- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Efforts to replenish New Jersey’s transportation fund have stalled, but the new year is expected to force top state officials to take action.

The now-$1.2 billion fund is headed toward empty in 2016 unless steps are taken to refill it.

Authority to sell bonds to pay for projects is expiring, and all tax revenue is earmarked to pay off debt, which totals $16 billion.

Republican Gov. Chris Christie and the Democrats who control the Legislature have been unable to agree on a solution.

But Christie’s spending plan for the upcoming budget year could establish a path forward.

A closer look at the key players in the discussions and what positions they have staked out:



Christie has largely steered clear of talking about the fund as he campaigns for president. He has said all options are on the table to address the problem, but he also warned Republicans this year that they should reject any plan that calls for raising taxes unless those increases are offset by cuts elsewhere. He also rejected a plan floated by a Democratic state senator that called for raising the gas tax but cutting the state’s tax on retirement income and phasing out the estate surcharge.

WHAT’S NEXT: The governor is scheduled to unveil his budget in February when he addresses the Legislature. Lawmakers expect Christie to provide some clarity about how he wants to move forward on the issue.



Senate President Steve Sweeney wants the fund beefed up to $2 billion and he wants to expand light rail on the Hudson-Bergen and Glassboro-Camden lines, but he hasn’t specified how he would pay for the plan. Sweeney, a union executive who could be a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2017, has indicated he would back raising the state’s 14.5-cent gas tax - the second lowest in the country. He says there’s no such thing as free roads. But he’s stopped short of proposing a gas tax increase, saying the governor should come back to the state and make it clear what his position is.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Legislature returns for the last voting series of the current session on Jan. 11. So far, no funding plan for the trust fund has been posted.



Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto points out that he has long recognized the need to raise the gas tax to pay for roads and bridges, but he’s stopped short of introducing legislation to do that. He says that any bill would need support from both Sweeney and Christie.

“We all need to hold hands and jump together off the cliff,” he said. Prieto has introduced a constitutional amendment that would require voters to weigh in on whether every cent of fuel tax revenue be used only for transportation. The measure will be considered by an Assembly committee Thursday.

WHAT’S NEXT: Prieto is aiming to get the amendment on the 2016 ballot, which would require it to pass the Legislature with a three-fifths majority in one session or by simple majorities in two sessions.



Christie appointed Richard Hammer, a longtime Department of Transportation official, as acting commissioner in October after the departure of Jamie Fox. Fox, a former lobbyist and Democrat who served in the McGreevey administration, had deep ties with the Democrat-controlled Legislature. His appointment in 2014 was viewed as a signal that Christie was serious about addressing the transportation trust fund shortfall, but a deal never materialized. Now Hammer, who started at the department in 1982 and most recently served as assistant commissioner in charge of capital management, inherits the burden.

WHAT’S NEXT: Transportation Department spokesman Stephen Schapiro says renewing the fund is Hammer’s “highest priority.” He added: “The department is confident the governor and Legislature will find a solution.”

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