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Advocate: Transportation bill 'disappointing in many ways'

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Federal legislation to issue funding for highway, bridge and transit construction projects through 2014 is scheduled for approval in Congress today, but a New Jersey transportation advocate said the state's share of funding will not boost more development.

"This bill allows New Jersey to avoid a shutdown of transportation funding, but it's disappointing in many ways," said Steven Higashide, federal advocate of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "The federal investment maintains current levels of funding plus a small inflationary increase, which is not keeping pace with historic ridership increases in New Jersey. It's unclear if New Jersey can make a significant dent in the large repair backlog that it has. It's really up to the state to step up investment in public transportation."

Higashide said the short-term extensions to the last transportation bill, which expired in 2009, have "made it hard for the state to plan ahead and see larger projects get off the ground," leaving the Department of Transportation to put its focus on road and bridge repair.

Higashide said the advocacy group is disappointed that reforms to incentivize repair projects and funding for streetscape projects — which are popular among the state's municipalities — did not make it into the final version of the bill.

"Incentivizing repairs would have given states a blank check," Higashide said. "It would've allowed them to build roads to nowhere, if they preferred."

Higashide also said he's "a little worried about the bill's environmental review streamlining provisions," which make it increasingly difficult for local communities to provide input on projects that impact their properties.

According to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chaired negotiations in the Senate that led to a compromise on the long-stalled bill Thursday, the $109 billion plan would save a total of 1.8 million construction jobs nationwide by maintaining federal aid to states, and create 1 million jobs by leveraging private-sector investment in transportation projects through federal loan guarantees.

Higashide said it remains unclear how much public transportation funding New Jersey would receive from the final plan, but noted that if current levels are maintained, "it's not going to solve the state's funding problem."

In a statement, Stephen E. Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, said, "Beyond this immediate measure, we expect and encourage members of Congress to work in a similar bipartisan and bicameral manner to address the long-term funding challenges that will continue to threaten highway and transit investments after this new measure expires."

Without approval by Congress today, the current transportation funding extension will expire Saturday.

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