- Associated Press - Saturday, April 29, 2017

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey’s next governor stands to inherit a still-stalled plan to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, a transit system racked by recent maintenance and safety issues, and a driving public unhappy about gas tax increases.

The issues were highlighted this week after Amtrak announced repair work at New York’s Penn Station that would stretch rail delays into the summer and after state transportation officials hailed an eight-year funding plan financed by a gas tax hike during a hearing before New Jersey’s Democrat-led Legislature.

New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states with governor races this year.

Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who is term limited and can’t seek re-election, has remained on the defensive over his 2010 decision to scrap a trans-Hudson rail project. That project’s successor, called Gateway, has broad support but an uncertain funding source.

But Christie has gone on the offense against Amtrak and all but declared victory, saying that Amtrak’s plans to repair tracks satisfied his demands that the railway certify its tracks before the state resumes making nearly $200 million monthly maintenance payments.

Christie’s ultimatum came after recent derailments at the station.

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THE ISSUE

New Jersey is home to a critical course along the Northeast Corridor, connecting New York and Philadelphia by rail and road.

Among the biggest issues is the fate of a more than $20 billion project to build new rail connections beneath the Hudson River to replace the nearly 110-year-old tunnels. But funding under Republican President Donald Trump’s proposed budget is in question.

A related question concerns New Jersey Transit, which is in the midst of installing so-called positive train control systems, and has faced heightened scrutiny since it had more accidents and paid more in safety fines over five years, according to federal data. Drivers in New Jersey are also paying more at the pump thanks to an unpopular 23-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase enacted under Christie.

The 2016 deal resulted in a transportation trust fund program that when combined with federal funds secures $32 billion over eight years. But the deal also included tax cuts, called for by Christie, that would leave the next governor with estimated budget holes to fill.

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CANDIDATE POSITIONS AND PROMISES

Democratic front-runner Phil Murphy is calling for increased state assistance for New Jersey Transit, and said through a spokesman that a growing economy would pay for it and he would require “the wealthiest among us and large corporations to pay their fair share.” He has also said he would “fight for every federal dollar,” a reference to New Jersey’s near-the-bottom ranking in federal aid dollars.

Among his three fellow Democrats and governor-hopefuls, Jim Johnson, a lawyer, unveiled a seven-point plan on transportation, including increasing funding and building the Gateway tunnel. State Sen. Ray Lesniak opposed Christie’s and the Legislature’s transportation plan and gas tax hike. Instead, he called for phasing an increase in over time.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who chairs the Assembly transportation committee and like Lesniak opposed the transportation trust fund legislation, favors a 30-year plan that also would have phased in the gas tax increase. He also called for spending more on NJ Transit.

Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno also criticized the gas tax increase and has called for scrapping a four-person board that the 2016 deal signed by Christie established to approve capital projects. She also backs the Gateway project.

Fellow Republican and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli said the NJ Transit maintenance and safety issues concerned him so much that the $2 billion transportation trust fund should be used for the rail agency until service disruptions improve.

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WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Vincent Pellecchia, associate director of the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign that covers Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, is raising warning flags about how the federal and state governments prioritize funding for transportation. He said recently, “The inability to prioritize is real and so are its effects: bad subway service, even worse bus service, broken rails, derailments, extensive delays, lack of redundancy and, ultimately, a threat to the engines of the economy.”

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This is the seventh in a weekly series that will look at issues facing New Jersey ahead of the June 6 primary. The general election is Nov. 7.

Follow Catalini at https://www.twitter.com/mikecatalini.


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