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New Jersey gas tax proposal stokes highway cost debate

By   /   February 24, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo by Tim Larsen | Governor's Office

ROAD WORK: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pounds the pavement at a road construction project in 2013.

 

By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog

While New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and state lawmakers consider a 25-cent a gallon gas tax hike to raise $2 billion a year to fund transportation projects, a war of words and statistics has erupted over the high cost of highways in the Garden State.

New Jersey pays in excess of $2 million a mile per year, more than 12 times higher than the national average, to maintain 3,338 miles of state-administered roads, according to a Reason Foundation study.

Three days after a New Jersey Watchdog report, New Jersey Department of Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox called the study “inaccurate and unfair” in a column published by NJ.com.

“Without the benefit of having the numbers the Reason Foundation used to base its calculations, there is no way to independently review its findings,” Fox wrote.

“That’s strange,” replied David Hartgen, the annual study’s senior author for 21 years. “Our annual highway report is based on data that New Jersey and other states provide themselves to the federal government. And we’ve readily shared the report’s data with state transportation departments and members of the media across the country.”

In his column, Fox argued the Reason study is flawed because it did not take into account increased costs associated with New Jersey’s multi-lane urban highways.

“It’s clear that the $2 million a mile statistic makes a nice headline but doesn’t hold up to scrutiny,” Fox said.

“If the spending per mile metric is punishing New Jersey for having highways that are six or eight lanes wide, as Mr. Fox alleges, then it would make sense that other states with wide highways would suffer too,” Hartgen responded.  “But that is not the case.

“California, home to many of the busiest and widest highways in the country, spends $500,000 per mile,” Hartgen said. “New Jersey spends four times that — $2 million per mile. New Jersey spends three times as much as Massachusetts ($675,000 per mile), three-and-a-half times more than Florida ($572,000 per mile), four times as much as New York ($462,000 per mile), and 12 times more than Texas ($157,000 per mile), which is home to six of the 20 most populous cities in America.”

While Fox challenged the $2-million per mile figure from Reason Foundation, a nonpartisan libertarian think-tank, the transportation commissioner did not offer an alternate number.

“There’s no escaping the conclusion that New Jersey spends a lot of money on its state-administered highways and delivers poor performance in return,” Hartgen concluded. “The key question now is what will New Jersey do about it?”

That may be the biggest question of all.  The state Transportation Trust Fund is out of cash and faces a $17 billion debt.

Christie is expected to address New Jersey’s highway dilemma Tuesday during the governor’s annual budget address to the State Legislature.

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Mark formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.