Christie's New Transportation Commissioner Not Ruling Out Gas Tax Hike

by | September 23, 2014

By Andrew Seidman

The New Jersey Senate on Monday unanimously confirmed Jamie Fox, a former lobbyist and Democratic operative, to head the state Department of Transportation.

Fox's confirmation came just four days after Gov. Christie announced his nomination. Christie's selection for president of the Board of Public Utilities, Republican Richard S. Mroz of Haddonfield, also was confirmed.

Fox, 59, of New York City, is a former transportation commissioner who has worked for many New Jersey Democrats, including as chief of staff to Gov. Jim McGreevey. He replaces James Simpson, who resigned in June.

His main challenge will be to replenish the state's depleted Transportation Trust Fund, which finances projects to improve roads, bridges, and rail.

The fund is $15 billion in debt, and all revenue from the gasoline tax goes toward debt service. The Transportation Department says it will run out of money in July, at the start of the next fiscal year.

"We've reached the end of the line," Fox said Monday during a confirmation hearing before the Judiciary Committee. "We have to find a way to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund."

Asked by Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R., Bergen) if he would move away from borrowing as the primary way to fund transportation and instead seek to finance projects on a pay-as-you-go basis, Fox said, "I think if we don't move in that direction, we've made a terrible mistake."

Yet the committee notably did not ask Fox where the administration would find the money to shore up the fund.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) has signaled support for increasing the state's 14.5 cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline, which has not been raised in more than 20 years. State Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D., Union) introduced a bill this year to do just that.

That option has long been politically unpopular. Fox told reporters that "nothing is off the table," echoing remarks Christie made last week at a Statehouse news conference.

"The public just wants to know that we're going to have a dedicated funding source that's going to be used to improve our roadways, to make their commute easier, make their commute safer," Sen. Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen), chair of the budget committee, said during the hearing.

Fox agreed that the state should dedicate funding to the Transportation Trust Fund. Christie has opposed efforts to constitutionally dedicate funds for other purposes, such as for open space, though his signature is not required for such amendments.

Legislators also asked Fox about the high costs of transportation infrastructure in New Jersey. The Garden State spends more than $2 million per mile of state highway, the highest of any state, according to a Reason Foundation report released last week. The average per mile is $162,000.

"This is out of control," said Sen. Mike Doherty (R., Warren).

Fox said land and labor costs tend to be higher in New Jersey, a densely populated state.

Doherty asked Fox about Christie's decision in 2010 to kill the Access to the Region's Core (ARC) Tunnel from New Jersey to Manhattan.

"That's what elections are for," Fox said. Christie said the project faced billions of dollars in cost overruns.

Fox did say he believed "there needs to be some type of cross-Hudson tunnel of some type. The governor has shared that same position."

He added, "There's not a Berlin Wall that sits in the middle of the Hudson River. We're in this together."

Fox told reporters that he had sold his interest in his lobbying firm, Fox Shuffler, and would defer to his deputy on matters involving his former clients.

He said he withdrew his pension when he left state government years ago. He will earn an annual salary of $141,000, which he said was a pay cut.

Also confirmed Monday was Upendra J. Chivukula, an assemblyman, to the Board of Public Utilities. He is expected to resign his elected post.

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer