Josh Gottheimer says that when he talks to out-of-state CEOs about coming to New Jersey, they’re bound to say, “Your infrastructure is a mess.”
Few would disagree with that assessment. The more challenging thing is fixing the problem.
Gottheimer, a Democrat who represents the 5th congressional district in North Jersey, admittedly can do nothing to improve things himself.
However, in hopes of trying to start something productive, Gottheimer Wednesday afternoon hosted a roundtable discussion of about two dozen or so construction executives and union leaders in a Paramus union hall.
This soon evolved into a gripe session about over regulation and a frustrating state bureaucracy.
Joseph Sanzari, who runs one of the largest heavy construction firms in the state, said that politicians sound ambitious, but upon election, “They get amnesia. They don’t want to make waves.”
There was no dispute over the magnitude of the problem.
Gottheimer said his information suggests that a third of New Jersey roads need immediate attention and that a quarter of state bridges are either structurally deficient or obsolete.
Sanzari explained that a bridge in that category is not necessarily going to collapse.
However, cement fragments falling from underneath the bridge could strike unsuspecting motorists and cause accidents.
The congressman, who faces reelection this fall, said he wants to see, or to put together, a list of the top 10 bridge and/or road projects in Bergen County.
Michael Stiles, the business manager for Local 274 of the Pipefitters Union, said such a list existed for all 21 counties during the push two years ago for increasing the state’s gasoline tax by 23 cents per gallon. But he said he hasn’t seen it since then.
When and if such a list is found, Gottheimer said he wanted to put together an “action team” to get the projects moving.
No one disagreed, but many at the meeting spoke darkly – if not cynically – on how hard it is to get things done in New Jersey.
Rick Sabato, president of the Bergen County Building and Construction Trades Council, bemoaned the fact that it has taken 20 years – and counting – to improve a stretch of Route 17 in Rochelle Park.
Speakers talked about local political opposition to many road projects, a slow-moving state department of transportation and what they considered maddening environmental regulations.
Stiles, for instance, complained that especially in the southern part of the state, projects are often stymied by the presence of a protected species of frog, snake or turtle.
Gottheimer sought to re-focus the discussion on an immediate problem – the Gateway Tunnel.
He said there already is a lot of panic as to what would happen to the region if one of the aging rail tubes under the Hudson River must be taken out of service.
This issue is complicated by politics – then and now.
Governor Christie early in his administration scrapped plans for what was then called the Arc Tunnel. And now, Gottheimer said the Gateway Tunnel is not seen as a priority by the Trump administration.
Complicating things further is the pending closing of lanes on the Route 495 approach to and from the Lincoln Tunnel for maintenance.
The congressman’s roundtable was designed to talk about how to deal with the “summer of hell.”
But considering the ongoing traffic woes and the likelihood of more to come, hell on New Jersey roads may last more than one summer.