- Associated Press - Thursday, February 19, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) - There’s nothing like a train trip to Washington for New Jersey’s political honchos and business hotshots to try to bridge differences over the state’s ailing infrastructure.

As New Jersey’s transportation trust fund faces insolvency by June 30, the state Chamber of Commerce’s “Walk to Washington” was abuzz Thursday with talk of how to solve what many say is the biggest issue facing the state.

Billed as the state’s “premiere networking event,” the “walk” gets its name because many of the nearly 600 attendees spend most of their time walking through train cars, shaking hands and meeting peers.

Here’s a look at the scene from the train.

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WHAT’S HAPPENING WITH TRANSPORTATION FUNDING?

There’s a lot of talk but little evidence of an agreement on how to pay for the state’s capital program as well as address more than $16 billion in debt. Carolyn Fefferman, a business consultant, said the fate of the transportation trust fund was the top topic of conversation among her colleagues. “There is no fix,” she said. No one is willing to raise the state’s gas tax, she said, which must be done to increase revenues.

Gov. Chris Christie did not address the fund by name, but seemed to shoot down the idea of raising any new taxes, saying he would “resist” any system that is “unfair” to residents.

Some, though, have called for raising taxes, including Assembly Transportation Committee chairman John Wisniewski, whose plan would amount to a 25-cent-per-gallon gas tax. Wisniewski said it was time for Christie, who has said all options are on the table, to begin narrowing them down.

What Christie will do remains to be seen. During a dinner reception Thursday, he previewed his budget speech set for Tuesday and warned lawmakers he won’t support new taxes. Democratic lawmakers said they’ve heard nothing from the Republican governor about what he’ll propose and sounded pessimistic about the prospects for an agreement before then. Still, with the deadline about four months away, there’s still time for Christie and legislative leaders to work out a deal.

“It’s not the 11th hour yet,” said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg.

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THE SCENE ON THE TRAIN

The chamber chartered 13 cars and members paid nearly $600 to attend, while nonmembers doled out nearly $700 for the event.

Hundreds of business owners, lobbyists and legislators, clad in overcoats to protect against the freezing temperatures, boarded train cars through a cordoned-off section of Newark’s Penn Station.

Once aboard, the party started.

Snacking on assorted cheeses and mixed fruit, some riders cracked open cans of beer. Others drank red wine, while one rider manned a cooler full of orange juice, tiny vodka bottles and ice.

Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick was on his 12th trip aboard the chamber train. He said the reason the event has proven successful is people get more face time than they would in any other setting.

“You can’t get off this train,” he said pointing out the window, the single-family homes a blur as the train passed.

The train was so packed, one passenger attempting to squeeze his way through a throng of chatty riders called out, “Tell them Frank Sinatra is in the front of the train, and they’ll move.”

In addition to Chamber President Tom Bracken, a number of lawmakers were aboard, including Senate Republican leader Tom Kean Jr., Democratic state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, Assemblymen Gordon Johnson, Scott Rumana, Declan O’Scanlon and Eliana Pintor-Marin. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Senate President Steve Sweeney will be at the event in Washington but did not ride the train.

Phil Murphy, potential gubernatorial candidate and former ambassador to Germany, was aboard, as was Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.

The event has its critics.

“The average person can’t get invited, can’t afford it and can’t get that kind of access,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who says he has attended in the past.

Chamber Senior Vice President Michael Egenton acknowledged that the event once had a reputation as a “schmooze cruise” but said, in essence, it allows business owners to get to know one another and “that’s how businesses network; that’s how business gets done.”


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