N.J. lawmakers unveil $40M plan to repair Wildwood Boardwalk

The money would come from an unlikely source: the state’s Transportation Trust Fund. An expert called the plan ill-advised.

A crowded boardwalk in Wildwood

A crowded boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey. (Bill Barlow for WHYY)

Democratic lawmakers in a competitive race for their South Jersey legislative seats unveiled a $40 million proposal Tuesday to fund repairs to the Wildwood Boardwalk.

The money — $4 million a year for the next 10 years — would come from the Transportation Trust Fund, a pot of money typically dedicated to fixing New Jersey’s crumbling roads, bridges and mass transit systems.

The proposal comes less than a month after Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed a $60 million plan to fund repairs. Shortly after the veto, Wildwood had to shorten the route of its iconic tramcars due to damaged concrete supports discovered under the boardwalk.

“This funding is a crucial investment in one of New Jersey’s top tourism-related economic generators,” state Sen. Bob Andrzejczak, a Democrat who represents Cape May County and parts of Atlantic and Cumberland counties, said in a statement. “The Wildwood Boardwalk is an historic attraction that serves as the backbone of the community and the region.”

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Andrzejczak appeared in Wildwood on Tuesday alongside Assemblymen Bruce Land and Matt Milam. They are defending their 1st Legislative District seats this November against Cumberland County GOP Chairman Mike Testa of Vineland, Lower Township Mayor Erik Simonsen and Ocean City Councilman Antwan McClellan.

The race is among the most hotly contested in the state after the district’s popular Democratic state senator, Jeff Van Drew, won election to Congress last year.

Also in attendance at the Tuesday event was Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester. Testa, the Republican challenger for Andrzejczak’s Senate seat, panned the event as a campaign stunt.

“This isn’t a serious plan by Sen. Sweeney,” he said, “it’s a campaign photo-op to try and save his struggling incumbent senator who can’t defend the failed radical liberal agenda coming out of Trenton.”

The Democrats said in a statement they would introduce legislation to revise the Transportation Trust Fund’s rules to permit boardwalk repairs — a move Testa says he opposes.

So does Martin Robins, director emeritus of Rutgers University’s Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center. He said he is unaware of the trust fund ever being used for such a purpose and the proposal should be scrapped.

“I think they should get the money from another source,” he said. “It’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

The Transportation Trust Fund nearly went bankrupt in 2016, prompting former Gov. Chris Christie to halt construction projects across the state as he negotiated a fix with Democratic lawmakers.

The two sides eventually agreed to New Jersey’s first gas tax hike in nearly three decades to raise roughly $2 billion a year for the fund. The deal also reduced the sales tax, phased out the estate tax and increased tax benefits for the working poor and veterans.

Robins said the trust fund is already stretched thin. He said paying for boardwalk repairs would set a bad precedent.

“There will be many other times that boardwalks are going to be destroyed, what with climate change, and I think that this has not ever been considered and it should not be used,” he said.

Testa said Democrats had a chance to fund Wildwood Boardwalk repairs through the annual state budget, but failed to do so. In fact, Democratic lawmakers did include a mechanism to provide $4 million in funding, but Murphy, also a Democrat, said it was faulty and took it out.

“Now their solution to screwing South Jersey the first time is to try and fix it by raiding the Transportation Trust Fund?” Testa said. “What a joke.”

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