissions-testing procedures, which the agency, says could save the state up to $18 million a year and reduce waiting times at state-run inspection stations. The proposed changes mostly affect passenger vehicles built in 1995 or before by eliminating the traditional tailpipe-emissions test. It would also allow certain diesel-fueled cars to be self-inspected. Motor vehicles and other types of transportation are the biggest source of air pollution in New Jersey, a state that has never met the federal air-quality standard for ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog. The auto-emissions-testing program has been a key component of the State Implementation Plan, a blueprint approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for coming into compliance with the air-quality standard. Whether the agency will go along with the changes is uncertain. The Christie administration eliminated the decades-old auto-safety inspection program in 2010 as part of a budget-saving move during a fiscal crisis. At the same time, it eased the emissions-testing requirement for brand-new cars from one to five years. Under the new proposal, the state will rely on sophisticated on-board diagnostic equipment in vehicles to make sure they are running properly and not polluting the air. The existing OBD test only requires six minutes while the so-called Two-Speed Idle test takes about 15 minutes, a change that will reduce waiting times for motorists. Eliminating the latter test also will save the state’s 600 private-inspection garages from going out and replacing existing tailpipe-emission equipment, which is reaching the end of its useful life, according to the proposal. The changes also will ease a testing requirement dealing with fuel caps to ensure they are not leaking vapors. The proposal also would require all emergency-exit safety requirements on buses comply with federal requirements bringing the state into compliance with federal law.
Despite fears to the contrary, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey seems to share the vision that New Jersey lawmakers have for transportation in the northern part of the state, including building a new bus terminal in Manhattan- not across the river in New Jersey- and devoting funds for engineering work to advance the planned cross-Hudson Gateway tunnel project. The Port Authority’s commissioners voted in favor of advancing those projects and also cleared the way for major airport improvements in both New York and New Jersey during a public meeting last week. Legislators—who’ve been leading efforts in recent years to get the Port Authority to commit to both the Gateway project and construction of a new bus terminal—say their mission now shifts to making sure those major projects stay on schedule and are designed with growing commuter demand in mind. The state Senate’s Legislative Oversight Committee will be meeting next month to begin that effort. Also on the agenda for lawmakers going forward is getting Gov. Chris Christie’s desk legislation that would bring broader reforms to the Port Authority itself. That push, they say, has become more important in the wake of the agency’s actions last week, which also included approving more than $5 billion in spending on proposed airport improvements in both New York and New Jersey.
Bus terminal is obsolete
Opened in 1950, the current bus terminal at Eighth Avenue and West 42nd Street has been operating beyond its designed capacity for the last 50 years. And the number of riders using the crowded facility on a daily basis is only expected to increase, from 230,000 to 330,000, within the next 25 years. The board’s action last week means funds for the new bus terminal will be in the agency’s long-term capital plan. The agency earlier this month had already announced a design competition for the new facility.
Deal reached on Gateway
Last year, officials in New Jersey and New York announced a breakthrough deal with the federal government to split the cost of the planned $20 billion Gateway project, which features other infrastructure improvements in addition to construction of two new rail tubes under the Hudson River. The goal is to accommodate commuter-rail demand that is expected to double by 2030, but also to allow for repairs to damage that was caused to the existing 105-year-old tubes by 2012’s superstorm Sandy. Last year’s agreement on the Gateway project also involved giving the Port Authority a key role in its development, and the board voted last week to fund $70 million in initial engineering work, using $35 million of its own funds and $35 million in federal dollars. The agency also voted during its meeting to authorize nearly $3 billion in spending to improve LaGuardia Airport, and another $2.3 billion to replace Terminal A at Newark Liberty International Airport.
State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D- Gloucester) and Sens. Ronald Rice and Teresa Ruiz (both D-Essex) yesterday further detailed their position, calling for a immediate lead testing in all schools—public and private—and twice a year thereafter. The proposal calls for $3 million a year in state money for testing, plus $20 million from the Clean Energy Fund that would be available for districts to install and update filters. But the lawmakers acknowledged that this may be just the start of the state’s funding obligation; testing could lead to the need for further remediation that could cost tens of millions of dollars, if not more. Public pressure comes as more revelations emerge as to the extent of the lead problem in the state. The initial outcry came after it was disclosed that half of Newark’s school buildings had elevated lead levels, leading to the immediate shutting down of the water supply to those schools. But the situation in Newark only led to more revelations concerning elevated lead levels in Jersey City and Camden, where bottled water has been supplied to students for years because of the lead fears. Meanwhile, school advocates are arguing that the state is responsible for addressing the water infrastructure in those three state-run districts, as well as in others that fall under the Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings. David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, said he sent a letter to state Education Commissioner David Hespe, demanding that the Christie administration and its School Development Authority immediately undertake surveys of Newark’s school buildings for any emerging needs. After that, the administration must provide the resources necessary to address those needs, which in many cases will require pipes and other water infrastructure to be updated or replaced. Officials have said the contamination is not in the city’s water supply but in the pipes and faucets through which the water travels.
In his fight against the Republican Atlantic City mayor and the Democratic Assembly speaker over the city’s financial future, Gov. Chris Christie comes armed with numbers and sarcasm. His crusade for a state takeover of the cash-strapped city, including the power to rip up municipal union contracts, relies on a startling statistics: Atlantic City’s government spends around $6,600 a year per resident. No other city comes close. Newark, for example, spends $2,344 per resident. Sure enough, those are the calculations if you divide the cities’s budgets by the Census Bureau’s estimate of their population, which for Atlantic City was 39,551 in 2013. The $262 million municipal appropriation is the city’s highest ever, narrowly. Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian contends it’s misleading, though. Recently at the Statehouse, which Guardian has visited frequently to lobby against the takeover legislation, the mayor said the city’s operating budget in 2015 was $220 million, following cuts of $25 million. He said the larger number includes $27.5 million for tax appeal payments, $7.5 million the state required as a reserve and $7 million it was directed to set aside for lawsuit liability.
‘Atlantic City’s in a unique situation’
Even if one excluded those, the spending still amounts to well over $5,000 per capita- still far more than any other city. Guardian’s explanation for that is that in addition to the residents, there are 40,000 people who work in Atlantic City and that the population swells on weekends an during conventions, to peaks he estimates at 200,000 to 300,000. “Atlantic City’s in a unique situation,” Guardian said. “We still, even with four casinos closed, we still have 25 million visitors every year. This is a town where everybody comes and plays every day, and we’ve got to make sure it’s safe for them. And that comes at a cost.”