- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

MONTCLAIR, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey lawmakers on Wednesday heard from a procession of advocates for business, labor and transportation groups that agreed that the state has too long delayed coming up with a way to pay for building and maintaining roads, bridges and mass transit.

While the issue is well-defined, how to pay for a solution remains less clear.

Forward NJ, a coalition of groups calling for action and saying that the state should be putting $2 billion a year into transportation, is not endorsing a specific way to raise that much.

Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who generally opposes tax increases, has said so far only that “all options are on the table” and that road and transit funding is a priority.

And at Wednesday’s hearing on the future of the state’s transportation trust fund, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers worried that a big increase in the state’s gasoline tax - now among the lowest in the nation at 14.5 cents per gallon - would hurt residents.

“Who will be paying at that gas pump are average citizens in the state,” said Oliver, a Democrat, noting that while New Jersey’s gas tax is low, the cost of living in the state generally is among the highest across the country.

Assemblyman Scott Rumana, a Republican, said the gas tax would have to jump to more than 30 cents per gallon to get $1.6 billion per year.

And the relying too heavily on a per-gallon gas tax has another drawback, committee members heard: With more efficient cars, the revenue from it has been down.

Other ideas have been floated, including a new car rental fee, car registration fee hikes, raising taxes on petroleum refineries and adding a sales tax to tax gasoline.

Hudson County Executive Thomas Degise suggested looking at adding tolls to some additional highways including Interstates 78 and 80.

Most speakers at the hearing, held at Montclair State University, told lawmakers what they have heard before: The state’s infrastructure is deteriorating, and that means congestion, car-damaging pot holes going unrepaired and making the state less attractive to businesses.

Committee members also heard that the cost of roadwork per mile in New Jersey is higher than elsewhere, partly because land for right-of-ways is expensive and the state’s heavily traveled roads need to be worked on at night, which drives up costs.

Mike Proto, a spokesman for anti-tax Americans for Prosperity did not speak during the hearing, but said afterward that high labor costs also are an issue New Jersey needs to address.

For Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the Democrat who chairs the transportation committee, the hearing - the first of four he’s planning on the topic - was important because it signals lawmakers are digging into the issue.

“It has taken an enormously long period of time to just to get to a committee hearing where we’re talking about raising revenue,” he said.

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