New Jersey will run out of money for new transportation initiatives at the end of June, and it’s sounding more and more as if a deal to renew funding for road, bridge, and rail projects is still at least several weeks away. Mayors in towns across New Jersey will soon get ready to draft municipal budgets with no idea how much local transportation aid they should count on receiving from the state — meaning motorists are facing either more trips on dilapidated roads or higher property tax bills to fix them. Even getting a straight answer as to who’s to blame for the ongoing stalemate depends on who is answering the question. Christie’s acting transportation commissioner yesterday pointed the finger directly at lawmakers, suggesting the administration is waiting on them to formulate and submit a plan. The New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund pays for more than $3 billion in annual infrastructure improvements throughout the state, with $1.6 billion raised primarily from borrowing, fuel taxes, and highway tolls. The other half of the trust fund’s revenue comes from federal matching dollars, which could be put at risk if the state dollars go dry. Christie’s $8 billion state-funding plan that he put forward in 2011 is set to expire by the end of the current fiscal year, which is June 30.That would leave no money for new projects beyond the deadline, but so far, the governor has yet to spell out how he plans to renew the fund.
A newly-released timeline and breakdown of costs show that the $23.9 billion Gateway program to double trans-Hudson rail capacity through the region will have two distinct phases. The first phase will focus on maintaining capacity on the increasingly strained section of the Northeast Corridor line between Newark and Penn Station, N.Y. that carries more than 85,000 passengers every weekday. Crucial to that first phase is the digging of two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River so that engineers can begin to renovate the existing tunnels. That work is scheduled to begin as soon as possible and to be completed over a decade. Officials have said that at some point over the next couple of decades, one of the existing tunnels will have to be closed for repair. If new tunnels are not built before then, service will be reduced from 24 trains an hour to 6.
The current 106-year-old tunnels were badly damaged by corrosive floodwaters from Superstorm Sandy. Since then, the tunnels have suffered an increasing number of electrical problems stranding NJ Transit and Amtrak customers for hours. Another frequent cause of delays, the ageing Portal swing bridge over the Hackensack River at Kearny, is scheduled to be replaced by 2022. The second phase of Gateway, which is scheduled to begin in the mid-2020s, will be aimed at doubling rail capacity. The Port Authority will take over the lead on Gateway in the coming months by forming a development corporation that will be steered by federal and state officials. On Friday, a federal official released details of the Gateway program to The Record, emphasizing that those numbers are preliminary estimates. The $23.9 billion price tag includes a 10 percent contingency budget.
Phase one – A new trans-Hudson tunnel entrance below Hudson Yards in Manhattan that will cost $326 million. This project is currently underway with an estimated completion time of 2019. The second part of this phase is new rail tunnels and renovations of existing tunnels. The start date is unknown until engineering and financing plans are in place. But the construction of the new tunnels and renovations of the existing tunnels is expected to take 10 years and cost $7.7 billion. The third and fourth part of this phase is to replace the portal swing bridge over Hackensack River and replace the Sawtooth Bridge over the Passaic River. The portal swing bridge will begin construction in 2017 for completion in 2022 and will cost $1.2 billion. To replace the Sawtooth Bridge it will cost $1.1 billion and take 4 years starting in 2022.
Phase two will begin in 2024 for completion in 2030. This phase begins with the expansion of Penn Station one city block south of the existing station, including underground tracks and above ground developments. To handle the doubling of the rail capacity the Secaucus Junction station will be renovated. A Secaucus Loop will also be created to enable a one-seat train ride from North Jersey into Manhattan. The final part of phase two is the replacement and renewal of two-track rail embankment between Newark and Secaucus and building of two additional lines running parallel to the embankment. The total cost of phase two would be $11.12 billion.
Beginning Friday (Feb 5), the state will oversee a multi-billion dollar auction that will help determine how much customers pay for the electricity to power their homes and businesses. In an annual process, the state’s four electric utilities will buy the power they need to supply their customers as of this coming June. If recent trends hold, the auction should not have much of an impact, either higher or lower, on utility bills. In last year’s auction, there were modest drops in the price of power purchased by two of the four utilities, with costs dropping up to 4 percent for Atlantic City Electric and dipping by 3.2 percent for Rockland Electric. Jersey City Power & Light bills remained relatively flat, while Public Service Electric & Gas customers saw increases of about 2 percent. Two separate online auctions will be held. The first, starting Friday (Feb. 5), will be for the power to be sold to larger commercial and industrial customers. Those customers generally have seen the biggest benefit of deregulation, which has given them the ability to negotiate lower prices from competing power producers vying for their business. The second auction, set to begin next week (Feb. 8), will be for residential and small commercial customers, the majority of whom will continue to have their electricity supplied by their incumbent utility. The price these incumbent’s charge customers is set during the auction; the utility passes those costs directly on to customers without making any profit.
