Key federal lawmakers and transportation advocates said raising the federal gas tax could be the only way to establish a long-term, stable funding source for mass transit expansion projects - like the $8.7-billion plan to build a second commuter rail tunnel to Manhattan.
But Governor-elect Chris Christie has vowed not to raise New Jersey's 14.5-cent-per-gallon tax to replenish the state's diminishing funding resources for road and rail projects. Both state and federal taxes - which combined add 32.9 cents to the per-gallon price - haven't been raised in about two decades.
Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., a leading voice on transportation issues, wants a six-year, $550-billion federal transportation program that would include a 5-cent federal gas tax increase. The 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax, which hasn't been raised since 1993, provides most of the money for projects that benefit from the program.
Oberstar, who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has said funding for the six-year program will fall about $140 billion short if the federal gas tax remains the same.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, said the federal government should have acted quicker to address New Jersey's transportation needs so it wouldn't be forced to raise taxes during a recession. But now, he said, Congress must act.
"The last thing we want to do is increase a gas tax," said Pascrell, who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee. "We should have done this five years ago when we didn't have such a downturn in the economy."
Similarly, State Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, said New Jersey should consider raising its own gas tax because the state may have nowhere else to turn when its Transportation Trust Fund runs out of money in 2011. The 14.5-cent-per gallon tax now charged by New Jersey contributes to the fund.
The situation concerns critics who say New Jersey commuters could ultimately pay too much for the rail tunnel to Manhattan, an $8.7-billion project that they believe won't do enough to relieve traffic congestion in the region.
Christie, in turn, has called for establishing a "pay-as-you-go" system that would fund transportation projects without borrowing additional money or raising taxes. Christie vowed that legislators "are not going to tax our way" out of years of fiscal mismanagement of the state's finances.
"We have a structural problem in New Jersey which must be fixed, so those who advocate increased taxes as a solution have just misdiagnosed the problem," he said.
The state has some of the most congested roads in the country, and many of its bridges are in disrepair. But critics say it lacks mass transit capacity that could provide needed relief.
Others, as a result, say they're concerned that Christie's anti-tax vow will limit the resources the state has for contributing to the tunnel and other projects.
Before losing the election, Governor Corzine proposed raising New Jersey's gas tax to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund.
The fourth-lowest-in-the-nation tax hasn't been raised in two decades, and transportation advocates worry that the Christie administration will either borrow money or fail to provide any funding to save the Transportation Trust Fund.
"Governor-elect Christie needs to ensure the stability of New Jersey's transportation network and that is going to require more money - plain and simple," said Zoe Baldwin, spokeswoman for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
The tunnel project, which would double mass transit capacity into New York City, has received funding commitments of $3 billion from the Port Authority; $1.5 billion from the state; and $1.25 billion from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. The rest of the money - about $3 billion - would come from the federal government. So far, Congress has committed about $650 million.
The public, however, remains largely opposed to raising the gas tax. A poll released Tuesday by Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University found 62 percent of those surveyed oppose increasing the gas tax to pay for road and transit improvements in New Jersey. But the opposition to a gas tax hike is down from the 74 percent who were opposed to it in 2007.
Oberstar has said Congress needs to double its funding of transportation programs over the next six years so the nation can fix a crumbling transportation infrastructure that's outdated and over capacity.
"A six-year authorization is important because states require a long time to plan, contract and build surface transportation projects," he said. "Therefore, the states need to know what federal funds are available in the out years as part of their planning process."