RIO GRANDE – Greg Lalevee traveled many roads from his Bridgewater home to arrive here by 7 a.m. May 3 so he could speak to Cape Issues members.
Lalevee, the business manager of Local 825 International Union of Operating Engineers, spoke about the possible extension of Route 55 into Cape May County for the safety of residents and visitors and the jobs that could result for his union's 6,800 members who operate heavy equipment used to create roads and erect bridges in New Jersey.
Moreover, Lalevee stressed the need for a legislative remedy to replenish the state's ailing Transportation Trust Fund.
Featured in an April 20 NJ SPOTLIGHT story by John Reitmeyer, Lalevee, who is also vice chairman of the Transportation Trust Fund Authority, wanted to impart to Cape Issues, a citizen group that seeks remedies of government problems, the fund's dire financial straits after June 30.
One replenishment avenue would mean an increase in the gasoline tax. Few legislators on both sides of the aisle in Trenton seem anxious to confront the matter, although it appears that is the only way to revitalize the fund. Once a stable funding source is reestablished, road construction and repairs, as well as renovations to many of the state's 2,300 bridges, classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, could occur, he said.
"Functionally obsolete means they can't carry traffic loads they were designed for or have outlived useful engineering life," Lalevee said. "Somehow this stuff has to get paid for," he added.
Lalevee pointed to borrowing that will, on July 1, pay $900 million to $950 million in interest payment on $1.3 billion in debt.
"That is already $400 million under water without doing projects or paying for new work," he told the group. Thus, no new projects will be started and existing debt remains.
Legislators have eyed "a path forward" with "a recent decision on swapping any revenue increase for a possible cut in the estate taxes or retirement taxes of charitable giving," Lalevee said.
"It's an economic issue all the way around," he added.
Questioned about Route 55's possible completion by Herald Publisher Art Hall, Lalevee cited a similar situation in his boyhood home of Springfield on Route 78 and Route 24.
"The environmental lobby" stopped Route 78, he said. Labeled a "chokepoint through Union County," by Lalevee, he said once hurdles were overcome, travel time from Reading, Pa., where he attended college to home was reduced by a half hour. Because of all the heavy traffic on those earlier roads, the result meant roadways "got pounded" by excess traffic. Once Route 78 got connected with Route 278, traffic flowed faster and there was less traffic on older roads.
Citing fatalities that occur on Route 47 and 347, because of Route 55's Cumberland County end, Lalevee said, "It's almost intolerable. What's a life worth?"
Noting the danger to thousands on the two-lane highways if a hurricane threatens in mid-summer, and an evacuation is mandated, Lalevee said, "To think (Hurricane) Sandy won't happen again is just folly.
"Much as you like to have tourists, you have to get people out in a time of crisis, and a crisis will come, and you need that point to get out," he said.
"From my standpoint, finishing Route 55 is extremely important to business and safety relief the other way," Lalevee said.
Asked by a Cape Issues member, "What is it going to take to get the money?" Lalevee replied, "Guts in Trenton."
Citing the ongoing construction of the Great Egg Harbor Bridge on Garden State Parkway entering Cape May County, Lalevee said that bridge "will last 50 years."
Bonding to complete Route 55 would be possible, but "It really was the lack of guts by people to stand up and say maybe our gas tax isn't covering where we need to go.
"We've run a $1.6 billion program from the state level for which we get federal matching funds. July 1, if we have no plan, no revenue to build, that federal money goes elsewhere," Lalevee said.
Lalevee cited the state’s three metropolitan planning organizations, which, he said, “Is just a reflection on how congested we are and how populated we are.”
To acquire federal funds, he noted, it is first necessary to have money and a plan. That is because cash is needed to start a project before federal funding is granted.
Dr. Tom Henry, a Cape Issues member, noted Route 55 is not the sole issue that could benefit from the Transportation Trust Fund. He cited bridges that connect barrier islands.
“You talk about bringing people into the state, you come over the Delaware Memorial Bridge and you get on Route 40 which is a two-lane cow path for 25 miles,” Henry said.
Assembly action is where funding legislation must start, Lalevee said.
At present, although out-of-state tourists populate roads from May to September, it is the state’s residents who carry “the complete load,” said Lalevee. If the gasoline tax were increased tourists would help pay some of that increased cost of transportation infrastructure.
“The cost of not doing something sometimes dwarfs the cost of doing something,” Lalevee said.