NJDOT boss says road fund could go broke this summer

New Jersey Transit vice chairman Bruce Meisel, left, and acting chairman Richard Hammer attend a special meeting. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

New Jersey's top transportation official says the state's fund for road and bridge work will likely have enough cash to carry it beyond the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, but not too deep into the summer.

Acting Transportation Commissioner Richard Hammer told the Assembly budget committee Wednesday that the transportation trust fund will likely have money through "early August."

Republican Gov. Chris Christie and the Democrat-led Legislature have so far failed to agree on how to pay for the fund in the new fiscal year. Acting Treasurer Ford Scudder said recently he's confident the governor and lawmakers will reach a deal by the end of the current fiscal year on June 30.

Lawmakers expressed frustration at the stalemate.

"It seems to me this is extraordinary and it's not being approached with that kind of gravity," said Democratic Assemblyman Gary Schaer, who chairs the budget panel.

Hammer responded that the department is carrying on despite the uncertainty about funding.

"We are doing our job," he said.

Democrats have called for an increase in the gas tax. But Christie says any deal must result in "tax fairness" for the state's residents, but neither side has put forward a concrete plan to bridge the funding gap.

Authorization for the roughly $1.6 billion fund expires June 30.

Interim New Jersey Transit executive director Dennis Martin also appeared in front of the committee and echoed Christie's statement last month that a new labor agreement with 11 rail worker unions won't force the agency to raise fares between now and the end of the next fiscal year in June 2017.

Martin estimated NJ Transit's current budget gap at about $45 million. Last year the agency said a $60 million gap - after NJ Transit said it made roughly $40 million in cuts - forced it to hike fares for the fifth time since 2002.

Martin said Wednesday he expected to still have to close a gap when the current fiscal year ends but didn't estimate how much that might be. He said retroactive payments to rail workers, who had been working without a contract since 2011, won't start kicking in until 2017.

Of the 14 contracts involving 11 rail unions, three have been ratified so far, Martin said.
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