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Experts critical of Christie’s transportation funding fix

Transportation experts on Friday criticized Governor Christie’s proposal to spend Port Authority money on state-owned roads and bridges, saying it amounts to using the bi-state agency as a “piggy bank” for projects outside of its control.

Gov. Chris Christie

Gov. Chris Christie

“It sets a bad precedent because New York has the same fiscal problems,” said Robert D. Yaro, president of the Regional Planning Association. “Most of what the governor proposed is a digression from the Port Authority’s core mission.”

The Port Authority, a self-sustaining bi-state agency whose commissioners are appointed by the governors of New York and New Jersey, generates money from the region’s ports, airports and Hudson River crossings. It would have to approve Christie’s plan with the blessing of New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Neither Cuomo nor Christie’s office responded to requests for comment on Friday.

The $1.8 billion in Port Authority money that would be spent on state roads under Christie’s plan was earmarked for projects that would benefit New Jersey, part of a trade-off for the agency’s multibillion-dollar commitment to rebuilding the World Trade Center in Manhattan, said a source familiar with Christie’s plan.

The 89-year-old Port Authority has traditionally split its spending on agency-controlled projects evenly between both states but rarely spends money on facilities or roads that it does not own.

In exchange for the World Trade Center, the Port Authority had agreed to contribute $3 billion to a trans-Hudson commuter tunnel that Christie killed two months ago. After the decision to halt the tunnel, considered a New Jersey project, Christie took charge in deciding how that money would be spent.

But transportation experts questioned the wisdom of using it on projects that will not bring the Port Authority revenues. They said it could weaken the agency financially or force future fare, toll or fee hikes.

“He’s asking the Port Authority to plug a hole in New Jersey’s road program,” said Kate Slevin, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “I think that raises concerns.”

“We need more transportation resources, not less, and we’re concerned this proposal plugs one deficit with funds that are already supposed to be spent on something else.”

Slevin said Christie’s proposal, announced Thursday as part of a five-year transportation spending plan, has some bright spots. It relies less on long-term borrowing and increases pay-as-you-go spending.

The plan calls for the Port Authority to pay for upgrades to the Pulaski Skyway, the Wittpenn Bridge on Route 7 in Kearny, Route 139 and the Portway New Road in Jersey City. Those projects “link the Holland Tunnel and the Port,” the governor’s office said in a statement announcing the plan.

Martin Robins, founding director of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center, said that if Cuomo agrees to plan, he might ask for similar deals in the future to prop up New York’s ailing transportation accounts.

“New York has needs coming out of their ears,” he said. Both Robins and Yaro noted, for example, that the Tappan Zee Bridge is in need of repairs New York cannot afford. The state’s Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority are also facing deficits, Yaro said.

If Cuomo balks, it could set up a partisan battle between two of the country’s most-watched governors.

Robins said that Christie’s request is not without precedent. The Port Authority has paid for projects that will not produce revenue or add to their assets in the past.

“But the more you start adding to the portfolio of things that don’t add any return on your investment, it can eat away at the Port Authority’s financial capability,” he said.

Robins, a former Port Authority employee, said the agency “does an incredible amount of analysis to determine that they’ll have a return on their investments because they are a self-sustaining agency.”

Yaro added that it’s a stretch to say that the roads and bridges Christie wants fixed with Port Authority money fit with the agency’s mission.

“The larger concern is that the Port Authority not be turned into a piggy bank,” he said. “It was created for very specific needs in a region that happens to have two states with a barrier running down the middle of it. And unfortunately, we haven’t increased new capacity across the Hudson” for decades, he said.

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