New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has declared a state of emergency due to Garden State lawmakers' inability to fulfill one of the basic obligations of government: keeping the roads passable.
The state's transportation trust fund will run dry this summer, leaving no money to pay for roads, bridges and transit. It's a slow-moving crisis that lawmakers have seen coming for years. And it has a fairly simple fix: raise the state's gas tax, which at 14.5 cents per gallon is the second-lowest in the nation.
The only state with a lower tax on gasoline in Alaska, which can afford low taxes partly because it's rich in oil revenue. But while New Jersey has no such luxury, lawmakers there haven't been particularly interested in paying for roads and bridges. The state's gas tax hasn't been raised since the 1980s.
New Jersey is an object lesson in what happens when you try to run a 21st-century highway system on 20th-century revenue streams. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the state a D+ rating on its infrastructure, warning that "a large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration. Condition and capacity are of significant concern with strong risk of failure." Other analyses have shown that New Jersey's roads are among the worst in the nation.
According to the ASCE's analysis, 42 percent of New Jersey's roadway system is "deficient." Traffic jams cost the state $5.2 billion annually, or $861 per driver. And potholes, bumps, and otherwise poorly-maintained roads cost each New Jersey driver nearly $2,000 a year in increased vehicle maintenance fees.
Given the expenses and headaches involved, you might think that New Jersey residents would be eager for a fix. But you'd be wrong: a recent Quinnipiac poll found that 54 percent of the state's residents oppose raising the gas tax to pay for road improvements.
New Jersey politicians see the gas tax as so unpalatable that they've only considered raising it in combination with lowering other taxes. Lawmakers currently can't agree on which other tax -- the sales tax or the estate tax -- to cut in order to raise the gas tax. Either plan would cut billions from the overall state budget.
Christie has long maintained that he would not raise gas taxes without getting some other tax cuts in the bargain. But since the legislature has been unable to come up with a suitable bargain, he's now forced to take the fairly unprecedented step of shutting down nearly all road work in the state.
While the governor and the legislature will likely spend much of the summer trying to lay blame for the crisis on each other, the real responsibility lies with the majority of people of New Jersey who don't want to pay for one of the most basic amenities of modern society. In a democracy you get the roads you deserve.