(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Saturday, March 7, 2009.)
New Jersey’s poorest county could end up without a dime from President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan’s transportation funding.
Gov. Jon S. Corzine revealed Thursday the 55 transportation projects that state officials chose to receive New Jersey’s $894 million share of federal transportation funding. Not one Cumberland County project was among them.
Nineteen other counties had projects funded. A 20th, Sussex County, saw funding go toward a rail line planned to cut through it. The only chance Cumberland has of seeing any of the $894 million is by applying and competing with 16 other counties for some of a $3 million allocation for replacement minibuses through NJ Transit.
Local reactions varied Friday, but officials had one thing in common: They were not happy. Vineland City Council President Pete Coccaro called it “disappointing.” Cumberland County Freeholder Bill Whelan was angry about being “treated unfairly.” Those feelings trickled down beyond just public officials.
“This county is the poorest county in all of the 21 counties of New Jersey,” said Paul Frasnelli, a retired teacher from Vineland. “We have the highest unemployment rate and some of the highest dropout rates. It gets frustrating.”
State officials considered 65 projects, according to state Department of Transportation documents. Of those, one was in Cumberland County: $21 million for improvements to the Route 49 and Route 55 interchange. It was turned down in favor of 39 other DOT projects and another 16 from New Jersey Transit.
“Regional balance was an important factor in DOT’s selection of projects,” DOT spokeswoman Erin Phalon said. “However, other criteria precluded DOT from selecting additional projects.”
That didn’t satisfy Cumberland County Freeholder Director Lou Magazzu, who said he heard the same from the Governor’s Office.
“I fail to see how any formula would not include Cumberland County,” said Magazzu, who added that he plans to fight for more funding. “It has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.”
Phalon said another $162 million in funding is available through metropolitan planning organizations, such as the South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization. A DOT list of projects that could be funded that way includes several Cumberland projects. State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said he has assurances from federal and state officials that some of that funding will go to Cumberland.
“This is far from over,” Van Drew said.
Some critics say the governor’s choices won’t create nearly as many new jobs as they could have.
For example, the second-highest-funded project is the Route 52 causeway replacement from Somers Point to Ocean City. But that project has been planned and under way for years, and flooding federal money to a project that already had funding does not create new jobs, said state Assemblyman John Amadeo, R-Atlantic.
“These jobs have been counted on,” Amadeo said. “We’re not getting anything new out of it.”
U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, voted against the stimulus plan, and one of his problems with it was that it put transportation funding decisions in the hands of state governments, spokesman Jason Galanes said.
“The explicit purpose of the stimulus is to create jobs,” Galanes said. “The Route 52 project is started and already had funding in place. So it’s not creating any new jobs. … If you took (the money) from the Route 52 causeway, you could spread it out in Cumberland and Salem. The state just wanted to save money (on Route 52) so it could spend it on other things elsewhere in the state.”
Phalon said that was a good thing, because it will speed up construction and free up state funding for other projects. Construction was — and is — set to begin this spring, she said. She also said the stimulus funding is going toward a second contract for construction, with the first one nearly complete.
Cumberland County’s omission marks the second major federal funding bill in which the county, generally considered to be New Jersey’s poorest, received no funding. The U.S. Senate has held up the $410 billion omnibus bill required to keep the federal government operating. That bill, which provided funding for numerous projects across the country, included nothing for Cumberland County.
The process for distributing the economic stimulus money has always been relatively murky. Both the city of Vineland and Cumberland County submitted more than a dozen projects they hoped would receive funding, but neither knew at the time how the money would be distributed. Van Drew similarly has been relying on accounts from federal officials, while many members of Congress do not know all the funding mechanisms.
But one thing is clear so far: In New Jersey, Cumberland has arguably gotten the smallest piece of the $894 million stimulus pie.
“Nobody expects everything they ask for from a finite sum of money, but we expect to be treated fairly,” said Whelan, the Cumberland freeholder. “We’re being treated unfairly.”