Christie signs bill to spend $400M on transportation

Dustin Racioppi, The Record

Gov. Chris Christie on Monday signed a bill authorizing $400 million in spending on transportation projects over the next three months.

The spending is in addition to the $1.6 billion the state has already dedicated to road and bridge work from its Transportation Trust Fund for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. The bill Christie signed Monday, A-98, dedicates $260 million to road and bridge projects and $140 million to NJ Transit for safety and technology upgrades.

"DOT is ready. The project list is done. There's something in all 21 counties across the state, so everyone is going to see improvement from this in every corner of the state of New Jersey," Christie said at a bill-signing ceremony at the Laborers' International Union of North America's South Jersey chapter, in Bordentown.

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Christie did not take questions after signing the bill, declining to address a Washington Post report that he will lead a national drug commission focused on combating opioid abuse. President Donald Trump is expected to make an announcement later this week, The Post reported. The two met for lunch last month to discuss drug policy.

But Christie did detour Monday from his message of jobs and transportation to try rallying support for his plan to force the state's largest health insurer, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, to pay into a permanent fund for drug treatment for the poor and uninsured. Christie said the insurance company has about $3 billion in surplus "and doesn't want to give any of it to help take care of members of our families who are drug-addicted and need treatment."

“It's obscene that they’re willing to pay their lobbyists millions and millions of dollars yet object to contributing anything to making sure that the drug-addicted in our state have a better tomorrow," Christie said.

“I’m going to make it really clear: If others won’t stand up against rich insurance companies to stand up for the poor and the drug-addicted in this state, this governor will stand up for those people," he added.

Horizon disputes Christie's surplus figure and said that while it is willing to work with the governor, it "will oppose any effort that will mean higher premiums and less security for our 3.8 million policyholders," spokesman Kevin McArdle said in an email, adding that policy holders have 75 days' worth of reserves.

"The governor’s reserve raid would result in a massive premium tax, which is why an unprecedented coalition from business, labor and reform groups have opposed this proposal," McArdle said. "Instead of raising the cost of health care for Horizon’s members, the governor should be tackling one of the root causes of sky-high health premiums: the $1 billion crisis of surprise medical bills and out-of-network price gouging.”

Christie made the call for Horizon's contribution during last month's budget address. In that same speech, he urged the Legislature to appropriate the $400 million for transportation spending. In a rare show of bipartisanship, the Democratic-led Legislature agreed with Christie and within two months had a bill on his desk. Christie signed the bill Monday flanked by lawmakers from both parties.

"A supplemental bill of this magnitude — $400 million for shovel-ready projects — it puts people back to work and it's a jolt to our economy," said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Secaucus.

The project list includes repairs to the Route 495 viaduct in North Bergen; resurfacing of Route 208 in Fair Lawn and Glen Rock and Route 20 in Paterson; and the installation of bicycle and pedestrian "amenities" on Route 93 in Leonia, Palisades Park and Ridgefield. Rail projects include surface improvements at South Center Street in Elmwood Park, West Fort Lee Road in Bogota and and East 18th and 27th streets in Paterson, according to the Department of Transportation.

Last year Christie and the Democratic leaders of the Legislature struck a deal to raise the gasoline tax by 23 cents a gallon to support annual spending of $2 billion from the trust fund for the next eight years. The appropriation signed by Christie on Monday brings the current year's transportation spending to $2 billion, he said.

“Our transportation infrastructure is the essence of our economy. It creates jobs and economic development and improves our quality of life," Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, a primary sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. "The sooner we get working on this, the better it is for everyone.”