- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Senate President Steve Sweeney has gone on offense, criticizing Gov. Chris Christie and calling on him to detail his plan for saving the imperiled transportation trust fund. But Sweeney has not said how he would pay for his own ideas.

As the Legislature wraps up the calendar year without a deal to address the fund, Sweeney along with Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Republican Gov. Chris Christie are still working behind the scenes to come to an agreement.

Thus far, Sweeney, the influential southern New Jersey Democrat, has been upfront in expressing what he wants the deal to look like: the fund should be beefed up to $2 billion from $1.26 billion, and money to municipalities should nearly double to $400 million.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Sweeney said his “bottom line” is the inclusion of rail projects in Hudson and Bergen counties, in Camden and Gloucester counties as well as freight rail infrastructure projects in the central part of the state.

“We are not gonna pit regions against each other,” he said. “The needs are great, they’re real and we have to advance them together. Too often it’s like us against them and that’s not how it should be,” Sweeney said.

While he says a tax increase is probable, he has not written or endorsed legislation detailing exactly what that tax would look like.

In part, that’s because talks with Christie and Prieto are still underway and no agreement would be possible without their support, Sweeney said. To publicly embrace a plan to pay for the fund - like an increase in the state’s 10.5 cent gas tax - could scuttle those talks, Christie said in an interview on 101.5 FM last week.

The issue facing lawmakers is that revenues for the fund go toward debt payments, and new projects are paid for through more debt. Christie - who’s considering a 2016 White House bid - has said all options are on the table, and last week added that any increase in revenues would need to be constitutionally dedicated, meaning voters would have to sign off. Democratic leaders in the Legislature say raising taxes will likely be necessary.

Both sides agree revenues should be constitutionally dedicated.

“Let me make it straight, the only way we would (raise taxes) is to go along with a constitutional mandate to protect the funds,” Sweeney said.

That pledge comes as polls show the public opposes raising taxes for infrastructure projects, however. Last week, a Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed that nearly three out of five residents oppose raising the gas tax, and a Quinnipiac University poll of New Jersey residents had similar results.

Despite the opposition, local officials said they get calls regularly from voters complaining about roads and bridges; and if a new tax is the only way to fix the infrastructure, then that is what lawmakers should do.

“That three-letter word is shunned by every elected official, but there comes a time that we as elected officials are in office to make hard decisions for the future,” said Cumberland County Freeholder Director Joe Derella.

It’s a sentiment Sweeney is well aware of, though he’s not enthusiastic about the prospect of paying more for infrastructure.

“People are taxed enough here,” he said. “It’s nothing I’m excited about.”

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