By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog
As Gov. Chris Christie and New Jersey lawmakers discuss ways to raise $2 billion a year for a Transportation Trust Fund running on empty, including a proposed 25-cents a gallon hike in the state gas tax, one key question is being sidetracked:
Why does the New Jersey spend far more on its highway system than any other state?
New Jersey pays in excess of $2 million per mile a year — 12 times higher than the national average — on state-administered roads, according to government statistics. The cumulative result has been $15 billion in debt for TTF.
“Their system is just in such poor shape,” said David Hartgen, senior author of the annual Reason Foundation study that uses Federal Highway Administration data to rank the states. “New Jersey is spending the most per mile for its state-administered highway system.”
That study is being challenged by special interests that are lobbying heavily to keep the money flowing to state transportation projects, no matter who foots the bill.
The Reason study is a “rampant spreading of misinformation,” complained Anthony Attanasio, managing director of the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association and a former state transportation assistant commissioner. His critique appears on the website of Forward New Jersey, a coalition primarily comprised of contractors, labor unions and chambers of commerce.
To set the record straight, New Jersey Watchdog reviewed the underlying FHWA statistics derived from data reported by each state. The numbers show:
- New Jersey paid $2,027,711 per mile in 2012 on the 3,338 miles of roads and highways administered by the state. That figure includes the total expenditures for construction, repair, maintenance, bond financing and interest. It does not include county and municipal routes.
- Behind New Jersey, the second-highest state is Massachusetts at $675,312 per mile. The two states are very similar in the number of miles — 3,338 to 3,661 — the ratio of urban to rural miles and weather conditions, yet New Jersey spent triple that amount.
- Rounding out the five most expensive states were Florida at $572,337 per mile; Rhode Island, $533,614; and California, $501,136. On the other end of the spectrum, South Carolina had the lowest total cost at $39,403 per mile.
- Overall, the national average is $162,202 per mile.
“Each state has its own circumstances,” Hartgen said. “But the rankings allow the public to get a better idea of how their state compares to others. And all of this helps keep costs in line and quality where it needs to be.”
In contrast, Attanasio’s missive — “Separating Fact and Fiction in the TTF Renewal Debate” — is riddled with flaws. For example:
- According to Attanasio, the Reason study asserted that “road work in New Jersey … costs eight times higher than the next state.” In reality, the study compared total expense, not just the cost of road work or repairs. Plus New Jersey’s expenditure per mile was three times higher than Massachusetts, not eight.
- Attanasio stated the study fails to account that New Jersey has shorter highways with a larger number of lanes. Hartgen said he factored the average width of those roads into the calculation.
- Attanasio alleged that the study counted money TTF provided to counties and municipalities for roads. Hartgen explained that county and municipal expense data were stripped out of the formula.
“There are plenty of facts and figures to be introduced without introducing misleading information based on unreliable methodology,” Attanasio said. “The people of New Jersey deserve better.”
“We’re comparing apples to apples here – state-administered miles and state-administered money,” Hartgen countered. “It all falls on taxpayers, one way or another.”
Both men concur on some of the reasons contributing to New Jersey’s exceptional highway expenses, including construction and real estate costs, urban congestion, the age of the roads and bridges, heavy traffic by trucks and other factors. They also agree a significant percentage of the state’s highways and bridges are in poor condition.
Still, why is the bottom line in New Jersey so much higher than other states, and 12 times the national average?
The biggest factor is the state spent billions it didn’t have, borrowed money it cannot repay for decades and racked up a staggering debt that will be multiplied by the interest it must pay on its bonds.
The Transportation Trust Fund faces an outstanding debt totaling $15 billion, which is likely to increase by another $1.3 billion in this fiscal year, according David Rosen, budget officer for the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.
That figure is equivalent to half of New Jersey’s annual state budget.
“It leaves us with this very, very long tail of debt,” Rosen testified at a public hearing in November. “Literally, out to the next 25 years, we still have over $1 billion a year in debt service for stuff we’ve already done.”
Even though TTF soon will run out of money in the bank, the state continues to build roads and bridges.
“We just don’t have any cash to do it, so we’re borrowing all the cash,” said Rosen.
In addition to weighing new taxes to fund the state transportation system, Hartgen suggested New Jersey should take a closer look at what it already spends.
“There ought to be some analysis of whether the work is being done efficiently — and whether a better job could be done in working with the revenue that’s available,” Hartgen said.