TRENTON, N.J. (AP/WCBS 880) -- The head of New Jersey Transit on Monday told lawmakers that there have been discussions about scrapping plans for a new rail tunnel to New York and using the state's portion of the money for other state transportation projects.
Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski repeatedly asked transit chief James Weinstein whether Gov. Chris Christie's administration was considering using the money to keep the state Transportation Trust Fund solvent.
Weinstein replied, "There have been those discussions, yes, but there have been no decisions."
The trust fund provides money for improvements to state highway systems and mass transit. It's set to run out of money by July.
Christie has ruled out increasing highway tolls or the gas tax to help replenish the trust fund, and has yet to say where he'll find the money for it.
Christie recently halted work on the $8.7 billion tunnel to New York for 30 days over concerns that the project would go over its budget and New Jersey would be forced to cover the overrun, which some reports estimated could be as high as $1 billion.
For its part, New Jersey has committed $2.7 billion to the project.
The tunnel, scheduled to be completed in 2018, is the largest federal transportation project in the country and expected to double train traffic in and out of New York during peak commute times, from 23 trains to 48. Officials have estimated it will create 6,000 construction jobs and add at least 40,000 new jobs after it is completed.
Democrats have accused Christie of playing politics by putting the project on hold.
"My challenge to the administration is, 'State today that you are not going to use the money from the tunnel, that you're not canceling the tunnel project, to refund the Transportation Trust Fund,'" said Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-West Deptford.
Tri-state Transportation spokesperson Zoe Baldwin said "the Arc Tunnel funding is one of the options that this administration is looking to to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund."
"Taking money from Arc Tunnel to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund is a short term gimmick and would hurt the region's mobility for generations to come," Baldwin told WCBS 880 reporter Levon Putney.
Even the New Jersey Sierra Club, which objects to the tunnel because the rail line would not connect directly to Penn Station, thinks it is better than using the money on roads.
"Don't steal the funds, fix the project," Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel said.
Democrats have cautioned that the state is in jeopardy of losing the full $3 billion committed by the government, which federal transportation officials said is the largest grant of its kind ever given.
"The federal government and Port Authority didn't commit $6 billion for this critical tunnel project so that Gov. Christie could turn the project into a slush fund to solve other problems," said New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who helped secure federal funding for the tunnel.
On Monday, Weinstein also said . Christie didn't know about a federal audit criticizing the tunnel when he reaffirmed New Jersey's commitment to the project.
The audit was posted online six weeks after Christie reaffirmed New Jersey's $2.7 billion commitment to the $8.7 billion project, Weinstein said.
The audit, first reported in the Record of Bergen County, said New Jersey Transit didn't have a plan to combat waste, fraud and abuse on the project.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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