New Jersey panel backs nominee for state’s DOT chief

Richard Hammer testifies before a New Jersey Senate panel Thursday. (Phil Gregory/WHYY)

Richard Hammer testifies before a New Jersey Senate panel Thursday. (Phil Gregory/WHYY)

The Senate Judiciary Committee has voted unanimously to recommend that Richard Hammer be confirmed as New Jersey’s Department of Transportation commissioner.

Senators said Thursday they’re pleased Gov. Chris Christie selected a 34-year-career DOT employee to run it, but they questioned Hammer about the nearly-bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg criticized the administration’s decision to suspend hundreds of transportation projects without sufficient study.

“Everything was shut down without much thought for what they were or what the financial implications might be,” she said. “Everything was shut down based upon nothing other than we have contractors who stand by in case there is an emergency.”

Hammer expects an assessment soon on whether halting any of the projects jeopardizes public health and safety.

“We have not as of yet come across any projects that should continue to move forward. The bottom line is we don’t any have money,” he said. “The responsible thing to do is to stop to spend, we’re running out of money, and to use those dollars towards emergent needs that we need to respond to on a daily basis.”

Hammer said there’s no estimate on how much suspending those projects will cost.

“It’s difficult to determine that until after it has completed itself,” he said. “Obviously there will be many costs that will be accrued both by contractors and other and those are they type of things we’ll have to evaluate on a case by case basis.”

Hammer said he hopes lawmakers and the governor will reach a compromise to replenish the trust fund so construction can resume.

Senate President Steve Sweeney said he’s still waiting for Christie to respond to his latest offer to replenish the fund.

“This week is done. If he gives us something back, it’s going to take us a day at least to look at it. Next week they’re not here. So the earliest you’re going to have some kind of solution to it is the week of the Democrat National Convention,” he said. “That being in Philadelphia means that if we could come to a solution we absolutely would come back here.”

Sen. Ray Lesniak is proposing a three-year phase in of a gas tax increase that would boost the price of a gallon of gas 10 cents in each of the first two years and five cents in the third year.

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