But Peter Phillips, an economist at the University of Utah, who specializes in the construction industry, reached the opposite conclusion. Considering that New Jersey has the highest traffic density and widest roads in the nation, the state’s highway program is actually one of the nation’s best.
"It’s puzzling to me that they don’t really see what would be obvious to anybody else," Phillips said of the Reason Foundation study, which he described as "false and deceptive."
David Hartgen, author of the Reason Foundation study, doubts that his findings could simply be the result of wider highways.
"A section of road is a section of road," Hartgen said. "I mean, come on."
The two competing studies come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, pitting tax hawks against people who support more government spending. Hartgen’s work was funded by a Libertarian organization whose trustees include conservative businessman David Koch, and Phillips’ was paid for by the Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative, a union-backed group that promotes large construction projects.
In his analysis, Phillips found that New Jersey spends 4 percent less than expected on its roads, based on a comparison with other states that adjusts for population density, finance and administration costs, average road width and total road mileage. And because road construction workers in New Jersey tend to work on complex jobs that require more sophisticated equipment and better training than in other states, they perform $133 worth of work every hour, the highest in the country, compared to a national average of $90 an hour.
"When you are using big, expensive equipment you need operators that don’t make mistakes," said Phillips, whose study was paid for by the Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative, a union group. "That helps make New Jersey's construction industry one of the best-equipped and most productive in the country."
An analysis by The Record in March found the Reason Foundation’s $2 million figure was inflated because it double-counts New Jersey’s hefty debt payments on its Transportation Trust Fund, and includes nearly $630 million in spending by the state and federal governments that didn’t go to state-maintained roads, according to officials with the state and U.S. transportation departments.
Taking those issues into account, New Jersey actually spends $270,000 per mile on its roads, said Joe Bertoni, New Jersey’s deputy transportation commissioner. Besides, officials said, it’s meaningless to compare state expenditures on roads, since each state reports spending differently.
"It would be nice if every state reported their numbers the same way. It would make things simpler. But it’s not realistic," said Federal Highway Administration spokesman Doug Hecox. "Does it make things more difficult to do a national comparison? Of course."
Whichever side is correct, the debate likely will heat up again in the next few weeks in what has become a near-annual ritual each time the calendar turns over. The Reason Foundation is to issue its next report in early January, said Hartgen, just as New Jersey lawmakers are expected to once again discuss the possibility of increasing the state’s gas tax to pay for highway improvements. Despite the concerns raised by Phillips and the federal DOT, Hartgen said he used the same methodology this year as he did in 2014, which probably will place New Jersey near the bottom of the list again.
"It’s based on numbers that the states report to the federal government every year," he said. "They say the numbers are wrong. Well, OK, then give me the right numbers."
Last year’s report has served as a flash point in that debate. In March, Assemblyman Parker Space, R-Sparta, introduced a bill to create a 15-member panel to investigate why New Jersey roads cost so much. The bill did not advance in the Democratic-controlled Assembly.
"I don’t care what their excuses are," said Mike Proto, a spokesman for the New Jersey chapter of Citizens for Tax Reform, an anti-tax group. "There’s just no way that New Jersey is that much different from states like New York and Massachusetts that we should be spending three and four times more to build a road."