- Associated Press - Thursday, November 26, 2015

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Drivers on New Jersey roads this holiday season might see fewer signs of state contracting work, and some in the industry say it’s a result of a dwindling fund to pay for roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Gov. Chris Christie and the Democrat-controlled Legislature face a June 30 deadline, when authorization for new borrowing expires. There’s no consensus on how to move forward: Democrats say the state’s 14.5-cent gas tax will likely have to go up, but Christie says any hike in the gas tax must result in “fairness,” for taxpayers, which could mean cuts to the state’s inheritance and estate taxes.

In the meantime, the Department of Transportation has given notice for fewer contract bids. The work includes concrete repair in northern and southern New Jersey, among other projects.

Since the start of the fiscal year on July 1, the department has given notice of 36 bid openings. That’s 10 fewer than in the same period in each of the previous two fiscal years.

Transportation officials say the number of contracts that have gone out to bid has no relationship to renewing the fund.

Department spokesman Steve Schapiro added that the governor and legislative leaders are working on a renewal of the fund.

“We are confident they will find a solution,” he said.

But some stakeholders see a connection between the pace of contract bids and the fund.

“You can feel that there’s less work going out on the street,” said Anthony Attanasio, executive director of the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association.

The delay likely signals a short-term solution and the cost of waiting means contractors are putting off decisions to buy new equipment and are considering layoffs, he said.

“When there’s uncertainty in a market, it’s bad for everyone,” he said.

The delay could also lead to higher property taxes for some, others say.

County and municipal roads are in dire need of repair, said Cathleen Lewis, government affairs director for AAA New Jersey. Usually, county and local governments seek funding from the transportation trust fund, but with the account crunched for cash they’ll have to consider raising property taxes to pay for road and bridge work, she said. She said state officials should find a way for out-of-state drivers who use New Jersey roads to contribute to repairing them.

“People are going to be driving on these roads for Thanksgiving,” she said. “If we don’t do something to capture money from those users we are unfairly placing the burden on state taxpayers.”

The $1.125 billion fund is financed in part through the state’s gas tax. The money the fund brings in goes toward paying down roughly $16 billion the state previously borrowed for transportation projects. New projects are financed by taking on additional debt.

Lawmakers say they want a solution that would allow the fund to pay its debt and fund some new projects. Senate President Steve Sweeney, for instance, has called for a $2 billion fund, but he has not specified a way to pay for it.

Democrats say they’re willing to vote for an unpopular hike in the gas tax, but not if Christie won’t sign it.

“Everyone does a gut check,” said Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski. “What am I doing here? I’m gonna go out here and vote to raise the gas tax and then he’s going to go out and use it as red meat to run for president and use against us?”

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