After two years sitting on the state assembly’s transportation committee, Assemblyman Daniel Benson took the board’s reins in January, and found himself at the center of an issue Gov. Phil Murphy has called one of his top priorities.
That would be upgrading New Jersey’s faltering transportation system, a multi-faceted problem.
“New Jersey used to have one of the best transportation systems in the country,” Benson said. “Unfortunately, in the last eight to 10 years, it’s really been run into the ground. The amount of funding from the state was cut by a lot.”
Benson has been no stranger to tackling important issues since first elected to the state Assembly in 2011. He sponsored bills like the Opioid Overdose Antidote act, which Benson said “kicked off getting the opioid antidote [Narcan] into the hands of first responders and those recovering, so that they could reverse an overdose if needed. It’s been used very successfully, but none of us could ever imagine the scale at which it was needed.”
Benson previously served on the Hamilton Township council from 2002-2005 and Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders from 2008-2011. He served as deputy speaker pro tempore from 2015-17.
In his time in the Assembly, Benson has also had experience with transportation issues and legislation, including helping pass stricter road rage laws during his first term in Trenton. In 2015, Benson joined the transportation committee and began tackling more issues regarding state infrastructure. Through his term, Benson said he witnessed many developing problems.
New Jersey has seen a rise in transportation-related deaths, and debate about driving deaths centers around teen drivers, and what kind of policies the state should adopt to help them.
“We want to make sure in the beginning of their driving practice that they have the training both in the day and night, so that they can be safe and successful,” Benson said.
Beyond that, Benson’s focus has turned to stetting an agenda for his committee. He hopes to create a stable source of funding for transportation projects for the Transportation Trust Fund, and reverse the decline of N.J. Transit.
“After a deadly accident in Hoboken and what was being called the Summer of Hell, I really wanted to dive in and lead the committee that was going to turn around New Jersey’s transportation,” Benson said.
One major goal that Benson highlighted was working on the Gateway Program, a project that would double the train capacity in the Northeast Corridor between New Jersey and New York. According to Benson, one of the biggest transportation and economic development failures in the last eight years was when Gov. Chris Christie cancelled work on the tunnel. He said the project became even more critical after Superstorm Sandy damaged the current tunnels. In March, President Donald Trump moved to block funding for the Gateway Tunnel, even though the U.S. House of Representatives had approved funding for it already.
“The original plan was for the federal government to pick up half the tab, but according to the Trump administration and their new infrastructure plan, there’s no agreement,” Benson said.
‘We would have to hope for a better administration in 2020 that would be willing to have a real conversation about transportation.’
Benson criticized the overall Trump infrastructure plan and its ineffectiveness in relation to state transportation projects such as the Gateway Program.
“Essentially, this is not really an infrastructure plan, it’s more of an incentive for municipalities and states and counties to invest in infrastructure, and so while this would provide $200 billion in additional monies to kind of match that existing investment, it really doesn’t help these large scale national-interest projects like the Gateway. We need a supporting government that far exceeds what’s being offered here,” he said.
Though he hopes the federal government will take action, Benson is committed to keeping the ball moving forward.
“Without the federal support, the budget will probably slow down, which will increase the risk of failure on those tunnels,” Benson said. “If this doesn’t change, this will delay the project and it will mean that we would have to find other resources to do so. We would have to, at that point, hope for a better administration in 2020 that would be willing to sit down and have a real conversation about transportation.
“This is really a bipartisan issue in New Jersey, and everyone involved is lobbying in Washington to reconsider and understand that this is a project not only for economic reasons but it is also a national security issue; this is an important travel point.”
Benson worded things even more strongly in a March 8 statement, after it became clear the Trump administration wouldn’t budge from its position.
“It’s beyond belief that the chief executive of the United States would risk both the national economy and our homeland security for any reason, let alone pure partisan politics,” Benson said in the statement. “It’s a complete failure of leadership. President Trump knows New York City and he knows New Jersey. If he doesn’t understand the importance of safe, reliable and modern public transportation in this region, than he doesn’t understand anything. The Gateway project must be our top infrastructure priority. Every reasonable person gets it. We must continue this fight at every level until we get the funding that this region and its workers so desperately need and deserve.”
Though Benson is frustrated by the federal government, he is excited by the new state administration under Gov. Phil Murphy, including Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti and NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett.
He said all the players on the state level seem to be on the same page, and promised to advocate for the people in his district, which includes Hamilton and Robbinsville.
“I think the main goals, particularly for the folks in my district, is to know that I am an advocate for the region, whether whether you’re taking the train up to New York or just to the next town over, and whether you rely on our buses, or whether you’re just a driver and want to make sure that the tax money that you’ve dedicated is spent wisely for the region,” Benson said.