The approval of a controversial 22-mile natural-gas pipeline through the core of the Pinelands has triggered a lawsuit against the Board of Public Utilities, the commission charged with overseeing the international biosphere and state utility regulators. The New Jersey Sierra Club and Environment New Jersey yesterday announced they would challenge the decisions that led to the authorization of a South Jersey Gas project to build a pipeline through the preserve to the B.L. England plant in Beesley’s Point in Cape May. The project, approved by the state BPU in December after a prolonged multiyear battle, is perhaps the most controversial of more than a dozen gas-pipeline projects to be proposed in New Jersey.
Besides environmental and conservation groups, the pipeline drew opposition from four former governors, two Republican and a pair of Democrats. The primary objections centered on the route, which would cross through some of the most protected land in the 1 million acres Pinelands National Reserve. “Forty years after passage of the Pinelands Act, we are trying to save the Pinelands again,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club in announcing the legal challenge, which had been expected. “What we are seeing is a dismantling of the Pinelands step by step by the Christie administration.’’ The announcement of the lawsuit came a day after the BPU gave preliminary approval to still another gas-pipeline project by New Jersey Natural Gas, which also crosses through the Pinelands. If that project moves forward, Tittel vowed it, too, would be challenged in the courts.
Still, the litigation faces big hurdles since state courts generally give deference to departments’ and agencies’ expertise in matters of policy and technical issues related to implementation. The South Jersey project finally won approval after a protracted fight, one that conservationists initially blocked when it first came up before the Pinelands Commission in January 2012. At the time, the commission split evenly on a plan to pave the way for the pipeline. The pipeline was revived after Nancy Wittenberg, executive director of the Pinelands commission, wrote a letter, in essence, determining the project was a “private development’’ that did not need to be approved by the commission. The BPU final approval followed, with commissioners ruling the project as reasonably necessary, one that would allow the power plant to run on a cleaner source of fuel than the coal it once burned. The Christie administration wants to shut down coal plants and switch to natural gas as the fuel to generate electricity, a policy it says will promote greater reliability and cleaner air.
In trying to block the new pipeline, the environmental groups are relying most on technical claims, the primary one arguing that the staff letter saying the project is consistent with the commission’s Comprehensive Management Plan is a violation of the Pinelands Protection Act. They argue that the primary rationale behind the pipeline is to supply natural gas to the power plant; it does not serve the needs of the Pinelands and thus, violates the plan. They also contend that continued operation of the plant is unnecessary and unneeded to maintain reliability of the power grid.
Capital NY report: Assemblyman John Wisniewski said Wednesday that NJ Transit is chronically underfunded and that the state must spend more on public transportation to make it affordable for New Jerseyans living in poverty. “It’s not sustainable, it is a house of cards,” Wisniewski, chairman of the Assembly transportation and independent authorities committee, said during a hearing on how the state’s transportation system can be a barrier to residents living in poverty. But Assemblyman Scott Rumana said subsidies for NJ Transit are at record highs, and that riders should be paying their fair share. Rumana said the state should instead focus on ways to make New Jersey more affordable, rather than pouring more money into mass transit.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto testified the state must make public transit more affordable for its poorest residents, and said it was an “embarrassment” that he needed to discuss this issue in 2016. The state must be multi-pronged in its approach to improve transportation access, he said, and “we can’t have the status quo.” Analilia Mejia, executive director of New Jersey Working Families Alliance, said in her testimony that transit fare hikes are a tax on the working poor. A family living on a strained budget may have to choose between paying for food or transportation, she said. “Investing in an affordable transportation system is a clear way out of poverty,” she said. Ann Vardeman, program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, agreed, and said New Jersey cannot rebuild its economy if workers cannot commute to work. “Without a well-maintained transportation infrastructure, the entire economy, if not the entire northeast corridor, grinds to a halt,” she said.