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$300M Statehouse renovation project about one-fifth complete

Michael Catalini, Associated Press | 5/25/2018, 6 a.m.
The nearly $300 million renovation of New Jersey's hazard-filled and time-worn statehouse is nearly a one-fifth complete, with a target ...
The gutted ceiling of the old office of the governor is seen during the renovation of the New Jersey Statehouse, Thursday, May 24, 2018, in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

TRENTON, N.J. — The nearly $300 million renovation of New Jersey's hazard-filled and time-worn statehouse is nearly a one-fifth complete, with a target date of 2022.

New Jersey Treasurer Elizabeth Muoio and Building Authority Executive Director Ray Arcario led a group of reporters Thursday on a tour of the building, part of which dates to 1792.

About a year into the renovation kicked off by former Gov. Chris Christie, New Jersey has secured about $38 million in contracts so far, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press through the Open Public Records Act and confirmed by the treasury.

Christie estimated the project would take four years. Treasury officials said Thursday it is slated to be done in 2022, five years after work began in 2017.

The project will restore historically significant parts of the building that had been walled over through the decades and over 18 building campaigns, Arcario said.

Workers already have revealed 18th century beams, freed 27-foot ceilings once covered and divided into office units and uncovered giant skylight-like elements that will be restored where possible. The most extensive work is yet to come and will include new mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, Arcario said.

Christie had described the building as hazardous. It lacked fire-suppression system, windows were on the verge of falling out and duct tape held skylights together. Water damage was widespread, though the building is structurally sound, Arcario said

The project was briefly at the center of last year's campaign to succeed Christie, a Republican, who argued the renovation was necessary.

The issue, raised by Democrats and Republicans alike, was that the debt Christie incurred should have been approved by voters, as required by the state constitution.

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy questioned during his election campaign last year whether the project needed to be so expensive but stopped short of saying he would scrap it.

As governor, Murphy occupies an office located a block away in a state building where Christie finished out his second term. It's a far cry from the wood-encased, historic office just off the rotunda that Christie and previous governors occupied.

Muoio, a former Democratic lawmaker, defended the renovation.

"This is a project that is necessary, and I think the concerns were more about how the funding was put together, but the need is clearly here," she said.

Former Democratic Assemblyman and failed gubernatorial candidate John Wisniewski sued to try to stop it, in part over Christie's failure to get voter approval for the debt to cover it.

"No matter how good the cause is, it's never good enough to violate the constitution," he said.

The invoices obtained by the AP show contracts with about a half-dozen architecture, demolition and hazardous materials firms, with billing beginning as soon as a few weeks after Christie's administration greenlighted the project.

For instance, East Coast Hazmat submitted a bill for about $400,000 in November for asbestos abatement. Philadelphia-based Nelco Architecture has a nearly $24 million contract covering demolition and renovation.

New Jersey's Constitution requires voter approval, but Christie's administration financed the deal through the Economic Development Authority and skirted the requirement.

Courts ruled the question is moot since bonds have been sold, but Wisniewski said the state could use its surplus to settle contracts and still put the question before voters.

Christie cast himself as courageous for being willing to take the blame over the costs.

"Nobody has the political guts to say to people we have to spend the money on this building," he said last year. -- (AP)