New Jersey and the federal government are spending millions to protect and restore beaches damaged by Hurricane Sandy, so why isn't the state making it easier for taxpayers to enjoy what they're paying for?

A Senate bill that has cleared a committee vote would give higher funding priority to beach protection projects that provide beach access, but that step in the right direction doesn't go far enough.

Environmentalists rightly argue that easy public access should be mandated for state-funded projects. That is especially important since New Jersey has peeled back its once-stringent public-access requirements.

"They're spending hundreds of millions of dollars restoring beaches and dunes," says Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel. "These beaches belong to us. It's our money. They should require access."

The Christie administration previously relaxed a rule that had required a path to the beach at every quarter-mile interval. It instead adopted looser federal standards, which require beach access every half-mile.

Worse, the state is letting towns decide whether to provide parking areas and restrooms, which are essential. If day trippers can't park their cars and use nearby restrooms, it won't be convenient to do more than glance at the beach?

Under current rules, the towns have to report their plans for public conveniences to the state Department of Environmental Protection. But there are no sanctions for towns that don't make the most basic amenities available to beachgoers.

Many towns provide reasonable access, but in predominately residential areas such as Sea Bright and Deal, access is limited, giving homeowners virtually private beaches. That flouts New Jersey law, which says the public owns and should have access to lands washed by tidal waters.

That type of limited access sets up a caste system that says people who can't afford to own or rent a beach house are restricted to certain beaches, like the Wildwoods and Ocean City, notes Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society.

Since the Senate bill has already cleared the Environment Committee, it is up to the Assembly to make the link between state funding and beach access stronger. Voters can help by asking their legislators why they should be forced to pay taxes for beach protection and then be denied access to their beaches.