Corzine hesitant about gas tax hike

June 25, 2008 11:06:36 AM PDT
New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine on Wednesday said he continues to be hesitant to increase the state's gasoline tax to pay for transportation work, citing the burden motorists are already facing with higher gas prices. "The public, for all practical purposes, has had a dollar or more increase in their expenditures with respect to gasoline in the last 15 months," Corzine told The Associated Press. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a tax that's being imposed on us by oil producers."

Corzine earlier this year proposed significantly increasing highway tolls to pay for transportation improvements and cut state debt, but the plan lacked public and legislative support. It called for spending $42.1 billion on transportation work in the next decade.

The Democratic governor's attention then turned to a new state budget that cuts spending amid economic woes. The Legislature approved a spending plan on Monday, and Corzine is expected to sign it before Tuesday.

His attention will then turn back to finding a way to pay for highway, bridge and mass transit improvements.

The state's transportation fund is expected to run out of money in 2011, and the federal government wants a transportation funding plan in place by Oct. 1, if it's to contribute money toward a new Hudson River rail tunnel.

The federal government has expressed a willingness to contribute $3 billion to the $7.5 billion project, with New Jersey and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey paying the rest.

Corzine on Wednesday refused to detail what he may propose, but noted the looming deadline.

"It needs to be addressed, and there's certainly concerns about the status of our infrastructure," Corzine said.

He said he's hopeful the federal government may give the state some leeway around Oct. 1, but added, "The Transportation Department may come to us at some point and say, 'What's your plan?"' The Legislature doesn't plan any activity through the summer and Corzine said he currently doesn't plan to force them back to weigh transportation costs.

"At this moment in time, there are no plans to call a special session," Corzine said.

New Jersey's 14.5-cent per gallon tax is the nation's third lowest.

The average state gas tax is 23.6 cents per gallon, according to the American Petroleum Institute, and the Garden State's low levy has helped New Jerseyans enjoy gas prices that consistently rank among cheapest in the nation.

According to AAA, the national average Wednesday was $4.067 cents per gallon, compared to $3.988 in New Jersey.

Despite hesitancy, Corzine wouldn't rule out a gas tax increase. Several legislators back increasing the gas tax as much as 18 cents to help pay for transportation work.

"I'm not precluding anything," Corzine said. "We haven't crossed those bridges. I just have this real sympathy for people who are having difficulty making ends meet at a time when energy prices are pressing against their disposable income."

Corzine refused to address proposals to place tolls on free highways, other than to say, as he has before, "It should be analyzed."

Some legislators suggest putting tolls on Interstates 78 and 80 at the Pennsylvania border.

Corzine also wouldn't say whether he would let the New Jersey Turnpike Authority invoke its own authority to increase tolls to pay for widening the turnpike and parkway.

Corzine's initial plan called for paying down at least half of $32 billion in state debt. With the soon-to-be-signed budget paying down $650 million in debt, Corzine said the priority with a new plan will be addressing the transportation system.

"First thing we have to do is take care of the deficit we have in transportation infrastructure so we don't end up having a Minneapolis bridge collapse," Corzine said, referencing last August's interstate bridge collapse that killed 13 people.