With a new survey claiming that many New Jerseyans would be willing to pay more at the pump to fix the state's roads and bridges, Gov. Chris Christie didn't explicitly say whether he'd back a gas tax increase in his annual budget address Tuesday.

Instead, Christie left the issue unresolved for now, saying a gas tax hike shouldn't happen in a vacuum.

He said  "it's time to reach a reasonable agreement" on the failing Transportation Trust Fund — arguing there's time to do so. Officials have said the fund is set to run out of money this summer, but Christie called that a "politically driven mischaracterization" of the fund's expected expiration after five years.

Lawmakers in the NJ Assembly chambers during Gov. Chris Christie's 2016 budget address. (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)

"Some people in this room want to address the next generation of funding for the Transportation Trust Fund solely on the back of taxpayers by imposing a hike on gas prices without any discussion of tax fairness," Christie said. "Never mind that we’re already one of the most heavily taxed states in the country, and excessive taxes are driving people and businesses to other states. And never mind that my administration has repeatedly welcomed, and continues to welcome, the legislative leadership to reach a sensible, equitable agreement on this issue."

In the meantime, Christie said, the state is able to fund the capital projects that were proposed when the TTF was authorized five years ago.

"My administration continues to examine ways to control cash flow and make the most of every taxpayer dollar that the TTF spends," he said.

Christie said there's "plenty of time to reach a reasonable decision, but it would have to be the right one. But it will need to be the right one for the hardworking taxpayers of New Jersey."

The New Jersey Sierra Club, in a statement released after the budget address, was critical of Christie's insistence there's time to address the TTF.

"Evidently, he’s been driving on too many roads in Iowa and New Hampshire and he’s missed the fact that New Jersey’s roads are falling apart," the club wrote. "The governor has said he won’t fix TTF and that’s unconscionable. Trains are derailing and wheels are falling off busses. Without funding our transit system will be in ruin."

New Jersey Policy Perspective, also in a statement released Tuesday afternoon, said "New Jersey’s broken transportation-funding system is not driven by politics, it’s driven by simple mathematics."

"In July, the state will have no more money to pay for essential capital projects. It’s that simple," the group said.

The governor said he has already called for a repeal of the estate tax — not directly addressing speculation he might consider such a repeal as a trade for increasing the gas tax.

The governor also pushed back against proposed constitutional amendment to raise New Jersey's minimum wage and to force pension payments.

"As if an isolated gas tax hike and 79 percent government mandated wage increase on our small businesses isn’t enough, New Jersey families and businesses continue to face the potential of another economy-killing proposed constitutional amendment, championed by some in this room, which seeks to divide our state between the government world and the real world." Christie said.

Following the budget address, Assembly Speaker Vinnie Prieto said he was “hotter than a baked potato” when Christie suggested that he tried to get a Transportation Trust Fund deal done a year ago, but was unable to proceed because the NJ Democrats were focused on mid-term elections.

“That’s not factual, he was running for a different office at that point in time,” Prieto said.
“I am ready to work together with him but when you start talking about certain things, with this TTF, every penny was borrowed, it was the worst in history of New Jersey, the most reliant on borrowing, our state.”

Prioeto said moving forward, he's willing to compromise with the governor on a solution.

“I’m always willing to negotiate, this is too much of an important issue I have said this is the first domino that we need to topple over to take care of all the other problems, without this nothing happens," he said. “He says he wants to work together, we’ve been here all along to work together, we’re not the ones that have been 72 percent last year out of the state. The TTF is one that we have to do, we welcome the dialogue with him, and we want to work with him.”

David Matthau and Louis Hochman contributed to this report.

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