Babble Brewing. Corzine says he will push for higher funding. (Photo courtesy of A.J. Sundstrom Photography)

When New Jersey’s Democratic contingent in Congress, plus 1,000 construction industry movers and shakers, got together last week in Trenton, they had not yet learned that President Bush raised the administration’s surface transportation funding proposal to nearly $284 billion, up from $256 billion. But that didn’t stop local officials from pushing for a near-doubling of the state’s 15�-per-gallon gasoline tax or massive construction delays in the heavily traveled state.

Congressional speakers at the Feb. 7 annual transportation conference of the New Jersey Alliance for Action, a Trenton-based lobby group of contractors, engineers, real estate and local government groups, hinted that even the higher proposal would shortchange the state, and were prepared for battle.

"Reauthorization is one of the most important issues in the 109th Congress," said Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine. "What was intended as a dedicated funding source hasn’t been in the last few years, and I want to be part of the fix." Corzine may not get that chance, since he is expected to run in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race this November.

The state’s Democratic House contingent will likely continue the fight, with members at the conference citing New Jersey’s status as a "donor" state and revving up the political rhetoric. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D) a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said that a $299-billion House bill could be introduced soon, passed in March, and "we’ll still have to borrow money."

With New Jersey at the epicenter of a recent spat with the federal government over ethics rules for federally funded transportation contractors, there was surprisingly little discussion of the issue at the meeting. But Corzine said the state’s congressional contingent "will push legislation to give states the right to set their own contracting rules."