Assemblyman Benson on Jersey state transportation
Daniel R. Benson (D), assemblyman for the 14th legislative district, is the new chairman of the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities committee, succeeding long-time chair John Wisniewski. Benson comes in with a decade of government experience and various hopes of upgrading New Jersey’s faltering transportation system.
Since being elected to the New Jersey General Assembly in 2011, Benson has led the charge on various statewide issues. One such notable issue was the opioid crisis in New Jersey, where Benson was the Assembly sponsor of the Opioid Overdose Antidote act, which “kicked off getting the opioid antidote 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 said.
In his time in the Assembly, Benson has also had experience with transportation issues and legislation. “In my first year, we were looking at changing the rules we had about road rage. At the time, if there was a road rage accident, it was treated like any other accident. We had a really high profile case, which convinced us to change those. The goal there was to increase awareness so that people think twice,” he said.
In 2015, Benson joined the Transportation committee and began tackling more issues regarding state infrastructure. Through his term, Benson witnessed many developing problems. “New Jersey used to have one of the best transportation systems in the country. Unfortunately, in the last eight to ten years, it’s really been run into the ground. The amount of funding from the state was cut by a lot,” Benson said.
He added more on the wide variety of problems the transportation department was facing and the critical work that was required to restore these systems. “We’ve seen a rise in transportation related deaths, and we really need to tackle those. There might different strategies for different aspects of that,” Benson said.
“One of the debates is what type of policies should NJ adopt, and second is how should we decrease the accident rates, particularly among our teen drivers. 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,” he added.
These experiences have also helped him develop some goals that he hopes to pursue as a leader of the committee. “One (goal) was around creating a stable source of funding for transportation projects, in what’s called a TTF (Transportation Trust Fund). Secondly, 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. I want to reform NJ-Transit and return it back to its glory,” he said. Based on this experience and perspectives, Benson was believed by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin to be the best assemblyperson for the job and was subsequently appointed in earlier this year.
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 Governor Chris Christie cancelled work on the tunnel. This project became even more critical after Superstorm Sandy damaged the current tunnels. “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.
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 national 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. 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 NJ, 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,” he added.
Though Benson is frustrated by the national government, he is excited by the new state administration under Governor Phil Murphy, including Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti and NJ-Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett. “I feel fairly confident that Governor Murphy has chosen the right people at the right time. My counterpart in the Senate, Robert Gordon, has been heavily involved in the hearings on improving NJ-Transit. Though there will always be disagreements, we’re all on the same page on what the problems are, and so hopefully working together, we can develop solutions,” Benson said.
Benson concluded with a note for his constituents and his colleagues. “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. He also thanked Wisniewski, the previous transportation chair, for serving as “a wealth of knowledge” on transportation-related issues.
“I just want to say that I’m very honored that the Speaker had the confidence to choose me for this position, and I look forward to continue working with the Speaker and the Assembly in the future,” he concluded.
Benson, a Georgetown and Rutgers graduate, served on the Hamilton Township Council from 2002-2005 and Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders from 2008-2011. He was elected into the New Jersey General Assembly in 2011, and served as Deputy Speaker Pro Tempore from 2015-2017. He also serves on the Committee of Health and Senior Service.
View Online Publication
View WW-P News Publication
View Hamilton Post Publication