A recent $16 billion, eight-year transportation funding compromise between legislators and the administration of Gov. Chris Christie should allow for the expansion of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail both into Bergen County and to Route 440 in Jersey City, officials announced last week.
The agreement is expected to pump $2 billion in new annual revenue into the state’s Transportation Trust Fund by raising the gas tax from about 10.5 cents per gallon to 23 cents.
Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise said the cost for the light rail extension is estimated at about $225 million.
DeGise said federal financing for the expansion has been available. The federal government funds the Federal New Starts program at about $2 billion, and to tap those funds, New Jersey must apply for the program with matching dollars from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.
But the action on the expansion could not take place because of a conflict between Christie and the state legislature over how to match federal dollars.
Funding the trust fund would have to have come either from the state budget or an increase in gasoline taxes. Gasoline prices in New Jersey are currently the lowest of any state except for Alaska.
But until the state legislature agreed to do away with New Jersey’s estate tax, Gov. Christie refused to raise gasoline taxes or budget tax dollars for that purpose either. When the legislators gave in on the estate tax demand — in the same week a New Jersey Transit commuter train was involved in a fatal crash in Hoboken –Christie signed off.
“Senator Menendez and Rep. Sires made sure the federal money is available, but we need the state money to match it with local dollars.” – Tom DeGise
In Jersey City, extending the light rail one quarter mile further could make a new “Gold Coast.” The extension in Jersey City line would proceed from its current terminus at West Side Avenue in Jersey City to Route 440.
Trust fund would help generate federal dollars as well
The agreement between the governor and the legislature would refund the trust and pay for hundreds of projects throughout the state ranging from road resurfacing to major bridge improvements as well as finally expanding the light rail north into Bergen County.
Christie put a halt to work on those projects statewide when the legislature came to an impasse on a funding plan for the trust fund. Now they will resume, but the summer weather optimum for the work have passed.
“Bringing light rail service into Bergen County has been an important priority for local leaders for many years and I am proud to say that the transportation funding deal we have reached will finally make it a reality,” said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto. “This expansion of public transit will have a tremendous economic impact on Northern New Jersey, opening up opportunities for businesses to thrive and communities to grow as commuters are given greater options.”
The agreement that would allow the gas tax to help fund the trust fund is good news, said DeGise.
“Senator Menendez and Rep. Sires made sure the federal money is available, but we need the state money to match it with local dollars,” DeGise said. “This allows us to leverage our local dollars with federal dollars to get the project done.”
DeGise said the conflict was about how to distribute the funds.
“Gov. Christie has been steering state money away from urban and suburban areas to rural areas, and this needs to be revisited,” DeGise said. “Expanding the light rail is very important. It is an investment in infrastructure. When you look at each stop along the light rail, it is not a coincidence that tall buildings are being constructed there.”
Light rail is a national model
First conceived more than 30 years ago, with construction started about 15 years ago, the light rail – funded by federal money – stopped short of achieving its goal to become a two-county system extending to Bergen County. Presently, the line runs from Bayonne through Jersey City, Hoboken, Weehawken, North Bergen, and Union City.
Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer has also been advocating for an uptown rail station so as to accommodate new development in a former warehouse district along Hoboken’s west side.
U.S. Senator Robert Menendez and Rep. Albio Sires were both instrumental in lining up the federal money for the expansion.
“Since its opening 15 years ago, the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line has become a national model for what transit project can be,” Menendez said earlier this year. “Light rail is more than just about moving people from one place to another; it’s about investing in our shared economic future … It has been a magnet for community development, attracting thousands of new residents for live in a thriving, walkable environment with access to good transit.”
As originally conceived, the light rail system was supposed to connect Hudson and Bergen counties. The original construction included lines that ran from the ferry terminal in Weehawken through Hoboken to downtown Jersey City, with a spur to the west side of Jersey City. Constructed in stages, intense lobbying by public officials successfully led to the construction of four stations in Bayonne. Recently, the line was expanded north to Union City and North Bergen.
Bergen County expansion would help commuters to New York
While there are studies underway for continued expansion through the western portion of Jersey City, officials hope to expand the line into Bergen County, allowing commuters another alternative to access jobs in New Jersey and in New York.
The proposal to use state money to fund the next step in expansion was boosted by members of the Hudson/Bergen Light Rail Commission, which is co-chaired by Englewood Mayor Frank Huttle III and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. The commission is made up of mayors from Hudson and Bergen Counties who represent towns along the existing or proposed northern extension.
Many people from Bergen County currently work in Jersey City. When advocating for refunding of the trust earlier this year, Huttle said the expansion would take cars off the roads. Huttle also noted that a light rail line would also allow people from throughout Hudson County to access jobs in Bergen County, where there are hospitals and other large employers.
DeGise said the extension from West Side Avenue to Route 440 near the Hackensack River would increase the potential for development of a 96-acre site called “Bayfront.”
Without light rail service, the site will generate about 4,200 units. With the extension, he said, the site will create about 8,200 units.
“Open space and commercial space would also double,” DeGise said.
The Route 440 project is a joint project between the city of Jersey City, which owns about 50 acres, and Honeywell Corporation, which was responsible for the cleanup of chromium pollution there
All of the gas tax could be used for the trust fund
The Hudson County Board of Freeholders passed a resolution last week urging voters to approve referendum No. 2 that would require the state to use all of the gas tax to fund the Transportation Trust Fund and only used for transportation purposes.
The New Jersey dedication of all gas tax revenue to Transportation Amendment also known as Public Question No. 2, is on the Nov. 8 ballot in New Jersey as a legislatively referred constitutional amendment.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.