Anthony Attanasio, the executive director of the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association, spoke Wednesday, Feb. 21 to members of NAIOP New Jersey. — Photo by Real Estate NJ
By Joshua Burd
Despite a new dose of funding from the state’s gas tax, New Jersey is still far from achieving the level of investment it needs to sustain its vital transportation infrastructure.
That was one key message on Wednesday from a top advocate for infrastructure spending, who offered a mix of good news and bad news to a crowd of developers and service professionals. New Jersey is better equipped to repair its roads, bridges and tunnels than it was less than two years ago, but is still struggling to jumpstart many of those projects.
“Raising the capital fund was a herculean effort, which took 28 years to do,” said Anthony Attanasio, the executive director of the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association, which is based in Wall. “Now there’s a problem with getting the money on the street.”
The lobbyist and former state transportation official spoke Wednesday to members of NAIOP’s New Jersey chapter, as part of the group’s infrastructure and logistics update. Much of the event focused on funding for highway projects, reflecting a critical issue for the state’s industrial and office sectors and a top priority for NAIOP.
Attanasio said the state “came out with a bang” after fall 2016, when Gov. Chris Christie and lawmakers agreed to a long-awaited, 23-cent hike in New Jersey’s gas tax. The Department of Transportation awarded $1.2 billion in contracts within the first year of the gas tax measure, he said, leading to the welcome sight of paving crews up and down the state’s roadways.
But the DOT and NJ Transit have awarded only $300 million in contracts through the first eight months of state fiscal year 2018, Attanasio said. The largest challenge is “the people problem” he said, believing the department has suffered over the past decade by retirements of dozens of longtime engineers and other technical staff.
State civil service rules have meant that those experts were largely replaced by young engineers coming right out of school, he said. Those staffers need years to get up to speed on what it takes “to design, fund, manage and deliver major complex infrastructure projects.”
“So if we don’t address the people problem, we’re never going to be able to get the rate of return on our investment that we expect from our gas tax,” said Attanasio, a former DOT assistant commissioner and deputy chief of staff with NJ Transit. He cited the need for civil service reform and hiring back retirees as part-time consultants, adding that the state needs to offer more competitive salaries to its transportation officials, noting that many have been poached by transit agencies in New York.
Attanasio said his group was encouraged by the sentiments of Gov. Phil Murphy, who was sworn in last month and has touted infrastructure investment as a means of spurring the economy. Yet new TTF dollars are still slow to get out because they are being put toward debt service from prior years and local aid that often goes unused by municipalities.
“Imagine if we actually had properly funded and properly staffed infrastructure agencies — what it could do for the economy and what it could do for getting you from point A to point B,” said Attanasio. “This is the struggle that we face every day in our industry.”
One other solution is greater use of the private sector to deliver projects, he said, noting that outside engineers and consultants already play a large role in design and inspection. Attanasio also called for giving design-build authority to the state’s transportation agencies.
“Design-build is a quicker way of delivering projects and it utilizes the skillset and assets of engineers and contractors, bringing them together and focusing on the strengths of the private sector’s assets to deliver public infrastructure,” he said.
Attanasio’s keynote helped to highlight what has been a longtime concern for commercial real estate advocates and a continued focus after the gas tax measure.
“We all want to know that those funds are being deployed effectively and that we are getting our money’s worth,” NAIOP New Jersey CEO Michael McGuinness said, adding that members are also “deeply concerned about the fate of Gateway” and the lack of federal funding for the new Hudson River rail tunnel.
Attanasio said it was clear that the TTF “is no longer capable of shouldering megaprojects” that come with billion-dollar price tags. That includes Gateway, which is seen as the region’s most desperately needed project, but now faces an uncertain future and a gaping lack of federal support under President Trump’s recent budget proposal.
The UTCA official blasted Christie’s decision to cancel the so-called ARC tunnel in 2010, given that it had secured commitments for federal funding. And while he believes the Trump administration and Congress will ultimately provide a larger share of funding for Gateway, he said, the project will still take eight years to build.
Despite that uncertainty, Attanasio ended on a positive note related to Murphy’s early support of transportation spending.
“What’s great for us in New Jersey … is that we have the right governor for infrastructure investment,” he said. “Gov. Murphy made it very clear that infrastructure investment is a top priority of his administration. He recognizes its importance to the economy and his constituents and he wants to see our sector moving and working.
“Right now, we’re encouraged by everything we’re getting back from the administration on where their focus is when it comes to that sector.”