- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) - If New Jersey continues its decades-old pattern of borrowing money to fund transportation infrastructure projects, it will jeopardize its ability to do the same in the future, a legislator told a group of business leaders Tuesday.

Assembly Transportation Committee chairman John Wisniewski said the state must identify a dedicated source of funding for the Transportation Trust Fund.

The fund is due to run out of money in June. Last week, Gov. Chris Christie said the state can use authorized but unissued bonds to pay for road, bridge and tunnel work and repair in fiscal year 2016.

Wisniewski said that even though $600 million is available through that method, it would continue a precedent that stretches back 20 years that has created billions in debt. He told a story of how, as a young legislator in the 1990s, he was told the fund could be replenished by refinancing because interest rates were low.

“Now if we had done that once, it probably wouldn’t have been a bad decision,” he said. “But we found that it was quite easy to do that.”

The result, he said, is $10 billion in debt that will cost $23 billion to pay back over 30 years. There is another risk to refinancing more debt, he added.

“We have refinanced the Transportation Trust Fund debt as many times as the bond attorneys tell us we can without them losing their tax exempt status,” Wisniewski said. “We have taken that as far out as we can for people to be willing to lend the state of New Jersey the money.”

Christie’s office didn’t comment on Wisniewski’s statement.

Wisniewski was to have been the co-attraction at Tuesday’s breakfast gathering with state transportation commissioner Jamie Fox, but Fox canceled. His office said Fox’s schedule had changed and required him to be in Trenton, but it didn’t elaborate.

Fox has come out in favor of an increase in New Jersey’s gas tax, currently one of the lowest in the nation. Wisniewski outlined his own plan Tuesday that would raise a tax on petroleum products and cost drivers about 85 cents a day on average.

Wisniewski said he’d push for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the Legislature from changing a funding plan once it is set. State Sen. Paul Sarlo, chairman of the Senate’s budget committee, said a gas tax is needed but that those revenues should be kept sacrosanct.

“We need to make sure it’s placed in a dedicated lockbox, because if people hear it’s going to cost 85 cents a day for the average driver, they’re comfortable with that knowing it’s in that lockbox and that politicians from both sides of the aisle aren’t going to steal that money and use it for pet projects,” he said.

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