TRENTON, N.J.—Hundreds of thousands of people were traveling the roads in New Jersey on July 2, thankful they had been spared a potential 23-cent-per-gallon hike in the state's gasoline tax.
Many were headed to family events or weekend getaways, trips that they were happy to take without worrying about higher prices at the pumps. Several drivers said they understand why a gas tax hike is needed and are willing to pay it if it means improved roads and bridges, but they also sharply criticized the way state officials have handled the issue and questioned why any increase wasn't phased in over the past few years instead of being pushed on residents all at once.
There also were questions about how the state would now pay for transportation projects. Republican Gov. Chris Christie has issued an executive order calling for state transportation officials to develop a plan to start shutting down projects by 11:59 p.m. July 2, but no details on the plan had been announced by the evening.
The proposed hike fell through June 30 when the Democratic-led state Senate scrapped any votes on Christie's plan to hike the gas tax while cutting the sales tax from 7 percent to 6 percent over nearly two years.
It was part of a deal Christie had reached with Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto. The proposal had passed Tuesday in the Democrat-led Assembly. The increase would have sent New Jersey's current gas tax of 14.5 cents per gallon from second-lowest in the country behind Alaska to roughly equal that of Connecticut, which has the sixth-highest at 37.51 cents, according to the Tax Foundation, an independent tax policy research organization.
The funds raised through the gas tax hike would have been used to replenish the state's transportation trust fund, which pays for road, bridge and transit work.
It is unclear how many projects will now be affected, but Christie said transportation trust fund money shouldn't be spent on any projects that aren't "absolutely essential." Projects done with federal money won't be affected.
"With five kids between 4 and 13, we do a lot of driving for sports, ballet lessons, etc., and I'm driving an hour each way to get to work," Doug Martin said the morning of July 2 while gassing up his family's minivan in Freehold Township. Martin, his wife and their five children were headed from their Manalapan home to Westchester County in New York for a weekend family gathering.
"The cost of gas starts to add up and, with a tight family budget, you look to save where you can," Martin said. "But since it seems like (a gas tax hike) won't be happening any time soon, we figured we could—and would—make this trip."
The average price of a gallon of regular gas in the state on July 1 was $2.09, down 2 cents from last week, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic. That's the third straight week it's been down and also much lower than the price from a year ago, when motorists were paying $2.60.
Other drivers said the state has mishandled the situation for years.
"If they had raised (the gas tax) gradually over the last few years, we could have gotten a lot of work done and it wouldn't have seemed like such a stiff shot to the wallet," said George Tucker, 44, of Jackson. "No one wants to pay more, obviously, but this is work that needs to be done. They don't raise it for years, then they sock you with a big boost all at once. Stupid—that's what it is."