State lawmakers on Monday scrapped a requirement that new transportation funds should first be spent on long-neglected roads and bridges.
Lawmakers also ditched language mandating the state to build new highway and rail projects in older, more established "smart growth" areas, rather than in more suburban and rural regions.
The move outraged environmentalists, who say the revamped Transportation Trust Fund will now go to paving over many parts of New Jersey.
But others caution that the measures, changed in both the Assembly and Senate on Monday, could eliminate loopholes that would have meant more roads and more traffic. One such loophole would have allowed the state new highways through the Pinelands and other environmentally sensitive regions, lawmakers and analysts said.
The changes were made to Governor Corzine's $8 billion plan to fund highway and public transportation projects over the next five years.
Lawmakers had originally planned to require 96 percent of all money to go to projects in smart growth zones or to projects that need repairs. Four percent of the funds would be left to new roads.
The Senate voted Monday to remove that requirement. The Assembly Appropriations Committee also made the change.
"There was an effort as the bill was being drafted to try and accommodate smart growth language which would have restricted new highway growth and thereby restricting sprawl," said Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, D-Middlesex. "However, the concept is easier in theory than it is to get it in language."
Eliminating the requirements gives more flexibility to the Department of Transportation, he said.
"I'm not sure that a document that creates funding for transportation is the appropriate place to put in a major policy change about controlling sprawl," Wisniewski said.
Environmentalists have long sought to require the state to spend money on repairing existing bridges and roads, rather than building new ones, which they say encourages new development and more traffic congestion.
Sierra Club Executive Director Jeff Tittel said the Legislature's moves on Monday strengthened the ability of politically connected developers to lobby lawmakers and the DOT for their pet road projects.
"By taking that policy out, it means you can now widen any road anywhere and you can now build any new roads," Tittel said. "By legislative pressure, we're going to go from fix it first to sprawl it first."
Corzine pitched the plan earlier this month, which avoided raising taxes by refinancing a portion of the program's existing debt and borrowing more than $6 billion. During his announcement, Corzine said the money would help ease congestion and cut back on sprawl.
But the Legislature's move seemed to have won the tacit endorsement of the governor. A spokesman suggested that Corzine believes that other state policies to reduce sprawl are sufficient.
"The administration is committed to sound smart growth policies and provisions are in place to reinforce this important priority," said Anthony Coley.
The 22-year-old highway program had faced a day of reckoning on July 1. Officials say that is when the gas tax revenue would be used to pay off existing debt, leaving the state with no money for road repairs or new projects. The state would also lose billions of dollars in federal highway funds without a stable transportation trust fund.
Corzine's plan, which must be approved by the Legislature, also aims to generate nearly $1 billion by freeing up money from a variety of existing sources. It calls for stretching out repayment of some of the fund's existing debt and for using 1.5 cents of the 14.5 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax.
This pool of money would be used to fund some projects directly, and would allow the state to borrow $6.4 billion in new loans. Corzine and his advisers declined to say how much it would cost eventually to repay the new $6.4 billion over the coming decades.
Provided by NorthJersey.com