| NEW YORK, Sept 30
NEW YORK, Sept 30 A deadly New Jersey Transit
train crash this week has renewed questions about Republican
Governor Chris Christie's hard-nosed approach to a public
transit funding crisis, even as he announced a compromise on
Friday to pay for long-delayed construction projects.
The timing of Friday's announcement seemed telling, despite
the fact there is no reason yet to suspect a link between the
crash and a lack of funding, said Brigid Callahan Harrison, a
political science professor at Montclair State University.
"I think this put considerable pressure on the governor and
the state legislature to fix a situation that had not been
solved since August," she said.
A spokesman for Christie, however, said the meeting with
legislative leaders to discuss a potential resolution was
scheduled days before the Hoboken tragedy.
New Jersey Transit, among the busiest commuter rail systems
in the United States, has suffered from huge budget pressures as
Christie and state legislative leaders have sparred over how to
pay for much needed infrastructure improvements, experts said.
Thursday's crash inside Hoboken Terminal killed one woman
and injured more than 100 others after the train hurtled into
the station, smashing through a platform and collapsing a
section of the roof.
On Friday, Christie, a Republican, and the Democratic
leaders of the legislature's two houses announced a $16 billion
deal to fund the state's transportation trust fund, which
provides money for capital projects for highways and public
transit, through 2025.
The trust fund had essentially gone bankrupt earlier this
summer after Christie and legislators could not agree on how to
replenish it. The governor declared a state of emergency in July
and froze hundreds of ongoing projects, including $2.7 billion
worth of New Jersey Transit work.
Christie has been the "biggest obstacle to restoring
solvency to the transportation trust fund," said Janna Chernetz,
the director of New Jersey policy for the Tri-State
Transportation Campaign, an advocacy group.
She said Friday's deal, while good news, would keep funding
basically level when adjusted for inflation.
"It's just unfortunate that it took this much to get this
little," she said.
The accident's cause remains unknown. In an opinion piece in
the Star-Ledger newspaper on Friday, the state's transportation
commissioner, Richard Hammer, called it "irresponsible" to
suggest any link between the trust fund shutdown and the Hoboken
New Jersey Transit's funding problems go well beyond the
trust fund, however. The state's direct subsidy for the agency's
operating budget has decreased 90 percent in the last dozen
years, according to transit experts, even as ridership has grown
Approximately one-fifth of the annual operating budget has
come from the capital budget, according to Chernetz.
Meanwhile, the agency has been without an executive director
since last year and has canceled every public board meeting
since June, leaving observers in the dark about how it plans to
close a massive budget gap this year.
"Infrastructure is a basic building block of our economy in
New Jersey for all the obvious reasons, starting with the fact
that we're a corridor state," said Loretta Weinberg, the
Democratic majority leader in the state Senate and a vocal
Christie critic. "All the governor has ever done is cancel, veto
or stand in the way of moving ahead."
Christie's spokesman responded by pointing out that
Christie was the first governor in decades to agree to a gas tax
And the Republican minority leader of the Assembly, Jon
Bramnick, noted that Democrats have had significant majorities
in both houses for more than a decade and that the issue of
funding transportation has not been adequately addressed.
"If any group or agency would come to us and say there are
safety issues and we need emergency funding, I guarantee that
Republicans, Democrats and this governor would come together and
find a solution," he said.
Harrison said Christie had long refused to increase the gas
tax in order to bolster his conservative credentials as he
prepared to run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
"This was a foreseen situation; we knew about this two years
ago," she said. "I think the governor bears a fair amount of the
responsibility, because for much of that time, he has been
focused on his national ambitions."
Christie, who is a key adviser for Republican presidential
nominee Donald Trump, has seen his political ambitions fade
after his embroilment in the "Bridgegate" scandal.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Jeffrey
Dastin, Jarrett Renshaw and Hilary Russ; Editing by Lisa